(RNS) – In October 2021, Pope Francis launched a two-year “Synod on Synodality,” aimed at finding out what Catholics and others think of the Church. He can get more than he asked for.
The preliminary results indicate one thing: women have had enough. They like Francis, but they don’t care much about what bishops and priests have to say.
The latest kerfuffle between Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore J. Cordileone and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is at the tip of a very large iceberg.
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Pelosi’s perceived support for federally legalized abortion clashes with Catholic teaching. Hairdressers who support her will say that she does not support, promote or procure abortions, she simply supports current US law and strives to preserve it.
Hairpins on the Cordileone side will say that because Pelosi is perceived to be, as they say, “pro-abortion,” she is creating a public outrage and therefore must be denied access to the Catholic Sacrament of Communion. They say the Code of Canon Law trumps US law.
But the battle of Pelosi and Cordileone can be seen more broadly as a battle in a decades-long disintegration of trust between women and bishops.
Some say it all started with Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” which ignored the recommendation of his own Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. Eight years after the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive pill, the Pope took some 7,000 words to say “no” to contraceptive measures beyond what has become known as the “natural family planning”.
Catholic women in the United States and around the world ignored the pope’s decision. You didn’t need to track sales of “the pill” to figure out what was going on. Jokes about the size of Catholic families have suddenly become a hazy memory. The women clearly listened to the opinions of the men in the pulpit, then went home to manage their private affairs as they saw fit.
Once women began to circumvent church teaching on birth control, they found other reasons to ignore the bishops. At the top of this list is clerical sexual abuse and the ensuing episcopal cover-up. But there is also the issue of allowing women to actively participate in Masses and women’s ordination.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law decreed that any lay person could exercise the functions of lector and acolyte or altar server. It took another decade before the Vatican accepted that “all secular” included women. To this day, many bishops around the world want women kept away from the altar, despite updates to Francis’ law that allow women to be officially installed as lectors and acolytes. .
Ordaining women as priests is not a discussion the hierarchy is going to have, but ordaining women as deacons is a separate issue. Women were ordained deacons in the early Church. Regardless: Opponents link the two orders, saying that because female priests are permanently banned, so are female deacons. (They overlook the fact that their logic fails. If the two orders are so intertwined, then the historical fact of ordained female deacons can be used to make the case for female priests.)
Arguments about ordination, altar servers, lectors, and birth control are all moot, however. The definitive nature of the church’s teaching on abortion is clear.
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But all the same, for a bishop, to make a public event of a private discussion is inappropriate. Before being elected to Congress, Pelosi had five children – after the FDA approved birth control pills. She is proud of her Catholic heritage.
Pelosi is the strongest Democrat in Congress. Would Cordileone, or any other bishop, prefer a non-Catholic? Or is the problem that Pelosi is a woman?
(Phyllis Zagano is Senior Research Associate-in-Residence and Assistant Professor of Religion at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Her most recent book is “Sisters, women deacons: questions and answers.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)