Pope Francis the Feminist?

For a candidate who is often criticized for dodging controversial topics, Hillary Clinton gave a clear verdict on a thorny topic this week: “of course you can be a feminist and be pro-life,” she said on ABC’s The View on Monday.

The statement might have sent chills up the back of Hillary’s supporters at Emily’s List and NARAL, but such a full-throated defense of the pro-life feminist tradition was welcomed by many.

If Hillary Clinton thinks pro-lifers can be feminists, one has to wonder if the Democratic frontrunner would be willing to say the same about the Pope Francis, the dynamic Argentinian leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

It’s hard to argue otherwise after Pope Francis’ latest groundbreaking document, Amoris Laetitia (Latin for Joy of Love) was released yesterday. In the roughly 260-page exhortation, Francis called on the Church take up a new way of relating to modern men and women, particularly in regards to family life, love, and human sexuality.

The headlines zeroed in on the pope’s statements regarding divorced and remarried couples and his latest commentary regarding the LGBT community. Below the radar, however, were Francis’ words on the progress of women’s rights:

Even though significant advances have been made in the recognition of women’s rights and their participation in public life, in some countries much remains to be done to promote these rights. Unacceptable customs still need to be eliminated.

However, even bolder were Francis’ strong condemnations of those who blame today’s societal woes on the women’s liberation movement:

There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid, “it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism.” The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity. If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.

Ironically, some of the strongest criticisms of the feminist movement have come from Catholic leaders. As theologian Megan McCabe notes:

Catholic teaching on gender upholds gender complementarity, which maintains that men and women have distinct roles, even characteristics, grounded in their biological sex. For example, St. John Paul II’s “Mulieris Dignitatem” framed femininity as linked to motherhood, which is necessarily compassionate and nurturing, regardless of whether or not an individual woman is actually a mother. One consequence has been that mainstream feminism has often been viewed as suspect in Catholic circles because it seeks to modify gendered roles in families and is seen at the popular level to be synonymous with sexual liberation. While Pope Francis does not reject complementarity, he begins to move this conversation in a new direction.

While Francis rejects that idea that gender is the result of social construction alone, he doesn’t mince his words against gender stereotypes and their limiting nature, writing, “masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories.”

He continues:

It is possible, for example, that a husband’s way of being masculine can be flexibly adapted to the wife’s work schedule. Taking on domestic chores or some aspects of raising children does not make him any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame. Children have to be helped to accept as normal such healthy “exchanges” which do not diminish the dignity of the father figure. A rigid approach turns into an overaccentuation of the masculine or feminine, and does not help children and young people to appreciate the genuine reciprocity incarnate in the real conditions of matrimony. Such rigidity, in turn, can hinder the development of an individual’s abilities, to the point of leading him or her to think, for example, that it is not really masculine to cultivate art or dance, or not very feminine to exercise leadership. This, thank God, has changed, but in some places deficient notions still condition the legitimate freedom and hamper the authentic development.

It’s hard to overstate what a monumental shift this is for the Catholic Church on issues on sex and gender identity. This is altogether different in kind from what Church leaders were teaching just a few years ago.

But this too is a remarkable shift for Pope Francis. Though he’s considered a pioneer on many issues regarding faith and morality, Francis has faced harsh criticism for some of his clumsy statements on women.

As journalist David Gibson noted in December 2014, “When he speaks about women, Francis can sound a lot like the (almost) 78-year-old Argentine churchman that he is, using analogies that sound alternately condescending and impolitic, even if well-intentioned.” One of his worst moments was earlier that month, when he tried to compliment leading female theologians by calling them “strawberries on the cake.”

Francis has said the Church must enter a period of discernment regarding how it relates to issues of family life, love, and sex. Clearly Francis has learned a lot in his discernment.

Thank God for that.