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Surprise, surprise, the Pope's a Catholic. Pay attention at the back

Anyone who thought Francis would become a champion of female ordination needs to keep up, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 07/11/2016

Pope Francis has blocked any hopes of female priests
Pope Francis has blocked any hopes of female priests

Is the Pope a Catholic? Do bears in the woods use outdoor loos? For years, these have been cited as examples of rhetorical questions whose answer is so blindingly obvious that only a fool wouldn't know it.

That hasn't stopped the first one being the subject of feverish speculation by people who are constantly astonished on discovering that His Holiness is, indeed, a practising member of the Roman Catholic Church.

They're at it again after Pope Francis once more ruled out allowing women to become priests, telling a journalist on the papal plane as he flew home to Rome from his recent trip to Sweden: "The final word is clear."

"Forever?" asked the journalist. The Pontiff confirmed that this was so.

Cue another round of dismay from liberal believers and non-believers alike, who had convinced themselves that he was about to unveil some radical change in the Catholic Church's normal way of doing business, since setting up a special commission in August to look into the issue of female deacons.

Daydreamers have been doing the same thing for decades, deluding themselves that it was only a matter of time before gay people were accepted by the Church, priests were freed from celibacy, women were being ordained and everyone had as much contraception and abortion as their little hearts desired.

Naturally, it never worked out like that.

By the 1970s, it even looked as if things were moving in the opposite direction, with the election of arch-conservative John Paul II, whose pronouncements could all be summed up as: "See that thing you're doing? Stop doing it immediately, or you'll go to Hell."

When he died, hopes rose that the next Pope would finally lead liberal Catholics to the promised land of tolerance. Instead, they got Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Ratzinger, whose very name struck fear into the reformers. Soon he was telling the faithful that homosexuality was an "intrinsic moral evil". The happy-go-lucky wonderland, where everyone would live and let live, was put on hold once more.

Then he retired and along came Jorge Bergoglio of Buenes Aires, a different kettle of fish altogether.

At last, there was a Pope to whom nice, open-minded folks everywhere could relate.

He was laid back. He was cool. He was "the people's Pope". He was, in the title of one deferential biography, The Great Reformer.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn't last.

Sure, he was a bit Left-wing on political and economic issues; he didn't like consumerism, or big corporations; he wanted action on refugees and climate change. On all these points, he'd be perfectly at home in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party.

But his views on family and sexual issues remained entirely traditional - and there's nothing wrong with that. He's a Catholic. That's what Catholicism is.

The problem is that the message still hasn't sunk in to the cheering crowds who welcomed him when he took over as CEO of Vatican Inc.

They're still waiting for the day when he stands on the balcony overlooking St Peter's Square and declares that he doesn't really mean it when he lays down all those rules, it's just the job talking, and that everyone should do whatever makes them happy.

That's why they were so dismayed when Pope Francis confirmed this week that women priests are still about as welcome in the Vatican as Ian Paisley's ghost.

It may be illogical. If priests have to be men, because Jesus only chose men as his disciples, then why don't they all have to be Jewish fishermen from Palestine, too, because that's also who Jesus chose?

But illogical or not, that's the way it's been for centuries.

It's not as if the Church suddenly sprung this one on its followers.

Pope Francis made his own view on the role of women perfectly explicit in the summer, when he declared that "inscribed in the woman's body is the call to welcome both man and baby". In other words, women are for having sex and having babies. Nice.

That doesn't mean women shouldn't be consulted on Church teaching. On the contrary, he's all for asking the ladies what they think before deciding on their behalf what they can and cannot do.

In his second year, Francis even let a few women slip through the net onto the International Theological Commission, describing them in jaw-dropping fashion as "strawberries on the cake". Well, who doesn't like strawberries?

Faced with these repeated instances of Pope Francis's less-than-progressive attitude towards women, those who championed his radical credentials still seem reluctant to admit that they might have misread the Argentinian's mind. They'd still rather cling to the hope that he's waiting for the right moment before dragging the Church into the 21st century.

Some have even tried to paint the Pope's remarks about female priests in a good light, by saying that he's actually doing them a favour. By allowing women to become priests, the argument goes, he'd simply be reinforcing the idea that priests are better and more important than other members of the Church - "Clericalism", as it's known.

"Women in the Church must be valued, not clericalised," as he told an Italian newspaper in 2013. That sounds great in theory, but in practice it still comes down to men deciding what's best for women, on the grounds that women don't know what's good for them.

Cloaking this in patronising language about women having a "feminine genius" that's best suited to doing other things simply makes it worse. In fact, insofar as he is the most senior cleric in a boys' club of clerics, isn't excluding women the biggest act of clericalism at all? If he doesn't think that priests are the most important people in the Church, then why do they get to make all the decisions, for all time?

There's no point telling the Pope about the positive role that women in dog collars now play in the Protestant Churches, or that clericalism might actually be tempered by opening up the priesthood to more candidates.

Because - and, seriously, how many times must we go over this? - the Pope is, indeed, a Catholic, just as bears don't have indoor plumbing, and there's no evidence that he ever intends to be anything else.

The Roman Catholic Church is a conservative, patriarchal organisation which - surprise, surprise - is headed by a conservative patriarch. Anyone who hasn't grasped that fact yet can't have been paying attention.

Belfast Telegraph

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