Pope, cardinals continue discussion of role of women in the church

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With the help of a woman Anglican bishop, a Salesian sister and a consecrated virgin, Pope Francis and his international Council of Cardinals devoted the first morning of their February meeting "to deepening their reflection, begun last December, on the role of women in the church," the Vatican press office said.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, said Feb. 5 the pope and cardinals heard from Bishop Jo Bailey Wells, deputy secretary-general of the Anglican Communion; Salesian Sister Linda Pocher, a professor of Christology and Mariology at Rome's Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences "Auxilium," and Giuliva Di Berardino, a consecrated virgin and liturgist from the Diocese of Verona, Italy.

The other themes discussed during the Feb. 5-7 meeting, Bruni said Feb. 7, included the current process of the synod on synodality and evangelization, a discussion that involved the two pro-prefects of the Dicastery for Evangelization, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and Archbishop Rino Fisichella.

The final afternoon of the meeting, Bruni said, was "an opportunity to further explore the topics discussed during the session, in the presence of the Holy Father."

The Vatican did not share details about the discussion on the role of women in the church and did not release the texts of presentations made at the meeting.

However, Sister Pocher and the two other theologians who made presentations at the council's December meeting published their papers in Italian in a book with a foreword by Pope Francis, "Smaschilizzare La Chiesa?" ("De-masculinize the Church?).

During the preparation for the synod on synodality and during its first assembly in October, the pope wrote in the foreword, "we realized that we have not listened enough to the voice of women in the church and that the church still has a lot to learn."

"It is necessary to listen to each other to 'de-masculinize' the church because the church is a communion of men and women who share the same faith and the same baptismal dignity," he wrote.

Pope Francis said he had asked the speakers in December to start with Swiss theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar's reflection on "the Marian and Petrine principles in the church," notions which Pope Francis himself has used to explain why only men are priests, but women, like Mary, have a "more important" role.

In their papers for the December meeting, Sister Pocher, Lucia Vantini, a professor of theology and philosophy at the Higher Institute of Religious Sciences in Verona, Italy, and Father Luca Castiglioni, a professor of fundamental theology at the seminary of the Archdiocese of Milan, argued that Father von Balthasar's idea was never meant to explain or defend different ministerial and hierarchical roles for men and women in the church.

Vantini wrote she was puzzled at first by the pope's request; "why give attention and emphasis to a concept which, for a long time, many women have reacted against with strong criticisms on a biblical, historical and ecclesiological level and which, on the level of experience, ends up complicating relations between the sexes in the church?"

Father Castiglioni also warned of the danger of "banalizing" the idea that Mary is "more important" than the other disciples when she, in fact, is the perfect model of a disciple and one all Christians are called to imitate in their acceptance of God's will.

Still, in an interview scheduled for publication Feb. 8 in the Italian magazine Credere, Pope Francis continued to refer to the Petrine and Marian principles when asked about women in the church.

"The church is woman, she is bride. Peter is not woman, he is not bride. The church-bride is more important than Peter-minister," he said, before insisting it is important to have more women in leadership in the Roman Curia because they "help the ministry."

Pope Francis pointed to small towns and villages where there is no priest, and women religious run the parish, distribute Communion and lead funerals, Vatican News said Feb. 7, reporting on the interview. "It is not the ministry of women that is the most important thing; instead, the presence of women is fundamental," the pope said.

Cardinal Gérald C. Lacroix of Québec was present at the February meeting despite having said in a Jan. 30 video message said he would "temporarily withdraw from activities in my diocese" after he was accused in a civil lawsuit of inappropriately touching a 17-year-old girl on two occasions in the 1980s. He has denied the allegations.

The Vatican press office did not comment on the cardinal's participation in the council meeting.

In addition to Cardinal Lacroix, those at the February meeting included Cardinals Juan José Omella Omella of Barcelona; Seán P. O'Malley of Boston; Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, Congo; Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state; Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India; Sérgio da Rocha of São Salvador da Bahia, Brazil; Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, president of the commission governing Vatican City State; and Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg.

The next meeting of the council is scheduled for April, the Vatican press office said.