A Georgetown panel considered “the question of women’s ordination” April 17, describing the matter as “unfinished” despite Pope Francis’ current teaching and St. John Paul II’s 1994 teaching that Jesus Christ reserved the sacred priesthood to men alone even as the Lord promoted the dignity of women.
In the panel discussion titled “Faith, Feminism, and Being Unfinished: The Question of Women’s Ordination,” participants described the sole ordination of men as exclusionary of women, characterizing it as an example of a patriarchy holding on to power.
Sister Celeste Mokrzycki, a Sister of St. Joseph and chaplain for Georgetown’s School of Health and the School of Nursing, painted a picture during the event that its webpage called “the movement of the Spirit among participants.”
The end result was a depiction of a woman as a priest.
“This painting is a reminder we are all always in progress,” Annie Selak, associate director of the Georgetown University Women’s Center, said. “There are few things that are fixed.”
Theologian Pia de Solenni, a former chancellor for the Diocese of Orange, Calif., who did not participate in the Georgetown panel, said while the church should work to include religious and laywomen in leadership roles, its teaching is fixed on the matter of ordination.
“The gender or sex matters,” de Solenni said. “It’s significant. This person is the bridegroom to the church.”
Discussions about the concept of women’s ordination have increased in recent decades as women in many nations and societies have gained a more equal status to men in civil society.
However, Pope Francis has said that “the last word is clear,” on the church’s position on the concept of female priests, while expressing support for “the feminine dimension of the church.” He pointed to St. John Paul’s 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” which said that sacred priesthood in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches “from the beginning always been reserved to men alone” in faithfulness to Jesus Christ’s plan for the church. The Holy Father also explicitly invoked his Petrine ministry to say “that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.”
St. John Paul II also explained women do not have less in dignity than men, and the “presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the church … remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable.”
However, panelist Mary Hunt, co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, called the church’s limitation of the priesthood to those who are biologically male “dated at best” as society shifts its understanding of gender.
“How can we share the power?” she asked with respect to making women priests. “Yes, women and nonbinary people want power to minister. How can we share the resources of the institutional church that belong to all of us?”
Panelists suggested women’s ordination would be more inclusive and lead to changes in the church in the areas of financial mismanagement or sexual abuse.
Teresa Delgado, dean of St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University, suggested women’s ordination would make the church “focused less on the doctrinal and more on popular religiosity” and help “decolonialize” the church.
Some panelists suggested the church’s teaching against intentional abortion is rooted in women’s exclusion from the priesthood.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, novelist Alice McDermott said she saw her own presence in church that following Sunday “as a kind of collusion, a collusion with misogyny, with hypocrisy, with the conviction that to be female is to be deemed to be the lesser, less complex, less moral, less valuable, less worthy.”
The Catholic Church teaches that all human life is sacred and must be respected from conception to natural death and, as such, opposes direct abortion as an act of violence that takes the life of the unborn child. The same teaching that human life is sacred from conception to natural death also guides the church’s opposition to practices like physician assisted suicide and the death penalty. In the wake of the Dobbs ruling, the U.S. bishops have reiterated the church’s commitment to serving both women and unborn children.
De Solenni described the notion of the priesthood as power as being an example of the abuses of clericalism, and a violation of church teaching, arguing “the catechism is clear that the priest is a servant.”
“The other Sunday, we had the Gospel reading about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples,” she said. “I mean, he was modeling what it means to be a servant; only the lowest servant would wash somebody’s feet. So if you look at this as power, it’s upside down.”
The Gospels demonstrate the crucial role of women in Christ’s earthly ministry, de Solenni said, noting Mary of Bethany washes the feet of Christ shortly before he washes the feet of his apostles.
De Solenni also noted, “His mother’s Fiat precedes his Fiat in the Garden of Gethsemane,” she said.
De Solenni also rejected the argument that church teaching sees women as inferior to men.
“The church teaches that men and women are fundamentally equal,” she said. “So there’s clericalism and other abuses — and yes, there’s a lived experience where women have not been treated as equals — but that is not what the church teaches.”
