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For Pope Francis: A To-Do List on Women

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Dear Pope Francis:

As this new year unfolds, I've decided that, with all due respect, it is time for me to share with you my suggested "To-Do list on Women." I've been deeply moved by your passionate defense of the poor; your willingness to call unbridled capitalism what it is, a spirit-killing machine for those to whom its bounty fails to trickle down; your symbolically and not so symbolically throwing the money changers -- in the form of remote, rich, recriminating hierarchs -- out of the Church temple. But I have been far less moved by what you have been saying about women. So,without further ado:

1. Please stop talking about the role of women in the church. That conceptualization implicitly allocates the place of a subgroup of human beings to designated corners of the institution. We never talk about expanding the role of men in the church because they are expected to be players in the whole church. The subject is justice, and equality.

2. Recognize women's God-given moral authority. You've argued that the confessional should be a place of mercy not a "torture chamber," and talked about a woman who had a failed marriage, remarried, had five children, but whose abortion "weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it." The moral of your story was that the confessor's job was to show her mercy. But what if she didn't regret that abortion? What if she said it was the right thing for her to do? What if she knew in her bones that she could not be a mother then? Would you apply to her those heartfelt words that you applied to homosexuals, those words heard round the world: "Who am I to judge?" Abortion can be a difficult decision, we agree, but God obviously trusted women to make that decision: look where She put the embryo.

3. Study feminist theology. You have said several times now that "we need to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman." Actually, what we need is for you and your brother prelates to stop demonizing leading Catholic feminist theologians and integrate their analyses into mainstream Catholic theology. I implore you to heed the words of brilliant Catholic feminist theologians like Fordham's Sister Elizabeth Johnson -- of late censured by the US bishops for daring to highlight biblical passages where Jesus portrays God as female -- that "Christ is the source of revelation, and we learn about Christ through Scripture and tradition... Feminism is a way of interpreting Scripture and tradition from the viewpoint of women," making this a crucial "new moment of revelation in the Church."

This, of course will require that you let go of your image of feminists as potential chauvinists "in skirts" waging a "vindictive battle," suffragists who "after the feminist campaign of the 20s", after they "got what they wanted," should have hung up their signs and gone home. Surely, you understand the urgency of the continued fight for women's equality worldwide--against rape and battery, forced sex and forced pregnancy, unequal access to jobs, financial resources, food and basic human rights--all elements of a feminist agenda.

4. Bless the use of contraception. It's time to stop insisting that there is anything intrinsically evil about responsible parenthood, human beings using their God-given brains to determine when and how many children to have -- a belief that the vast majority of Catholics who use birth control apparently hold. Furthermore, to insist -- as do the U.S. bishops in their religious freedom crusade that birth control is not health care, when every major health organization maintains that it is crucial the health of mothers and babies -- is downright medieval. If the church could quietly erase an 800-year-old belief in limbo from Church doctrine, no longer marooning unbaptized babies out of God's sight, then surely you can finally embrace the majority recommendation of Pope John XXIII's Papal Birth Control Commission and approve the use of artificial contraception.

5. Leave behind the Virgin Birth. Good Catholic women have two choices: they can be virgins or mothers. Embodying both, the Virgin Mary is a sterling, unattainable emblem of womanhood. That idea -- of a mother unsoiled by sex -- is a terrible burden for Catholic women who can never measure up. But this myth survives, despite the Biblical references to Jesus' siblings (vehemently denied by church fathers who are loathe to admit that Mary ever had sex) and the widely held view that the virgin birth was incorporated into early Christianity to win over converts from the pagan/goddess religions who already accepted divine progeny springing from all manner of human/spirit couplings.

