Vatican City (RNS) — Speaking to members of the International Theological Commission at the Vatican on Thursday (Nov. 30), Pope Francis asked theologians to “demasculinize” the church in an unscripted remark.
“There is something I don’t like about you, if you excuse my honesty,” said Pope Francis, pointing out that there were only five women among the 30-plus theologians. “We need to move forward on this! Women have a way of reflecting on theology that is different from us men,” he added.
The International Theological Commission is part of the Roman Curia and advises the Vatican doctrinal department on theological issues. The pope appoints its members, and women have been allowed to become members since 2004.
The pope said he studied the Italian theologian Romano Guardini through the work of a woman, Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, who impacted his understanding of women in theology. Francis also noted that at the next meeting with the Council of Cardinals, a body that advises him on church matters, they “will reflect on the role of women in the church.”
The general secretary of the commission, Monsignor Piero Coda, said Francis’ words were “an additional encouragement for something that is very dear to the pope but is also at the heart of the journey that the church is undergoing though the synodal process.”
Bishops and laypeople, including an unprecedented number of women, took part in October’s Synod on Synodality at the Vatican which in its final report demanded a theological reflection on the role of women in the church, as well as the possibility of allowing women to become deacons.
Catholic deacons preach at Mass and perform marriages and baptisms but do not celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions. Those who oppose allowing female deacons claim it would represent a first step toward opening the priesthood to women.
The pope’s words on Thursday underlined “the need to increase the space given to women in positions of authority and decision-making in the Christian community, in order to treasure the sensibility and intelligence that is typical of the feminine genius and experience,” Coda told Religion News Service.
Women have always been important in the church, the theologian said, but “it’s time for this to become part of the culture” to address modern challenges and the “male-dominated view that still exists in the church and in society.”
The small number of female theologians in the church is related to the roles women are offered in the church today, Coda said. “It’s true that women and laypeople are still underrepresented in theology, because theology remains too centered on the formation of presbyters,” or priests, he explained.
“The church is woman,” Francis told the theologians, “and if we cannot understand what a woman is, what is the theology of women, we will never understand the church. One of the great sins we have witnessed is ‘masculinizing’ the church.”
The pope charged those present with the task of reflecting on the role of women in the institution. “This is the job I ask of you, please: Demasculinize the church,” he said.
Francis was not able to read his pre-written speech aloud due to an inflammation of the lungs that has hindered his ability to speak and forced him to cancel a papal visit to Dubai for the COP28 environmental summit. After his off-the-cuff remarks, he told those present that he “spoke too much and it hurt me.”
Coda said he was struck by “the spiritual energy and limitless devotion to the church” that the pope showed during the meeting despite his “fragility.”
Francis urged theologians to be proponents of an “evangelizing theology.”
“It’s essential for you theologians to do this in sync with the People of God, from ‘below,’ with a preferential eye toward the poor and the simple, and at the same time ‘on your knees,’ because theology is born kneeling in adoration to God,” Francis said.
Coda said these qualities have always characterized Catholic theological tradition. “The great theologians weren’t people who were locked in ivory towers, they were immersed in the life of the people of God,” he said.
On Nov. 8, Francis issued a decree reforming the Pontifical Theological Academy, charged with forming theologians, asking it to embark on “a paradigm shift, a brave cultural revolution,” to promote synodality in the church.