09/27/2015 02:21 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2016

Pope Francis: Apply the 'Golden Rule' to Women in the Catholic Church

As a Protestant professor at Chicago Theological Seminary I have taught so many Catholic women over the last three decades whose God-given gifts of priestly leadership were not recognized by their own church.

The systemic exclusion of women from equality before God in the priestly leadership of the Catholic Church is a scandal, and it needs to be rectified with the same passionate compassion Pope Francis has applied to others who are excluded.

On his visit, the Pope has exhorted Americans, and especially the bitterly divided U.S. Congress, to Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The "others" according to the Pope's addresses, include immigrants, the impoverished, political rivals and the Earth itself.

But not women.

Instead, as in Philadelphia, the Pope makes a special point of complimenting women in the Catholic Church and as the future of the church. He told a packed cathedral of about 1,600 people that this "means valuing the immense contribution in which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities."

This is true, as far as it goes. In fact, if Catholic women stopped contributing to the life of the church, it would come to a screeching halt. Women, both lay and religious, keep the churches running. But without full priestly equality, this comes close to patronizing women, patting them on the head for a job well done. But while Pope Francis has repeatedly said that women should have a greater role in church leadership, he rejects the idea of ordaining women.


If the Pope would apply to the church hierarchy the same biblical exhortation as he addressed to the Congress, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," there would be no question of women's full ecclesial equality in becoming priests. The Pope would need to acknowledge that his priesthood and the priesthood of women are inextricably linked in this teaching.

The Church now maintains that the ordination of women is not permitted due to Jesus's practice of only choosing men to be apostles. But in fact the "otherness" of women to the essence of humanity has deep roots in the philosophical theology that informs Catholicism. The Catholic Church has long seen maleness and femaleness as different in essence, two different expression of a "common" humanity. But whereas maleness can symbolize humanity in and of itself, femaleness, as derivative, a particular interpretation of Genesis 2:22 (creation of Eve from Adam's rib), cannot. See my chapter on Augustine and Aquinas in regard to women's derivative nature in Women's Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women.

The way forward on the ordination of women in the Catholic Church is to reject this fundamental "otherness" of women, if Pope Francis would only take it. It is on a continuum with rejecting the hierarchical interpretation of the spirit as more valuable than the earth that has so profoundly contributed to the environmental degradation Francis now decries.

I believe this Pope has already laid the groundwork for how the church could do this in his Encyclical Laudato si', as I have argued. In that work, Francis explicitly rejects theologies that authorize "dominion" by human beings over the earth.

Feminist theologians, and particularly Rosemary Radford Ruether, herself a Catholic, have repeatedly said theologies of domination and subordination of women are the basic building blocks of patriarchy. Ruether has said, "Domination of women has provided a key link, both socially and symbolically, to the domination of earth, hence the tendency in patriarchal cultures to link women with earth, matter, and nature, while identifying males with sky, intellect, and transcendent spirit."

This is the foundation in philosophical theology of why women have not been ordained as priests in the Catholic Church and it is the foundation of earth-destroying practices.

When the Pope argues in Laudato si' that human beings are not entitled to dominate the earth as its "lords and masters" he can be interpreted as subverting one of the fundamental supports for the difference in "essence" between men and women, women's identification with "nature" and men's essential identification with "sky, intellect, and transcendent spirit" and thus priesthood.

The threats to our common home and the threats to our common humanity have the same roots and both must be rejected for this planet and this humanity to ultimately survive.

Many people across the globe are coming to realize these links.

So, Pope Francis, "What about you?"