6. Appoint a woman to the College of Cardinals. Ordaining women is crucial to the future of the Church, and while you have insisted that the ban on women's ordination is a settled question, the Church's defenses are thin as air: a Papal Commission found no evidence in Scripture to rule out women's ordination; the failure-to-resemble Jesus argument, which assumes Jesus saw male genitals as integral to priestly ministry, is absurd; Jesus didn't ordain anybody; Paul refers to "Junia the Apostle" and "Phoebe the deacon"; and dramatic archaeological evidence exists of women's clerical roles in the early church.

If you believe that advocating for a woman cardinal smacks of "clericalism," then what does an all-powerful, all-male college of cardinals smack of? If you are against clericalism, then dismantle it. If you are not, then end the church's indefensible gender apartheid and open the doors of sacramental and executive power to women.

7. End compulsory celibacy. Replenishing the vanishing ranks of priests is only one reason to let all priest marry. Compulsory celibacy should end, said Father Anthony Padavan, a Catholic priest banished from the priesthood for falling in love and marrying, founder of CORPUS for married priests, because "it is based on the belief that women are inferior, and marriage is a second-rate way of being Christian." Enough said.

8. Hold your brethren accountable. There is no question that the Church is the world's oldest and largest surviving boys club and that, if women are ever to be equal in this church, you must hold the men accountable. The most urgent area for accountability regards your brother bishops' complicity in decades of child sexual abuse. You were roundly applauded for suspending a German Bishop for extravagant spending on his opulent residence, including installing a $20,500 bathtub. What about castigating the bishops who were complicit in the rape and sodomizing of children instead of keeping them safe and secure in the arms of holy mother church? And, I must ask: Do you really think that the bishops would have such an easy time turning away the mothers who came asking for justice for the brutal crimes against their offspring if women had been equal players in the church?

9. No more meetings about women without women. Until all of this can be achieved, vow to bring women into any meeting that involves discussion and decisions about women, children, families, sex, marriage, divorce, love, and life. Depending on bishops to gather comments from Catholics for the Vatican questionnaire on the family that will be the subject of the fall Bishops' conference is wildly insufficient if the meeting will be an assemblage of unmarried, theoretically celibate men.

Finally, before I sign off, I have to add a note about my Mom. She was named Frances, for her beloved grandfather Francisco. She would have loved you -- in part because you two have the same name. My mother was a Catholic in revolt, too, but unlike me, she was a private, quiet revolutionary. As I got madder and madder about what I saw as the Church's injustice to women, she saw beyond my anger to the deep hurt, advising me again and again: "Don't let them keep you away."

She meant you. Her relationship was with God, with Jesus, not with the hierarchy. But I'm afraid I've not been able to do that. I've long been church shopping, searching for another way to be spiritual, to love God, to recognize the divine in people -- including and especially women -- and in this ailing world. I long ago stopped sitting at Mass in Catholic churches, listening to priests' diatribes against abortion, terrified that the parishioners would soon turn into an angry mob and set the guilty among us on fire.

But in all honesty, as towering Catholic author and orator sister Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister has said, it is very hard to change spiritual symbol systems late in life. They seep into the bones, run through the blood. "Despite everything," wrote Sue Monk Kidd of the difficulty of leaving the patriarchal church of her childhood, which she ultimately did: "the deep song that played inside Christianity played inside me."

Turning one's back on all that leaves you bereft, and there are countless bereft Catholic and formerly Catholic women out there. Some have found new spiritual homes. Many have not. Yet, we are invisible to you and your brethren. You have left us alone, to roam in the desert.

So in the end, these changes I seek are for my mother and my mother's mother and her mother before her and all the women back through the ages who have been deeply wounded by this church. This isn't an incidental issue, it's fundamental, for what becomes of women in the church will determine what becomes of the church itself.

As for me right now, I plan to keep watching you. I get the sense you're willing to listen. You're accessible to ordinary Catholics, making impromptu phone calls to people who write to you -- I like that.

So if you want to talk about any of this, Pope Francis, I'm here. Call me anytime. Unlike the nuns you tried to reach on New Year's Eve, I'm usually home.