Who is Pope Francis? A Reply to Joel Baden and Candida Moss

By Michael Bradley
December 9, 2014

What to say by way of response to Joel Baden and Candida Moss’s latest article? One could begin in many ways, but all roads lead to the same conclusion: apart from trumpeting its sensationalist headline—“Pope Francis’ woman problem”—their argument in Sunday’s LA Times op-ed dissolves into irresponsible caricature. Here I pursue the route of examining the piece’s central claims considered sequentially.

Like their September joint journalistic adventure, Moss and Baden’s LA Times piece is poorly researched; it suggests that these two scripture scholars have missed the mark in their exegesis of Francis’s statements relevant to their complaint that he has doused their “progressive enthusiasm” over the role of women in the Church. Their concerns are many. First:

Instead of a more compassionate and understanding take on the standing of women in the church, Francis has repeatedly embraced the traditional Catholic view that a woman's role is in the home.

Has he? Francis has often praised the necessity of the mother’s presence in the family. He has also called for more female theologians; called for a more profound theology of woman; speaks fondly of the female religious (a mother of a different sort) who first catechized him; called for the “feminine genius” to animate the life of the Church in every way; cited favorably, in Evangelii Gaudium, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church’s section 295 (titled “Women and the right to work”), which begins: “The feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, therefore the presence of women in the workplace must also be guaranteed” (original emphasis); and delivered many other remarks to the contrary.

Baden and Moss continue:

The religious teaching of complementarity holds that men and women have very different roles in life and in marriage, with men outranking women in most areas.

Whence the latter half of this claim? Is it the fruit of a bad misreading of St. Paul’s statements about marriage? Or perhaps the authors have this instruction from the Catechism in mind:
Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out (2333, original emphases).

Or this passage from Familiaris Consortio:
This conjugal communion sinks its roots in the natural complementarity that exists between man and woman, and is nurtured through the personal willingness of the spouses to share their entire life-project, what they have and what they are: for this reason such communion is the fruit and the sign of a profoundly human need (19).

Francis on many occasions has affirmed similar articulations. The latter half of Baden and Moss's claim is groundless.

Does their next claim enjoy more textual support?

Last week, in chastising the European Parliament on the subject of immigration policy, Francis provided another alarming insight into his attitudes toward women, this time in his choice of metaphor. He described Europe as a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant,” but instead “elderly and haggard.” At 77 years old, presumably Francis still thinks himself relatively vibrant and useful to society. Women of his age, however, have apparently outlived their utility.

Searching Francis’s November 25 remarks to the Parliament—which concern Europe’s cultural identity and crisis thereof, not immigration—douses this fire:
Despite a larger and stronger Union, Europe seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion […]

In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a “grandmother”, no longer fertile and vibrant […]

Then too, stressing the importance of the family not only helps to give direction and hope to new generations, but also to many of our elderly, who are often forced to live alone and are effectively abandoned because there is no longer the warmth of a family hearth able to accompany and support them.


“We have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we,” Chesterton wrote. Francis too, like Benedict XVI before him, is diagnosing the crippling sterility—reproductive and spiritual—that has “aged” Europe and threatens to render her lifeless and hollow, “no longer fertile and vibrant”; malaised or “elderly and haggard” in spirit, a longstanding linguistic idiom in the Tradition that expresses the crushing weight of hopelessness and lifelessness of which the Pope has spoken before. Francis’s many statements about the elderly disqualify from plausibility the Baden-Moss interpretation of his alleged disregard for elderly females once they advance past childbearing capacity, thereby "outliving their utility."

So too do the many statements that Francis delivered that same day to the Council of Europe, which further situate his invocation of the metaphor of aging and further remove it from Baden and Moss’s line of attack:

Throughout its history, Europe has always reached for the heights, aiming at new and ambitious goals, driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, development, progress, peace and unity. But the advance of thought, culture, and scientific discovery is entirely due to the solidity of the trunk and the depth of the roots which nourish it. Once those roots are lost, the trunk slowly withers from within and the branches – once flourishing and erect – bow to the earth and fall […]

To Europe we can put the question: “Where is your vigour?” […]

My hope is that Europe, by rediscovering the legacy of its history and the depth of its roots … will rediscover that youthfulness of spirit which has made this continent fruitful and great.