Every Sunday, 17,000 Roman Catholic parishes in the United States hold Mass. For the most part, the service in Brownsburg, Indiana, looks and sounds like the rest.
There are songs and Scripture readings. The white-robed priest delivers the homily. The Eucharistic Prayer features the consecration of the bread and wine on the altar, transforming them into what more than one billion Catholics worldwide believe is the flesh and blood of Jesus. Then all solemnly consume the bread and wine as the sacrament of Holy Communion.
But this Mass does have distinguishing features. The creed includes an invocation not just of God and Jesus but also “the Holy Spirit, the breath of Wisdom Sophia, who energizes and guides us in building caring communities and in challenging oppression, exploitation, and injustices.” The Lord’s Prayer begins here with the words, “Our Mother-Father God, who is in heaven . . .”
And the priest is Angela Nevitt Meyer, newly ordained and the 42-year-old mother of two children. For her first official Mass as a priest, both of her kids are in attendance, along with her husband Jarrett. He is the one playing the keyboard.
In return for daring to perform the Mass, Meyer and 250 others across the world who call themselves Roman Catholic womenpriests have been automatically excommunicated by Vatican decree. (The combination of women and priests into one name derives from the German word priesterin, used in the early stages of the European movement of ordained women.) The men controlling the 2,000-plus-year-old institution say these women are attacking the Church. Meyer and the womenpriests say they are saving it.
There is evidence that their movement is gaining momentum. More than half of U.S. states have at least one womanpriest-led congregation. Many, like Meyer’s Indiana congregation, began as home churches but soon outgrew the space. Several womenpriests were favorably featured in a lengthy June 2021 New Yorker magazine profile, others in a recent BBC documentary. The Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for Church reform, finds hope in ongoing Church discussions to open the diaconate to women, and multiple German bishops have signaled that they are open to adding women to the priesthood. Catholic catechism features the concept of sensus fidelum, a consensus among believers on matters of faith. Consensus on women priests is not yet reached, but a trend can be observed: a Pew Research Center poll showed 59 percent of U.S. Catholics support women’s ordination as priests. Many Catholics are excited that the ongoing global Catholic synod process has yielded an official Vatican synopsis of listening sessions that acknowledges that many Catholics call for women’s ordination, an admission that some ordination advocates call a “small revolution.”
THERE ARE STRONG scriptural and historical arguments for women assuming church leadership roles. The books of the New Testament show Jesus regularly bucking the patriarchy of the day to embrace women as central to his community and ministry. The Gospel of John tells of a Samaritan woman being the first Christian preacher to the Gentiles. The most notable among the women disciples was Mary of Magdala, the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection and thus commissioned to be the apostle to the apostles.
In the Hebrew Bible, women such as Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah were considered to be prophets. The stories of the earliest Church told in the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles repeatedly depict women in leadership roles. Of course, some of that material is breathtakingly sexist. There is the assertion in 1 Corinthians 11:7 that only man is made in God’s image, and Timothy 2:11 says that “the role of women is to learn, listening quietly and with due submission.”
As feminist Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther wrote, “Catholic Biblical studies have shown that there is no valid case to be made against the ordination of women from the Scriptures.” Historians like Gary Macy and Phyllis Zagano have chronicled women playing leadership roles in early churches. “Women were ordained in the early Middle Ages,” Macy flatly concludes in his 2008 Oxford University Press book, The History of Women’s Ordination. “According to the understanding of ordination held by themselves and their contemporaries, they were just as truly ordained as any bishop, priest, or deacon.” Women performed baptisms, anointed the sick, and participated at the altar, says Zagano, a church historian and professor at Hofstra University.
But the Second Lateran Council of 1139 convened by Pope Innocent III shut the door on any debate, officially redefining the clergy as being limited to male priests. Those priests were given the sole authority to perform the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. To justify excluding ordained women from the clergy, theologians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries created what Macy calls “one of the most successful propaganda efforts ever launched.” Paul’s letters to the early Church were reinterpreted to explain away references to women in church leadership roles. The idea that priests must anatomically resemble Jesus—imago Christi–was elevated to the highest importance. Women were formally consigned to the church sidelines.
