They’re the strawberries on the cake

Yesterday on Fresh Air a conversation with Paul Vallely, who has written a book about the pope. Vallely puts a lot of emphasis on the pope as “the pope of the poor”:

The Pope is visiting, and he’s addressing many audiences. He’s addressing the Congress and the political elite. He’s seeing the president. He’s seeing the United Nations – world leaders to talk about sustainable development. But he’s also talking to the U.S. bishops. Most importantly, he’s talking to the ordinary people of America. And he’s mindful of a fifth audience, which is that although he’s here in the richest country in the world, he is the pope for the poor. And he’s very aware that the eyes and ears of the poor world are on everything he does and says.

But of course he’s still the pope, so when he’s the pope of the poor, he’s not so much the pope of the poor women.

GROSS: I’m a little confused about his position on women in the Church. He said he wants a profound new theology of women. But at the same time, he’s ruled out women becoming priests.

VALLELY: Well, you’re not the only one who’s a little confused on that. And he really – he knows that there’s an issue. He knows there’s a problem. But he’s got no idea what the solution is. I mean, he’s a man of a certain age from a culture in Latin America which is quite macho. And he has very high regard for women, but in a sense of, you know, aren’t they lovely. I think about my own mother, I think about my grandmother and what wonderful examples they were. He’s not very up on the role of women in the professional world. He has worked for a woman boss. He’s had a good friend who was a female lawyer during the military regime in Argentina. And they worked closely together. And he’s spoken, for instance, about how equal pay is an imperative and it’s a scandal that women aren’t paid well. But when it comes to theology, he doesn’t want women priests. He was asked, why not have woman cardinals because cardinals don’t have to be priests? Oh no, we’ve got enough clerics in the Church. We don’t want anymore. Well, what about women heading departments in the Vatican? Well, you’ve got to be a cardinal to head a department in the Vatican. So no real action in the areas which are open to him. He could, perhaps, make some movement on women becoming deacons, which is the – you know, the step before you become a priest. But he betrays his background, even when he’s doing the right thing. He brought five women onto the International Theological Commission. And then having announced them and said oh we need more of these women because they’re the strawberries on the cake…

GROSS: (Laughter) No.

VALLELY: …And one of the leading women theologians says yeah, well, if we’re the strawberries, the men are the nuts. But you get the idea that even when he’s trying to do the right thing, he’s still steeped in this kind of background which makes it difficult for him to know how – he’s kind of paralyzed and conflicted about it, really. He wants a profound new theology for women, but he’s got no idea what that means.

Here’s a thought. It means taking an equal role in making the rules, for one thing. It means ending the all-male rule.

GROSS: …we were talking about how the pope is reshaping the Vatican. He’s appointed 39 new people to the College of Cardinals, the body which elects the pope. Most of the new members appointed by Francis are from poor, developing countries. This is the first time European cardinals are not in the majority in the college. I’m wondering if you think that that shift in the cardinals will have cultural implications that take the church in the opposite direction than Pope Francis has been heading – ’cause I know in some churches, it’s the developing countries that are culturally very conservative in terms of women and in terms of homosexuality.

VALLELY: That could be the case. But I think the pope wants the different parts of the church to have their voice in the way decisions are made. He thinks the Vatican has been too much the master of the church. And he wants to turn it into the servant. And the voices of people in different places should be heard. And it’s true that they may be conservative on issues like homosexuality. But they’ll be very radical on issues of international economics. So you’ll see, this pope, he looks at the world from the bottom up.

In terms of rich versus poor, maybe so. But in other terms? Not so much. He doesn’t look at the world from the bottom up in the sense that women do. There’s more than one lowest level to be on, and women occupy one such level. The pope is still firmly keeping Catholic women there.

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