Newly inaugurated Pope Francis has already demonstrated a willingness to break from precedent as pontiff, but Catholic women question whether that openness will apply to them, too.
Nuns and other Catholic women are playing increasingly significant roles in the church, running its hospitals, schools and parishes. But many of them bristle at a patriarchal system increasingly out of sync with society.
“The women's issue is a big one because they feel that they are made invisible by the church,” Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and co-founder of Global Peace Initiative for Women, told Maria Shriver on TODAY Tuesday.
“I really want those questions of ordination, participation, of inclusiveness — I want them to be very high on the church agenda. We can't wait any longer. I'm afraid the waiting time is pretty much over,” she said. “Do something that heals the church.”
The pope already has a lot on his plate. In addition to dealing with what role women should play, he has to tackle the issues of divorce, gay parishioners and numerous scandals, including past sexual abuse by priests.
Many hope that the new pope has the courage to reform the church in a way that embraces women and others who have felt marginalized. Otherwise, they warn, the church risks losing their parishioners to other faiths.
“I have a staff of mostly Catholics. Only two actually practice, a number of them have gone to some of the Christian churches,” said Sister Jennifer Gaeta, a nun who works with the poor in Los Angeles. “The Christian churches meet their social needs, their real needs. And I think the Catholic Church has become too much about maintaining the structure.”
But Judith Zoebelein, one of the highest ranking women at the Vatican, said critics need to worry less about defined roles.
“Why should I have to take on a man's role in order to be a good woman?” she said.
Zoebelien, researcher of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, dismissed the idea that a glass ceiling exists within the Catholic Church when it comes to women.
“I don't see a ceiling. I see trying to become more and more who I am as a woman. As a religious person dedicated to the church in that way, I don’t see that there’s a ceiling on that,” she said.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, told TODAY he believes Pope Francis hinted in the homily he gave Tuesday of a new direction he will take when it comes to the role of women. Dolan pointed out that the pope spoke often of “tender love” in his sermon.
“This tender love has to go to creations, God’s creatures and especially those who are most fragile. Women are pros when it comes to tender love,” he said. “Will they have a more accented role in his papacy? I wouldn’t doubt it.”