Vatican City • Pope Francis said in a document released Tuesday that women have “legitimate claims” to seek more equality in the Catholic Church, but he stopped short of endorsing recent calls from his own bishops to give women leadership roles.
In the text, Francis also told young adults they should try to help priests at risk for sexually abusing minors in what a Vatican official said was a great act of trust the pope has for today’s youths to help “priests in difficulty.”
Francis issued the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, in response to an October 2018 meeting of the world’s bishops on better ministering to today’s young Catholics.
The synod took place against the backdrop of the church’s clergy sex abuse crisis and included demands for greater women’s rights. The bishops’ final recommendations called the need for women to hold positions of responsibility and decision-making in the church “a duty of justice.”
In the new document reflecting at length on the October meeting, Francis did not echo that sweeping conclusion. Instead, he wrote that a church that listens to young people must be attentive to women’s “legitimate claims” for equality and justice, as well as better train both men and women with leadership potential.
“A living church can look back on history,” Francis said, “and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence.”
He continued: “With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.”
An organizer of last year’s synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, was asked at a news conference Tuesday about Francis’ lack of reference to women in leadership positions and the need to welcome gay Catholics. Baldisseri replied that Francis couldn’t rewrite everything from the final synod recommendations.
Francis’ new document, a 299-paragraph booklet titled “Christ Is Alive,” covers a wide range of issues confronting young people today. In it, he notes that many feel alienated from the church because of its sexual and financial scandals, and are suffering themselves from untold forms of exploitation, conflict and despair.
A hefty chunk of the document focuses on both the promises and perils of the digital world and dedicates ample space to the plight of migrants. It uses millennial lingo, calling the Virgin Mary an “influencer” and describing relations with God in computing terms: “hard disk,” “archive” and “deleting.”
Francis wrote that he was inspired by all the reflections from the bishops’ synod and refers readers to the 2018 recommendations. He said he wanted to use his new text to “summarize those proposals I considered most significant.”
Throughout, he urges young people to be protagonists in rejuvenating the church.
The pope called for the “eradication” of practices for exercising authority in the church that allowed child sex abuse to take place and a challenge to how church leaders handled cases with “irresponsibility and lack of transparency.”
He urged young people to call out a priest who seems at risk of seeking affection from children and youths, “and remind him of his commitment to God and his people.”
Asked if that message wasn’t putting young people in potentially dangerous positions, another synod organizer, Monsignor Fabbio Fabene, said it was the contrary.
The pope’s words showed Francis wanted to entrust youths with “showing closeness to priests experiencing difficulty” in their missions and for young people to help “rejuvenate the heart of a priest who is in difficulty.”
Such terms have long been used by church officials to minimize the criminality of priests and bishops who rape and molest children.
Asked why there was no reference to Francis’ frequent call for “zero tolerance” for abuse, Baldisseri said the pope doesn’t need to repeat the phrase in every document.
“You don’t need to say ‘zero tolerance’ every time you go to lunch and dinner,” he said.
The document acknowledges the importance of sexuality in the development of young people. As with the roles of women in the Catholic Church, Francis did not repeat the bishops’ wording in recommendations for deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral study on sexuality and sexual inclinations. The term “homosexuality” appears once in Francis’ text.
Women have often complained they have second-class status in the church. History’s first Latin American pope has vowed to change that, but he has done little that is concrete and counts no women among his own advisers.
Just last week, the founder of the Vatican’s women’s magazine resigned with members of the editorial board, citing what she said was a climate of distrust and de-legitimization in the Vatican. The editor of the newspaper that distributes the magazine denied efforts to undermine the women.
Nine nuns were invited to participate at the October synod on Catholic youths, alongside 267 cardinals, bishops and priests. None of the women had the right to vote on the final recommendations. The nuns publicly made clear their displeasure before, during and after the meeting.
The recommendations advocated making women a greater presence in church structures at all levels while respecting church doctrine that the priesthood remains for men only.
“The synod recommends that everyone be made aware of the urgency of an inescapable change,” it said. “It’s a duty of justice that finds its inspiration in the way Jesus related to the men and women of his time, as well as the importance of the role of some female figures in the Bible."