Pope Francis reaffirmed Catholic teaching on male priesthood in his first apostolic exhortation, while calling for a broader application of the “feminine genius” in Church life.
“The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion,” he said, “but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.”
The Pope's words came in his new document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” released Nov. 26. Also known as “Evangelii Gaudium,” the apostolic exhortation follows the 2012 bishops' synod on the new evangelization, which was held as part of the Year of Faith.
“Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.”
However, this equal dignity cannot be equated with “sacramental power,” he said, quoting Bl. John Paul II’s words that priesthood falls “in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness.”
“The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all,” Pope Francis reflected. “The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others.”
Although the function of the priesthood is considered “hierarchical,” it is ordered not towards domination but towards serving the members of the Church, he explained, observing that the authority of the priesthood is rooted in service and has its origin in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Still, the role of women in the Church is important, the Pope said in his exhortation, noting that “a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops.”
“The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess,” the Holy Father said, pointing as an example to the “special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.”
The Pope recognized that women already “share pastoral responsibilities with priests” and contribute to theological reflection.
“But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church,” he said.
Pointing to Catholic teaching on the “feminine genius,” he explained that women must be free to bring their gifts and skills to the workplace and other areas of decision-making, including within the Church.
Pope Francis also reflected on the broader role of the laity in the Church, saying that they are “the vast majority of the People of God,” and ordained ministers are the minority who are “at their service.”
“There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church,” he said, and there are “many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith.”
Many others, however, still lack an understanding of their responsibility as laity, he continued. Sometimes this is due to inadequate formation, and other times to “an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making.”
While these challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable, the Pope stated.
“Challenges exist to be overcome!” he said. “Let us be realists, but without losing our joy, our boldness and our hope-filled commitment. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary vigour!”