FOR CENTURIES, THE WALL blocking most women from the clergy stood strong. Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, cracks began to appear. Most mainline Protestant denominations began to ordain women, as did Jewish denominations. Reform in the Episcopal Church USA was triggered by civil disobedience: After 11 women were illicitly ordained as Episcopal priests in the mid-1970s, their church officially opened ordination to women.
For some Roman Catholic women, this idea of full contra legum—in the Catholic’s case, directly violating Canon Law 1024, “only a baptized man can validly receive ordination”—began to seem like a possibility. They noted that the Gospel is replete with Jesus flouting unjust religious and civil laws and that the earliest Christians were by definition criminals. “We must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5:29 says. Joan of Arc famously defied church leaders, and Mother Theodore Guerin, founder of the Sisters of Providence, was imprisoned and excommunicated for clashing with a bishop. Both Joan and Guerin were eventually canonized.
So, on June 29, 2002, on a ship cruising international waters on the Danube Rover near Passau, Germany, two male Roman Catholic bishops ordained seven women as priests. The bishops’ role allows the womenpriests to assert they were ordained in Apostolic Succession, which purportedly allows current Roman Catholic clergy to trace their ordination back to Jesus’ original apostles.
Shortly after the Danube Seven took their vows, two of them—Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger and Gisela Forster—were ordained as bishops by three Roman Catholic male bishops. This act allowed the women to ordain their own, and the current 250 Roman Catholic womenpriests across the world trace their lineage from there. Mayr-Lumetzberger ordained as bishop Nancy Meyer, who in 2021 ordained Angela Meyer (no relation) as a priest.
The Danube Seven and the bishop who ordained them, Bishop Romulo Antonio Braschi, were quickly excommunicated. In 2008, the Vatican decreed that a woman who attempts to be ordained and persons attempting to ordain her are excommunicated latae sententiae—automatically, the instant they perform the act.
Compared to his predecessors, Pope Francis has struck a progressive pose on many issues. So far, women’s ordination is not one of them. “That door is closed,” he said in 2013. Instead, Francis echoes the Church’s longtime argument that women are so special that they don’t need to be ordained. “Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs by making present the tender strength of Mary the Mother,” he wrote in 2020.
GROWING UP IN Bartonville, Illinois, Angela Meyer became one of the first girls in her diocese to be an altar server. Then, at her confirmation in the Church, a close friend of Meyer’s posed a question to the presiding bishop at a reception following the ceremony. “What if I have a different view than the Church about whether contraception should be allowed?” the girl asked. The bishop shot her down immediately. When he articulated any view he was speaking for the Pope, who in turn was speaking for God, he said. End of discussion.
Meyer’s friend eventually took that response as her cue to leave the Church. Meyer’s reaction was different. It foreshadowed a mindset she carried with her as she continued a lifetime of attending Mass and immersing herself in Catholic communities in college and beyond, all the while carrying her great-grandmother’s rosary in her pocket. “When the bishop said that, I just thought, ‘Well, I guess I am going to have to fight you,’” she says. Later, Meyer connects her teenage reaction to the philosophy of the womenpriests movement when they confront repression by clerical hierarchy: “This is our church, the church of the people. And we will fight you for it.”
It is one fight among many that Catholics are waging within the Church. The institution is reeling from the continued revelations of a global scourge of priests abusing children, followed by church leaders further enabling the abusers and covering up the assaults. A Church-sponsored study showed more than 4,000 U.S. Catholic priests and deacons were credibly accused of abuse-related crimes during the second half of the twentieth century. Resulting lawsuits have cost the Church more than $3 billion. In the U.S. alone, 31 dioceses and orders have declared bankruptcy.
Millions of U.S. Catholics are heading for the exits. In the U.S., a full 13 percent of the adult population are former Catholics, a number far larger than the entire number of congregants for any single non-Catholic denomination. Despite the influx of Hispanic Catholics into the U.S., the overall Catholic population has sharply declined in the past few decades.
Among the U.S. Catholics still hanging in, millions are profoundly disaffected. Many Catholics disagree with the Church’s rules on birth control, same-sex marriage, and yes, the barring of women from the priesthood. A recent survey showed that less than one in four U.S. women who identify as Catholic attend Mass weekly.
