Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia and feminism: Is the Pope pro-women?

Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism, debated in the Guardian yesterday whether or not Pope Francis can be deemed a feminist. She said it's complicated.

And she's right.


In Amoris Laetitia, the Pope's latest apostolic exhortation, Francis discusses the richness possible in marriage and family life. Bates describes it as an "unexpectedly nuanced discussion of issues like gender stereotypes, domestic abuse and other forms of violence against woman".

Despite this, her conclusion is that while the Pope "might... have a positive impact by updating ideas about gender stereotypes and roles", he is not a feminist.


She says: "while he continues to preside over an institution that restricts women and prevents equality in so many ways" it is impossible to label him a feminist, at least – "by her definition".

Feminism is a broad church. There is no one creed to sign up to that defines you unequivocally as a feminist. This means that one person's feminism might lie outside of another's remit.

Bates is writing from a secular feminist perspective and the Pope is – obviously – Catholic. That means his feminism, if he has one, will be deeply rooted in his faith.

Fundamental to most secular feminism is the bodily autonomy of a woman, and subsequently being pro-choice. For many secular feminists, "if you are not pro-choice you can't be feminist. That becomes the litmus test," Natalie Collins, a gender specialist, told Christian Today.

This is in conflict with the Catholic Church's equally fundamental belief in the sanctity of life and that abortion goes against it. "That is one of the massive barriers for secular feminists embracing feminists of faith," Collins said.

"That body autonomy is massively important for feminists will always be counter to mainstream Christian views and there is likely to always be a tension.

"It's about conflicting value systems – Christians believe God created human beings as relational beings and secular feminists do not."

It's unsurprising that secular and Christian world views lead to conflict here, and understandable that Bates does not consider the Pope a feminist by her definition. However, as she concedes, in Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis takes significant ground for the treatment of women within the Catholic Church.

"So much of what he's said is really, really exciting," said Collins.

"He is prioritising women's safety over the sanctity of marriage, acknowledging the patriarchal context in which the Bible was written and bringing attention to domestic violence."

Bates also recognises the Pope's defence of female emancipation, that he fights gender stereotypes and talks of reciprocity within the family.

According to Francis, we must see "in the women's movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women."

From a faith-feminist position, "this is a big positive step," said Collins.

"I see it as a prophetic move of the Holy Spirit that the Pope is choosing to say this stuff."

However, there are some Catholic women who, while recognising that the Pope "is definitely a man that believes in justice", believe he has not gone far enough when it comes to women's rights, Pat Brown, administrator for Catholics Women Ordination, told Christian Today.

Amoris Laetitia "is really good, and definitely a step in the right direction", Brown said. However, "he [the Pope] has to go gently, gently as conservatives in the Church make his life very difficult."

"Many of us do believe that this Pope is a real breath of fresh air and a source of change. His hands have been tied on many women's issues, but he is gradually untying them," she added.

The reality is that Pope Francis has written Amoris Laetitia in a particular context; one in which abortion and female ordination are off limits, and his statements undoubtedly represent a significant step in favour of women, whatever one's stance on those issues.

"If feminism is fundamentally about the liberation of women, then the Pope's words aid to that cause," said Collins.

Of course, we must wait to see whether these words in Amoris Laeticia grow fruit and make a real difference to attitudes on the ground. Perhaps the question we should really be asking is not whether the Pope is a feminist by any one person's definition, but rather whether his teachings will benefit women? It seems that there's real hope they absolutely will.