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Women see hope for new pope

Pope Francis salutes as he arrives ChiesDel Gesu' Rome July 31 2013.| Getty Images

Pope Francis salutes as he arrives at the Chiesa Del Gesu' in Rome on July 31, 2013.| Getty Images

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Updated: September 5, 2013 6:49AM

My friends, the nuns, have an eagle eye on the new pope. There is cautious optimism in their voices. But they are nobody’s fools. They need to know more.

But for the moment, Francis has done and said some critically important things for them and for many of the people in the pews — Catholics who love the church but not necessarily its insular male hierarchy.

First of all, Francis lives like a nun. No gilded apartment. No Prada shoes. No fancy travel. (Are you paying attention, Cardinal Bernard Law? Maybe booking a ticket in coach on your next trip?)

Second, the pope has put his emphasis on the poor and disenfranchised, something the previous regime chastised American nuns for spending too much time doing rather than devoting themselves, in accord with the bishops’ own obsessions, to abortion and birth control.

And third, in a truly remarkable, freewheeling news conference with a planeload of reporters this past week, Francis spoke his mind on a wide variety of lightning-rod topics including gays. Another subject that the recent Vatican inquisition of American nuns excoriated the sisters for caring too much about.

Social justice has been a guiding principle of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, the umbrella organization that represents 80 percent of religious sisters in the United States.

Social justice is a guiding principle of Francis as well. Orthodoxy — and the willingness to shrink the Church if it means those who stick around sit straighter in their chairs — does not appear to dominate his thinking.

Inclusion and justice do.

Yet not when it comes to ordination.

Citing the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Francis on the one hand told reporters that Christ’s mother was more important than the apostles, the first priests of the church. And yet he invoked John Paul II’s closing of the door that would have allowed Mary and other women to walk through.

Too important to be ordained?

As Sister Theresa Kane, a Mercy nun and a former head of LCWR, told the National Catholic Reporter, “They continue to say Mary was so important but we pedestalize her.” In doing so, argues Sister Kane, the church never looks women directly in the eye, never sees them as equals.

If, as Francis argues, the “church herself is feminine, the spouse of Christ and a mother,” why is its leadership left solely to men?

Let’s agree with this pope that the church, to date, lacks a “truly deep theology of women,” but who will develop that theology? Without women as co-equals, where is the justice?

But it’s early.

Pope Francis is a work in progress. Warm yet shrewd.

It was heartening that while at the beginning of his trip to South America he told reporters that he didn’t do interviews, on the return to Rome he stood for 81 minutes and did exactly that. Against the advice of his advisers.

There is hope for this pope.

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