Over the past half-century, the number of U.S. priests has shrunk by 60 percent, leaving many parishes without a pastor. Angela Meyer and other womenpriests make the obvious argument that opening up the priesthood to women and married men would immediately help ease that crisis. Less obvious is their desire to do so. They could easily follow the path of millions of other ex-Catholics who switched to other denominations, almost all of which would happily welcome them as clergy. In the Episcopal Church USA alone, one of every eight congregants are former Catholics.
“But I am Catholic,” Meyer says in response to the question. “To walk away from the religion that raised me feels like saying what the church leaders are doing is OK. And it is not OK.” In other words, she maintains the stance she took with the Illinois bishop of her youth: It is my Church too. And I will fight you for it.
The official position of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests is the same: “The movement ‘RC Womenpriests’ does not perceive itself as a counter-current movement against the Roman Catholic Church. It wants neither a schism nor a break from the Roman Catholic Church, but rather wants to work positively within the Church.”
That within-the-Church approach does not mean that the womenpriests adopt the same approaches to the clergy or the liturgy. Virtually all womenpriests follow the worker priest model, a necessity for a movement without a substantial financial base. Meyer is a full-time family advocate working with public hospital patients in high-risk maternity and neonatal intensive care units. Other womenpriests in her area include a physician’s assistant and a retired teacher. The morning after Gisela Forster made history as one of the ordained Danube Seven, she reported back to her job as a nurse.
Although Meyer and others are determined to claim for themselves and others the status of priests, they resist most of the trappings of clericalism and hierarchy. They point to the Gospels’ examples where Jesus scoffed at clergy taking on elitist airs. In the Roman Catholic Womenpriest governing meetings, lay members have the same vote and opportunity to speak as priests and even bishops. After most womenpriests deliver a homily at Mass, they invite the congregants to share their own views with all who have gathered. When describing this “shared homily” approach, Meyer cites John 15:15, where Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants … instead, I have called you as friends.”
Given the centrality of the Eucharist in the Catholic mass, perhaps the most democratic aspect of the womenpriest approach is that the sacred words consecrating the body and blood of Christ are not said by the priest alone. In a conscious embrace of the earliest Church practices, and rejection of the current orthodoxy that only a celibate ordained male can perform this most holy act, the community at Roman Catholic womenpriest Masses says the words together.
In further contrast to the institutional Roman Catholic Church, the womenpriest community aims to be as broad as the community at large. The Indiana church where Meyer co-pastors is called the Brownsburg Inclusive Catholic Community. Meyer’s new womenpriest bishop for the Midwest USA is a lesbian who has been with her wife for 30 years.
“Discrimination, no matter how clever the language of justification, is a sin,” Meyer said in her first homily as a priest. “By coming together today, by me standing here as an ordained priest, we are witnessing and participating in the movement of the Spirit that challenges injustice.”
In that homily, Meyer pointed out that there is plenty of historical precedent for similar movements forcing radical changes in even the most hidebound of institutions. Among those institutions is the Church, which once condoned slavery and was unapologetically antisemitic before eventually reversing itself on both counts. Ironically, one of the most compelling examples of radical Church doctrine change is the very twelfth-century switch that pushed women out of ordination and leadership roles they had held for more than a thousand years.
The Church has changed many times, Angela Meyer says, and it can change again. “For the Body of the Church, the whole self is suffering,” she said in her first homily. “The Good News is that we have the ability to sing a new Church into being, to heal and become whole. More than having the ability, we are doing it.”
Delegates of the German Synodal Way on Saturday overwhelmingly passed measures to change Church practices based on transgender ideology and to push the universal Church to ordain women to the sacramental diaconate.
The votes took place on the final day of the process’ concluding assembly, held in Frankfurt March 9-11. On previous days, delegates voted overwhelmingly to adopt same-sex blessings, normalize lay preaching, and ask Rome to “reexamine” the discipline of priestly celibacy.
While the Germans pushed forward with these controversial measures, the assembly held back from crossing a line laid down by the Vatican concerning the establishing synodal councils at the national, diocesan, and parochial levels. The Vatican has said the synodal council model, which involves shared governance between bishops and the laity, is not consistent with Catholic ecclesiology.
