In the year 1212, a young girl from Assisi heard St. Francis preach the Lenten course in her local church. She was so profoundly moved by his words that she asked for his aid so that she, too, could embrace the life of poverty and dedication to God that he exemplified.
St. Clare, one of the first followers of St. Francis, went on to become a great abbess and founder of the Order of Poor Ladies, a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition that later was named the Poor Clares.
She wrote their Rule of Life, the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman.
When pressured by the local Cardinal Hugolino to accept a rule that would allow for the possession of property to be held in common, she adamantly refused. When Pope Innocent IV attempted to impose another rule, she once again insisted that it was not in accord with the Franciscan spirit of poverty to which she was dedicated.
Catholic hagiography long has recognized the spirit of mutual support and reliance that characterized the friendship of St. Clare and St. Francis, the latter often finding encouragement, support and inspiration in her.
As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the name Pope Francis, one can only hope that he remembered this most important part of the story of his patron.
The Catholic Church’s nonordination of women is old news. What may come as a surprise to many, however, is that the issue was summarily and quietly put to rest in 1994 when Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in which he states, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
The ensuing debates incited by this letter prompted the prefect for the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), to issue the Responsum ad Dubium in 1995: “This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”
Essentially, this act removed the nonordination of women from the category of “practice” and into the realm of a teaching in the “deposit of faith.”
According to the Vatican, the fact that the declaration was not accompanied by the fanfare that might have ensued had Pope John Paul II spoken in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher did not make the teaching any less infallible or less binding on the members of the church.
But, of course, the debate rages on.
Prior to the excitement of Wednesday afternoon’s white smoke, the color of the smoke in Rome that caught the world’s attention and imagination was pink. Organizations comprising Catholic men and women who seek women’s full participation in all aspects of church life released pink smoke into the sky over Rome as the College of Cardinals was locked in the conclave.
The pink smoke called attention to sexism in the Catholic Church, the nonordination of women and the lack of women’s presence in decision-making roles. Since the election of Francis, many have expressed hope that he will reopen the debate on women’s ordination.
I hold out no such hope. For Francis to reconsider the ordination of women, he would have to refute and reject the edicts of the two popes who came before him. It would require a radical act, and Pope Francis is no theological radical.
What he can do is open dialogue with Catholic women, religious and lay. He can open the doors of the Vatican to women.
One need not be ordained to serve in decision-making positions in the Vatican. Today, there are only two women religious, or nuns, who serve in this capacity as under-secretaries in Rome.
Francis can change the way the church has related to women religious throughout the world but especially here in America. Last summer, the Vatican’s dictatorial crackdown of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 56,000 American nuns, was perceived by many American Catholics as nothing short of bullying.
The Vatican’s takeover threat was indicative of a church that does not listen, does not count women religious as adults capable of self-direction and knows no other model of management than to offer or, in the words of Cardinal William Levada, “an invitation to obedience.”
Many will argue that the church has never claimed to be a democracy and that the Magisterium reserves the right to hierarchical power and judgment.
The church does, however, claim to be concerned about justice. The church does claim to be a moral beacon to the world. These claims would be more credible if that justice was sought within its own pews and among its own faithful.
As Francis begins his tenure as pope, may he remember the care, inspiration and guidance that Clare of Assisi provided St. Francis. And may he model the spirit of St. Francis, not only with concern for the poor, but also regarding the mutual respect, honor and work he shared with this woman, this saint.
Louise Doire is a religious studies professor at the College of Charleston who studies women in the church.