Are things looking up for women in the church?

A plethora of conferences about women have popped up all over Rome in the last three months. The Vatican's former hard-line freeze on discussing women's roles may at last be thawing out.

The Pontifical Council for Culture's controversial February event, "Women's Cultures: Equality and Difference," was the first to break the ice. A month later, Voices of Faith hosted a searingly honest discussion by female theologians and activists from inside Vatican walls.

Then, on April 14, the U.S. embassy to the Holy See sponsored an interreligious conference on "Women's Leadership in Conflict Resolution: Faith Perspectives." Cardinal Peter Turkson shared a private conversation he had with Pope Francis, who told him he saw no obstacles to a woman or married couples being appointed as the new secretary of justice and peace or as heads of the pontifical councils for the laity and for the family. (Turkson, however, was careful to remind attendees of the need to "de-couple" the question of women's roles from priestly ordination.)

Most recently, Rome's Pontifical University Antonianum and four embassies to the Holy See sponsored an April 28 conference on women in the church. Significantly, Catholic Health Association president Sr. Carol Keehan was an invited speaker.

Any time a staunch Affordable Care Act advocate like Keehan is invited to speak at a pontifical university in Rome, it's a good bet that U.S. nuns aren't the bad girls of the Bible anymore.

Her remarks, quoted by Vatican Radio, are worth repeating:

Sometimes you hear people say [women] can't be in that role because a woman wouldn't be respected, it has to be a priest, a bishop ... three Secretaries of State ago, we raised that question in the U.S., that the Secretary of State could never be a woman ... we've now had three successful women Secretaries of State and there's no countries refusing to talk to them. Just because it's always been, doesn't mean it always has to be.

Then there is Pope Francis himself. On April 16, he met in private audience with U.S. sister leaders just hours after a joint announcement that the shameful censure from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been lifted. The private meeting was a first and speaks, I believe, to Pope Francis' desire to heal considerable hurt inflicted by the gross miscarriage of justice that he inherited.  

A week ago, Pope Francis made headlines around the world when he called for equal pay for women, saying that continuing disparities are a "pure scandal." His reportedly impassioned address drew predictable criticism given church laws prohibiting the nonordained from making substantive decisions in church governance.

Aye, and there's the rub.

While I am encouraged that important conversations about women's roles are sprouting everywhere and agree there are many ways – short of ordination – to advance women, the simple fact is that women will never be equal in this church until we have equal opportunity to govern "in the power of the Spirit" as men do.

Right now, the church has contradictory teachings about women's roles. It teaches that women are equal but that they are forbidden to exercise that equality in church decision-making. If this crazy-making cognitive dissonance prevails, women will forever be deprived of full participation in church life and leadership, not to mention the selection of pastors, bishops and popes.

We have two possible ways out of this debacle. We ordain women, or we change canon law so that governance rests with baptism rather than with ordination.

I personally favor the latter option. The church will make better decisions if the great diversity of voices, lay and ordained, is brought to bear on decisions that affect all of us. Plus, clericalism is an equal-opportunity affliction, and feminist Catholics often caution against an "add women and stir" mentality that does nothing to change oppressive top-down structures.

That said, I also favor anything that provides women with greater leverage in decisions affecting them and their families. If ordination – beginning with women deacons – is the only practical option right now, then I'm for it.

Pope Francis is a reforming pope who has already brought sorely needed change, most notably in transparent management of Vatican finances and in his attempts to decentralize decision-making through his Council of Cardinals and the international Synod of Bishops.

Unfortunately, unless he makes lasting changes, the next pope could easily reverse course. Already, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller is making noises about the need for the doctrinal congregation to "theologically structure" the papacy.

And then there is the heated debate between Mueller and the president of the German bishops' conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx. Marx, who is known to be close to the pope, believes that local episcopal conferences bear responsibility for making culturally sensitive pastoral decisions. He told reporters in late February that the German bishops want to publish their own pastoral document on marriage and the family after the synod.

"We are not just a subsidiary of Rome," Marx said. "Each episcopal conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their culture and has to proclaim the Gospel in its own unique way. We cannot wait until a synod states something, as we have to carry out marriage and family ministry here."

This view was roundly criticized by – guess who – Mueller, who called it an "anti-Catholic idea" and made this rather insulting comment: "The president of an episcopal conference is nothing more than a technical moderator, and he does not have any particular magisterial authority due to this title." (Did I mention that Mueller also opposes women deacons? But that topic is for another time.)

These are the poles of the current debate about how decisions should be made in the church.

At one end, we find Mueller (and a vocal minority) who want to keep doing what we have always done (and, by the way, let's make sure the doctrinal congregation runs the papacy). At the other end, we find Marx (and many others) who believe that church practice can change and develop over time.

And where does the pope stand? Contrary to Mueller's position, Pope Francis lands firmly on the side of decentralization. Here is what he writes in Evangelii Gaudium:

The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, Episcopal conferences are in a position "to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit". Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of Episcopal Conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach (32).

All of which is to say: The debates at October's synod on the family – and what Pope Francis and the world's bishops' conferences decide to do afterward – could have significant bearing on future governance in the Catholic church.

Are things looking up for women in the church?

Maybe, just maybe, they are.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

Read the latest from our new monthly feature, "The Life." Get email alerts so you never miss it!