The synodal assembly decided to delay voting on the proposal. Instead, it will be considered by a newly established synodal committee over the next three years, while Synodal Way leadership attempts to change the minds of Vatican officials and garner more widespread approval in the universal Church.
At the concluding press conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the bishops’ conference, said that the results give a mandate to the bishops to make some changes in Germany now while pushing for broader reform.
“The Church is visibly changing, and that is important,” Bätzing said.
Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), said the results show that the synodal path in Germany will continue.
“It does not end here. It is just the beginning,” she said.
Observers, including 103 international bishops who signed a letter warning that the Synodal Way could lead to schism, have expressed concern about the heterodox ideas promoted by the process and the effect it could have on the wider Church if the Vatican does not sufficiently intervene.
Vote on gender ideology
The implementation text “Dealing with gender diversity” passed with support from 96% of the 197 voting delegates. Thirty-eight bishops voted for it, while only seven voted against it. Thirteen abstained from voting.
Consistent with a pattern running throughout the assembly, there would have been enough votes to block the measure if those abstaining had voted against it. Critics of the Synodal Way say that organizers’ removal of the secret ballot has created a fear-driven atmosphere that has prohibited many bishops from voting freely.
The resolution calls for “concrete improvements for intersex and transgender faithful,” including changing baptism records to match someone’s self-identified gender, banning one’s gender identity from consideration for pastoral ministerial roles, and mandatory education for priests and church employees to “deal with the topic of gender diversity.” Intersex refers to people born with mixed sexual characteristics.
The text also bars “external sexual characteristics” from being used as a criterion for “accepting a man as a candidate for the priesthood,” a measure that could open the door for attempted ordinations of women.
During the debate, a small minority of bishops voiced opposition to the measure, while emphasizing that the Church should improve its pastoral care of those identifying as transgender. Auxiliary Bishop Stefan Zekorn of Bistum Münster said he could not support a text based on gender ideology, while Bishop Stefen Oster of Passau said that the document failed to emphasize that a Christian’s primary identity should be rooted in Jesus Christ.
But the vast majority of those who spoke expressed support for the measure. Gregor Podschun, the head of the heterodoxical Federation of German Catholic Youth, said the claims of gender ideology were “a scientific fact,” and that the Church’s denial was causing people to commit suicide. Julianne Eckstein, a professor of theology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, claimed that the book of Genesis was an inadequate basis for questions of sexual anthropology. And Viola Kohlberger, a young adult from Augsburg, said that there is no “norm” for gender and that the tradition of the Catholic Church was holding back progress.
“And I would like to break it today,” she said.
When the vote passed, delegates stood to applaud, while some unfurled rainbow flags expressing support for homosexuality and transgender ideology.
A motion adopted by the assembly replaced a call for the establishment of a “sacramental diaconate of women” with “opening the sacramental diaconate for women.” The distinction made clear that the Synodal Way is pushing for women to be integrated into already existing holy orders, an idea the Church has repeatedly affirmed is impossible.
Delegates adopted another motion that modified priorities related to the all-male priesthood, calling for the practice to be simply reexamined, rather than ended, at the universal level of the Church. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising said that the motion was needed to “build consensus” for changes to the Church’s dogmatic teaching related to the priesthood.
Others were less interested in the slow approach. Several women delegates were seen in tears after the vote, saddened that the text did not more explicitly call for female priests.
“Discriminating against someone because of their gender must be put to an end in the Catholic Church,” said delegate Susanne Schumacher-Godemann.
“The patriarchy needs to be destroyed,” added Podschun.
Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg spoke up in opposition to the text, characterizing the push for ordaining women to the diaconate as “a first step toward opening up” the priesthood and the episcopacy, too.
The Regensburg bishop, a close friend of Pope Benedict XVI, is one of only three German bishops to have publicly voted against each of the Synodal Way’s controversial texts.
The synodal assembly also elected 20 members to the transitory synodal committee that will work over the next three years to prepare for the establishment of a permanent synodal council at the national level. The 20 elected members, which consisted of 19 laypeople and one auxiliary bishop, will join the 27 bishops who head dioceses and 27 members of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) already on the committee.
