By Lianne Kolirin
Pope Francis has announced that women will play more of a role in the mass, but has fallen short of allowing the ordination of female priests.
He has amended the law to formalise and institutionalise women’s participation by reading from the Gospel and serving on the altar as eucharistic ministers in liturgical celebrations. Both roles were previously reserved for men, though many Catholic women around the world have already been participating in this way.
Emphasising that all Catholics have a role to play in the church’s mission, the Pope said he made the change to recognise the “precious contribution” of women. In the decree, called Spiritus Domini (the Spirit of the Lord), Francis said he had taken his decision after theological reflection.
Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion, who is also director of Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, told the Religion Media Centre: “This change in canon law simply sets in stone something that has been a completely normal aspect of parish liturgical life for decades.
“The change of wording, in the underlying (authoritative) Latin, from Viri laici (lay men) to laici (lay people), is chiefly notable for flagging up the fact that the prescription has been widely flouted for so long.”
Pope Francis has come under increased pressure to allow women to become deacons which would see them presiding at weddings, baptisms and funerals. The ministry is restricted to men, even though historians say women performed some of these roles in the early church.
He has created a second commission of experts to study whether women could be deacons, after a first one failed to reach a consensus. Supporters of such a move say it would address the shortage of priests in some regions, while also giving women a greater say in the ministry and governance of the church.
Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent of The Tablet, told the RMC that today’s move “may seem like a small step, but symbolically it is very significant”.
He added: “Francis’s ruling is the first in modern times to allow women to legally serve at the altar and is the first official recognition by Rome of female ministry for centuries.
“This ruling is likely to have a big impact in places like the Amazon where women are already leading Catholic communities. In this part of the world, Catholic women are on the front line defending indigenous people and tackling the corporate interests damaging the environment. This change gives them visibility and confers on them some authority.”
The change in the Code of Canon Law will make it impossible for conservative bishops to block women in their diocese from having those roles.
Mr Lamb said: “Francis’s change is also likely to provoke a backlash from traditionalists in the church who oppose female altar-servers. It should be remembered that the Pope has had to navigate non-stop guerilla warfare from powerful figures inside the church who are deeply opposed to his pontificate. This means that reform is a complex process. Nevertheless, Francis has overwhelming support from the vast majority of ordinary Catholics, whom he wants to see play a more central role in building the church’s future.”
Catherine Pepinster, the Catholic commentator and former editor of The Tablet, also recognises the significance of this limited advance.
She said: “To Catholic women in this country who already read at mass and serve as eucharistic ministers, and to girls who act as altar servers, this endorsement of their role may come as a surprise. But Pope Francis’s action matters, because until now bishops could block women in these roles in their own dioceses and now they won’t be able to do so.
“It’s a recognition that they should play a part in the worship of the church, on the altar, in the most sacred places. It’s a small step forward but an important one, but no way near women having priestly roles in the church.”
Professor Tina Beattie, director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Catholic Studies at Roehampton University, said: “This change gives formal recognition to roles which are already performed by women during mass. However, it is welcome for several reasons. First, there are many examples of women being forbidden from serving in these roles because of opposition by conservative bishops and priests. The official authorisation of lay people, including women, to act as acolytes and lectors frees women from subjugation to these clerical whims.
“Second, in using the language of doctrinal development and in changing canon law, the Pope is effecting a more significant change than can be achieved by appointing women to senior positions in the Vatican administration, for this is a question of sacramental recognition and liturgical visibility.
“It also shows how easy it is for the Pope to change canon law to remove prohibitions against women. Many have argued that a similar change would allow women to become cardinals.”
Welcoming the change, she said: “At a time when the human family is encountering so many challenges and struggles, I may be clutching at straws but I want to work with the Pope to promote his vision of solidarity, justice and environmental sustainability in a post-Covid world.
“The more he recognises and welcomes the participation of women, the easier it becomes to promote his vision without feeling that women will always be the silent and silenced ‘others’ in relation to male authority and leadership.”
Others, however, felt the move fell far short of significant change.
Mary Ring, of the Catholic Women’s Ordination (CWO), said: “We regret that Pope Francis is still tinkering around the edges of the church’s teaching on women’s roles in the Catholic church, when millions yearn for him to fully promulgate equal dignity, governance and ministry for women and men.
“Spiritus Domini represents a tiny step forward in that it removes any power from bishops to be able to block women from reading, altar-serving or giving out communion. However, these things have effectively been established for many years now in many church jurisdictions.
“CWO believes that unless and until the church understands that women are capable of the self-same service and ministry towards their fellow creatures as men, and that women and men are equally called by their baptism in Christ, no real change can take place.”
Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion, who is also director of Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham
Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent of The Tablet,
Catherine Pepinster, the Catholic commentator and former editor of The Tablet,
Mary Ring, of the Catholic Women’s Ordination