As on-the-ball Tweets go, my spirits soared when I read this one. “If we want to weave humanity into the web of our day,” it opined, “we must begin again with women.”
What was particularly gratifying about this Tweet was that its author is an influential world leader. Tick! We need people like him, who understand the pivotal role of women in the world – how far they have come, but also how far they still need to go if the entire planet is to gain from all they can offer. So hurrah for a bit of common sense. And what is this world leader going to do next to make that all-important difference?
Ah well, there’s the rub. Because this is a world leader who has a bit of a knack, when it comes to women, for saying the right things and then following it up with … absolutely no action at all. Precisely nothing. Nada. He’s been in office for almost seven years, and from the start there were hopes that he’d be The One to make a difference. Every so often, there are signs of a stir. A ground-breaking commission here, a rousing speech there. A meeting with a group of prominent women. Briefings that suggests patience is what’s required, because this pontiff has it all under control.
Well, here’s the thing, Pope Francis. I’m nothing if not patient – I’ve been a card-carrying Catholic feminist for more than 30 years. And I’m nothing if not optimistic – honestly, my friends of other faiths and none guffaw into their Seedlips when I tell them I’m still holding a candle to the possibility of reform. I’ve spent enough time writing about the Vatican to realise there’s no way on God’s earth that any incoming pontiff would ever put women’s isues at the top of his in-tray. First, because he’s a man, and second, because he’s invariably a man on the far side of 50. Popes have no wives, daughters, daughters-in-law or granddaughters. Their intimate relationships with women date from their childhood, and that was more than half-a-century ago.
And there’s more. The in-tray marked “women” has to jostle with other burgeoning inboxes, and for Francis these have been particularly overloaded. It’s easy to see why files marked “child abuse crisis”, “Vatican scandals”, “financial crisis”, “priest shortage” and “congregation shortage” might seem to overshadow the women one, although I think I’ve said before in this column how short-sighted this view is, given that solving the “women” issue might help the Bishop of Rome solve a lot of his other problems, too.
But let’s leave that to one side. I’ve been patient. I’ve even got the patience to understand why the 83-year-old pope, after he patiently and good-humouredly greeted a long line of well-wishers on his way to the Nativity scene in St Peter’s Square, crossly slapped the hand of a woman who’d been patiently waiting to tell him something. She didn’t mean to hurt him but her yank on his arm made his patience snap. Even he lacks patience sometimes, he told pilgrims in St Peter’s a few days later – it was vintage, penitent Bergoglio; if it had been a take in The Two Popes it would have been a shoo-in for the final cut.
But my patience, too, is close to snapping. The clock is now at five to midnight. First, Francis isn’t getting any younger – and since no incoming pontiff, as I say, will ever in a million years address the women issue at the outset of his time in office, our hopes can only be pinned on popes who’ve been round the block a bit. Happily, in Francis, we have a pope who, as I also say, has made all the right noises (women have “legitimate claims … to seek more equality in the Church”; their role “must not be limited to being mothers”; they “are more important than bishops and priests”; I could go on). And finally, Francis has been keen to move the Roman goalposts to what he calls a synodal model; and the synods on young people and the Amazon both ended with an exhortation that women a) need to be listened to, and b) should be given more leadership roles.
In truth, we all know it makes sense. Francis knows it makes sense. Probably even the most medieval of the mannequins buried in the Vatican Curial offices know it makes sense. Every single churchgoer, who lives in the real world, knows it makes sense. We all know we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
So here’s what we need. A new synod. A synod that, instead of ending with women, starts with them. And focuses on them. A synod that ends with not just the right sort of words but with a proper commitment to make change, inside the Church, centre-stage. It’s not complicated. It’s not even controversial. And it’s definitely time.