Pope Francis’ Change to Church Law is a Step Forward but Not Enough
January 18, 2021
On January 10, 2021, Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Letter, “Spiritus Domini,” which changes Catholic Church law regarding the roles of acolytes (altar servers and eucharistic ministers) and lectors (readers) at mass to include girls and women. Though girls and women have been acolytes and lectors for decades in most Catholic churches around the world, permission had to be granted by the local priest or bishop, and in some jurisdictions, was denied. Canon Law 230, Section 1 now states that “lay persons” will be permitted to fulfill these roles and be formally received into these ministries.
Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) – Canada, has been working for justice and equality for women in the Catholic Church for 40 years and we welcome this change in church law as a step forward on the church’s journey toward the radical equality exemplified in the Gospel. We also welcome Pope Francis’ reiteration that Church law must evolve and develop to faithfully respond to the needs of the times.
We are encouraged that Pope Francis emphasizes in “Spiritus Domini” that the sacrament of baptism is foundational to ministry. In his added rationale however, he repeats the claim of Pope John Paul II that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” This begs the question: If women’s baptismal call to non-ordained ministry has been made valid in the law of the Catholic Church, why is the baptismal call of qualified women to ordained ministry invalid? To fully embody belief in the equal dignity of all people before God, the church must welcome women and all baptized Catholics to live out their call to ministry, leadership and decision-making roles for which they are competent.
We are also encouraged that Pope Francis has been listening to the concerns of the world’s bishops in recent synods and issued this letter motu proprio (meaning by his own initiative). He is demonstrating that church law can be responsive to the “signs of the times.” Yet, it is frustrating that women, who make up more than half the membership of the Catholic Church, and lay people in general, have little to no voice in synods, and have no voting rights at synods or papal conclaves. Filtering most decision-making and discernment in the Church through male clergy not only prevents justice and equality in the church, it also robs women and all lay Catholics from being able to be more deeply ‘formed in faith’ by serving the church in these capacities.
CNWE, together with Catholic reform movements around the world actively hopes for the day when the hierarchy is no longer blinded by historic and systemic sexism and can work alongside us in moving from partial to full equality for Catholic women. We will continue to advocate for a renewed, inclusive, accountable and relevant Catholic church – a church for our times.