With billion-year contracts and promises of eternal life, religions tend to operate on galactically scaled timelines. The Catholic Church in particular is often said to be an institution that thinks in centuries, not years. On Tuesday, Pope Francis issued a casual reminder of that perspective when he told a Swedish reporter that the church’s ban on women priests is likely to last … forever.
Francis was flying back to Rome after attending a ceremony in Sweden that launched a yearlong celebration of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. (1517 feels like yesterday, of course, but it’s still worth commemorating.) He made news there when he praised the Reformation’s effects on Catholicism. He also embraced Antje Jackelén, the first female head of the Lutheran Church of Sweden; last year, the Protestant leader had become the first female archbishop to be granted an official audience at the Vatican.
It was all peace, love, and harmony until the plane ride home. There, a journalist referred to Jackelén and asked whether the Catholic church might have female priests within the next several decades. It wasn’t an unreasonable question. This spring, Francis told an audience of leaders of women’s religious orders that he wanted to “increase the number of women in decision-making positions in the church.” And in August, he established a committee to examine whether women could serve as deacons, an ordained position similar to priests but with a more limited role within the church. That suggests the pope is at least open to cracking open the door to female clergy. Optimists wondered if female priests could be next.
Francis’s brief interview Tuesday threw a cold splash of holy water on that possibility. “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear,” Francis answered the journalist. “It was given by St. John Paul II and this remains,” he continued, referring to a 1994 formal letter written by Pope John Paul II that concluded “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”
“But really forever?” the journalist pressed. “Never?”
“If we read carefully the declaration made by St. John Paul II, it goes in that direction,” the pope replied.
Is it wishful thinking to detect a hint of wistfulness in that translated-from-the-Italian reply? Francis doesn’t say what he would like the church to look like. He just says that a co-ed priesthood doesn’t seem possible within existing church rules. He has previously said that it’s not that women don’t have the capacity to be priests, simply that previous papal rulings prevent it. And this wouldn’t be the first time that the pope’s words on a controversial social issue said one thing, while his tone said another. In 2013, he told another reporter on another flight that “the door is closed” when it comes to female priests, again citing John Paul II. That was the same interview in which he famously asked “Who am I to judge?” on the matter of gay priests. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t seem likely that this pope will drastically change the church’s long-held rules on either sexuality or female priests. But a lot can happen in a few centuries.