The Synodal Way, which began in 2019, has been a collaborative effort between the ZdK and the German bishops’ conference.
A video expressing support for same-sex parents and other non-traditional families by Bishop David O’Connell (69), who was shot dead in a Los Angeles suburb last Saturday, was cut from the World Meeting of Families promotional material.
In March 2018, six months before the World Meeting of Families took place in Dublin, it emerged words of his were cut from a video prepared to promote that event.
These words included: “Pope Francis, he gets it. He gets it that our society has changed so much in the last couple of generations. We have all sorts of configurations of families now, whether it’s just the traditional family of mum and dad together, or it’s now mum on her own or dad on his own, or a gay couple raising children, or people in second marriages. No matter what the configuration of the family is, the call is still to adults to think about how to provide the best, most loving, faithful environment for children possible.”
At the time a spokeswoman for the World Meeting of Families said: “The wrong version of the video for Parish Session 1 was inadvertently uploaded for a short time but the correct version is now in place.”
From Glanmire in Cork, Bishop O’Connell served in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles after his ordination in 1979 at Dublin’s All Hallows College. After many years ministry in some of the more disadvantaged parishes of south Los Angeles, he was named an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese in 2015.
The original Bishop O’Connell video attracted the attention of the US-based fundamentalist Catholic Church Militant website which said it “promotes the sin of homosexuality” in an article headed `Sodomy Supporters Hijack World Meeting of Families’.
Bishop O’Connell did not attend the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in 2018, although he and a group of 45 people from the Los Angeles Archdiocese had been on pilgrimage in Ireland days before the event began in Dublin on August 25th that year.
Interviewed at the time, he did not comment on the censoring of his video, but did say Pope Francis faced “an impossible task” on his visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families because of the shadow cast by clerical child sex abuse scandals.
Reflecting on the visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II in 1979, Bishop O’Connell said “we thought this would be a revival of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which even at that time we needed.
“Even though the faith and practice were very strong, among many of my peers, my generation was already turning away from the Catholic faith even in the 1970s. We were hoping for a revival, and we thought that there would be.”
He continued: “But then of course, there was scandal and the trust broke, and now we’ve had stories coming out for a whole generation. It’s given everybody who didn’t want to go to church anymore a reason to say, ‘I’m over with all that. It’s all hypocrisy, there’s too much child abuse, abuse of people’.”
For Pope Francis “to be able to deal with all these issues in 32 hours? Obviously, he can’t,” he said.
Fluent in Spanish, prior to becoming an auxiliary bishop he attracted much positive attention for his work with African Americans and Hispanic communities in addressing immigration, unemployment, and south Los Angeles’s history of gang violence.
At a At a press conference following his announcement as auxiliary bishop he said: “I can walk around the streets of South LA and have done so for many years, where there’s violence and shootings, and I don’t feel the slightest bit of anxiety. But I come in here today and I’m shaking in my boots.”
He was also a liberal in Catholic Church terms as far back as 2002 when in a Los Angles Times profile he said “women should be ordained and clergy should be able to marry.” On the issue of clerical abuse and its cover-up he said that “if there had been some parents in there running things, none of this would have ever happened”.
At the time of the 1992 Los Angeles riots in which over 60 people died following the brutal beating of Rodney King by police, then Fr O’Connell was in Washington DC giving evidence about violence in urban America to a committee of Congress. He returned to Los Angles to find widespread destruction in his parish. He and other local faith leaders held meetings with sheriffs and members of the LAPD in people’s homes to build trust. Violent deaths began to decrease.
In recent years he had been chairman of the Church’s Southern Californian Immigration Task Force which helped coordinate a response to the influx of migrants from Central America. He was also chair of chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
As milestones go, the recent sight of three leading men of God together in Africa was quite something — a rare chance for Christian leaders to spread the word and challenge rivals for hearts and minds.
Pope Francis and the Vatican media machine might have led the way, but alongside him went Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields. They shared the Papal plane on the way home with the kind of bonhomie and mutual understanding that highlights the importance of Africa in the contest to be the world’s leading faith.
