'Don't turn the Pope into a global teddy bear'

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'Don't turn the Pope into a global teddy bear'
Sweden's Queen Silvia and Princess Leonore visiting Pope Francis in the Vatican last year. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

It's time to hold the Pope to account and make sure he turns his beautiful words about reform into action, argues Helena Myrstener, a minister of the Swedish Church.


The Pope is coming to Sweden. The tickets for his performance at Malmö Arena were immediately sold out. His popularity is enormous and he has achieved a kind of rock star status. For a man who sees himself as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, Francis ought to be held to closer examination before people turn him into a global teddy bear. For example, what the Pope does or does not do has a critical impact on women around the world.

Just like other rock stars, the Pope's attitude to women is rather so-so. The women are the “strawberries on the cake”, Francis said when he appointed a few women to the International Theological Commission in the strongly male-dominated Vatican.

The Pope often speaks of social and economic liberation. He wants the Catholic Church to be a church for and of the poor. But it does not seem to apply to women. Francis' continuously tough stance on contraception and abortion means that women around the world remain in poverty when they are forced to go through pregnancy and early births.

The Pope remains stuck in the classic Catholic patriarchal theology. Nobody believes, for example, that he will ever make priesthood available to women. He and the Catholic Church have not released their grip on the theology that insists that women and men have different roles. The men should lead and decide. The woman is at her best at home. Women should, according to the traditional interpretation of Jesus' mother Mary, submit and obey, be quiet and receptive.

In material issued this summer by the Pontifical Council for the Family, targeting young people, women are described as follows: “inscribed in the woman's body is the call to welcome both man and baby”. The sexist view of women shines through and the woman is reduced to an instrumental tool.

Believers have a special responsibility to fight intolerance and repressive traditions in their religion. The Christian content should not be distorted by people's need for power, hierarchies and control over others.

If we who are believers do not ourselves fight intolerance and repressive traditions it makes it harder for us to criticize those who argue that religion can never be a force for good, a resource in society. Even the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, which the Swedish Church belongs to, needs to deal with its own patriarchal traditions and beliefs.

In an increasingly racist Europe, Muslims and the Arab world are often equated to militant Islam oppressing women. Honour-based oppression should be fought in all its shapes and forms, and those of us who are Christian Westerners have a special responsibility to also face our own patriarchal heritage in Christianity, which is so often painted as a core of Western society. Sexist crime and sin apply to Christians too.

Pope Francis is a world leader and as such he should be judged by what he actually does. More walk, less talk – quite simply. Beautiful words are one thing. Real and deep will to reform is another. If he wants his various statements to actually accomplish something, he needs to show that and not let women end up at the bottom of the order of priorities. Let us stop mollycoddling the Pope.

Helena Myrstener is a minister of Limhamn Church, which is part of the Swedish Church. This is a translation of an opinion piece first published in Swedish by Sydsvenskan ahead of Pope Francis' visit to Sweden on October 31st-November 1st.


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