The Holy Father also spoke of the “cultural aridity” that “effectively cuts off the nourishing roots on which the tree grows,” and said of Europe that “a trunk without its roots can continue to have the appearance of life, even as it grows hollow from within and eventually dies.” At this point, should they maintain their reading, one wonders whether Baden and Moss would object to any metaphor or idiom that trades on physical phenomena (such as aging) as being insensitive or dismissive. It wouldn’t be the first time that theologians have advocated such an impracticable policy.

Baden and Moss again:

Francis has made it clear that he sees childbearing and child rearing as crucial womanly roles.

Childbearing is an inescapably and exclusively “womanly role”; child rearing, inescapably but not exclusively so, as the countless magisterial and papal articulations of the co-equal complementarity of man and wife in marriage express. The authors continue:
[Francis] seems to have trouble articulating that role [of women in the Church] in non-maternal terms, or at least in terms that are not circumscribed by the familial.

This, too, is untrue. Francis spoke beautifully just last Friday on the need for more female theologians, in an address delivered to the International Theological Commission—which under Francis now boasts more female appointments than in the past 10 years. In my translation:
In this light, among the ever more diversified composition of the Commission, I would like to note the major presence of women—now not enough … they are like strawberries on the cake, but there should be more!—a presence that becomes an invitation to reflect on the role that women can and must have in the camp of theology. In fact, “The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I see with pleasure how many women … offer new contributions for theological reflection” (Evangelii Gaudium 103).

So, in virtue of their feminine genius, the [female] theologians can uncover, to the benefit of all, certain unexplored aspects of the unfathomable mystery of Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge” (Col 2:3). I invite you all therefore to take advantage of this specific contribution of women to the intelligence of the faith.


In any event, women, like men, are essentially familial, as daughters and sisters if not as mother and wives; and in often (not always) employing the vocation to motherhood as a theological hermeneutic for exploring the broader role of women in the Church—which is mother, is bride, as he stressed this summer on his return trip from World Youth Day—Francis neither reduces women to mothers (or their childbearing "utility") nor exhausts their contributions to the Church.

Baden and Moss save their most scandalous claim for last:

It is too much to expect, even with Francis at the helm, that the church would decide to admit women to the clergy. But it would be no violation of doctrine to recognize women as contributing to the life of the church, as being intrinsically and equally valuable, regardless of their familial role or fertility. Francis has had many opportunities to express these sentiments, yet he hasn't. It's hard not to conclude that he sees procreation as the end goal — and the functional utility — of a woman's life.

The second statement is manifestly true, hence the Church constantly teaching it as a matter of doctrine; the third statement is manifestly false, as even the most cursory investigation into our Pope’s published writings and addresses reveals. The final statement is childish in either its ignorance or calumny, being leveled against a man who impassionately said this summer that “a woman’s role in the Church must not end only as mother, as worker, limited. No! It’s something else!”

But the first statement of this frightful paragraph is the most telling. For, in a delicious twist of irony, it reveals that Baden and Moss are the ones mired in “traditional” ways of thinking about women in the Church. While they continue to confuse function and holiness, Francis has been pontificating about the need for the whole Church militant to progress out of a medieval association between miter and might. This summer he pleaded that the Catholic understanding of women in the Church should not be associated merely with the prerogatives of function, but “must be more, profoundly more! Even mystically more, with what I’ve said of the theology of woman.”

Ultimately, as the Pope remarked pithily one year ago this week, “Women in the Church must be valued, not ‘clericalised.’” Would that Baden and Moss lived up to Francis’s progressive enthusiasm for his flock: “Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”