There they were, the three of them, in the war zone of South Sudan, the Christian stronghold that broke away from the Muslim north amid terrible conflict. Today that newest of countries represents a small but symbolically important piece of the continent’s religious jigsaw that will see Christianity grow by more than 40 per cent, the hierarchy believes, by 2050, and so ensure their faith will continue to stay just ahead of Islam in global per centages.
Some walked for days just to see and hear him
Ahead of that historic appearance of a Christian triumvirate, Pope Francis had spent days in Congo, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country, home to more than 100 million, half of them Catholic, and the crucible of a conflict that has claimed more than five million lives, displacing millions more. It was a grim sign of the continuing murder and mayhem that the Pope had to cancel a trip to Eastern Congo, the epicentre of the war, because of fighting near the regional capital of Goma.
At his main mass in the capital, Kinshasa, more than a million Catholics joined him, some having walked for days just to see and hear him. Everywhere he went, thousands lined the streets and overpasses to glimpse the man many Congolese call simply “Our Father.” Francis, deeply moved, found the voice that has eluded him in recent times.
“This country, so immense and full of life, this diaphragm of Africa, struck by such violence like a blow to the stomach, has seemed for some time to be gasping for breath,” he told followers, clearly energised by the sight of so many worshippers. “But you are a diamond, believe in yourselves, and your future.”
The numbers do tell. According to the Vatican’s news agency, Africa accounts for 265 million members of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics — 20 per cent, and growing fast. The Anglican church is smaller but with significant followers in those countries with a footprint of the British empire: Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa (think the late Desmond Tutu)
“Africa offers Christianity such opportunity, born out of tragedy and suffering maybe, but such potential,” to quote one of the Pope’s advisers, noting that the Pontiff insisted on making the trip despite poor health of late and being now wheelchair-bound. “Francis, better than anyone, knows where we have lost ground, and where we need to work.”
It is ironic to consider it but, yes, the Argentinian Pope does indeed know where Catholicism has seen the faithful flee elsewhere. In Latin America, once the vanguard of his own Jesuit mission and home to the largest Catholic country on the planet, Brazil, Church leaders acknowledge that tens of millions have been lost to rivals, especially the Evangelical and Pentecostal faiths.
Even in the Pope’s beloved Argentina, you can see the exodus and not just in the major cities, Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Rosario. In the foothills of the Andes, in conservative, rural Mendoza, the Catholic church is often half-empty. In contrast the Evangelical arena, often a large, multi-purpose room on the main street, or a schoolroom not used on the weekends, can be packed to overflowing — with the devout outside in sizable numbers.
“Ours is Christianity that speaks to people’s needs, and people’s lives,” says Evangelical minister Jose Hernandez in Mendoza, pinpointing how Rome’s hard line on “social issues” (code for contraception, abortion, and the role of women in the Church) especially during the long years of the Polish Pope, John Paul the Second, opened the floodgates. “Ordinary people have flocked to us.”
The religious battle for Africa has been joined
Fascinatingly, the attempts of Pope Francis to soften the conservative line of his predecessors — taking for example such a relaxed view of homosexuality (“who am I to judge?” he says, “they are children of God too”) — has produced blowback, the likes of which Christianity may not have seen before. Such appeasement seems to have come too late for his Church in Latin America — and in Africa, his open voice on gay life is the seed of clear dispute between his Vatican and some fiercely traditional Bishops, let alone communities, on the ground in the likes of Congo and South Sudan.
“The Pope can have his view on homosexuality, and we have ours,” said one Catholic Bishop in attendance as the Pope celebrated that mega-mass in Kinshasa. “It is a sin.” Justin Welby and the Anglican church heard likewise in South Sudan from their flock. “Better to have two wives than to be gay or lesbian,” according to one Protestant Archbishop there.
The religious battle for Africa has been joined, and Christianity, losing out elsewhere in the Global South, sees the continent as the go-to arena tomorrow. So much so that inside the Vatican — where I was once a young correspondent back in the day when they dared to elect a Pole as Pope — they say the next Pontiff could well be an African.