A series of essays in the semiofficial Vatican newspaper is urging the Catholic Church to allow women to preach from the pulpit at Mass, a role that has been reserved almost exclusively for the all-male priesthood for nearly 800 years.
“This topic is a delicate one, but I believe it is urgent that we address it,” Enzo Bianchi, leader of an ecumenical religious community in northern Italy and a popular Catholic commentator, wrote in his article in L’Osservatore Romano.
“Certainly for faithful lay people in general, but above all for women, this would constitute a fundamental change in their participation in church life,” said Bianchi, who called such a move a “decisive path” for responding to widespread calls — including by Pope Francis — to find ways to give women a greater role in the church.
Nuns also contributed articles in the March 1 special section that is part of a new L’Osservatore Romano series on women called “Women-Church-World.”
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In her column, Sister Catherine Aubin, a French Dominican who teaches theology at a pontifical university in Rome, noted that Jesus encouraged women to preach his message of salvation, and she said that throughout church history there have been many extraordinary women evangelists. Women today also lead retreats and in effect preach in other ways, she argued.
“Let us sincerely pose a question then,” Aubin writes. “Why can’t women also preach in front of everyone during the celebration of Mass?”
In the early 13th century, as part of the movement toward consolidating church power in the papacy and the clergy, Pope Gregory IX effectively barred lay people — men and women — from preaching, especially on theological or doctrinal matters that were considered the province of educated clerics.
While occasional exceptions were allowed, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that there were hints of a reconsideration of the ban, spurred by the growing calls for all lay people to assume greater roles and responsibilities in the church. In his article, Bianchi noted that in 1973 the Vatican gave German bishops permission to allow lay people, most of them women, to preach with special permission for an experimental eight-year period.
But the election in 1978 of St. John Paul II, a doctrinally conservative pope, launched a period of stricter bans.
So what will Pope Francis do?
The pontiff has repeatedly called for women to have a greater role in the church, but he has also reiterated the ban against ordaining women as priests and has warned against “clericalizing” women by trying to make them cardinals or to focus on promoting them to higher church offices.
Then again, that the Vatican’s own newspaper would dedicate so much space to the issue of women preachers is intriguing, said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
“I think it is a big signal,” he said.