Catholic women look for change under new pope

Could there be a female pope in the future like Pope Joan who allegedly reigned in the 9th century? akg-Images

Catholic women are playing an increasingly significant role in the Church. Although the importance of this role is not officially recognised, there are hopes that this could change under a new pope.

This content was published on March 12, 2013 - 11:00
Morven McLean in Lucerne,

Fifty years after the Vatican Council promised fundamental reform, equality for women in the Church has still to be realised. But things have not stood completely still – at least in the Swiss Catholic Church where women have seized the initiative, filling vital positions in parishes and making up for the shortage of priests.

Indeed, a gathering of reform-minded Catholics on March 3 heard that without the contribution made by women, the Church in Switzerland would no longer function.

The “Christian Spring” event in Lucerne considered the winds of change currently blowing through the Church and the prospect that a new pontiff could bring fresh air into the establishment.

Women theologians are well represented in Swiss universities. Under the authority of a priest, they lead congregations, conduct funerals and baptise.

Along with male priests, female parish leaders frequently bend and break the rules from Rome and welcome remarried divorced people to communion services. For congregation leader Monika Schmid, and hundreds of others who have signed the Swiss Parish Initiative set up last year calling for far-reaching reforms, to do so is to follow the teaching of Jesus.

At the Lucerne event bishops were urged to take a message to the Vatican – and Pope Benedict’s successor – that it is time to bring Church rules into line with current practice.

“One expectation of the new pope would be that he could bring the spirit of the Second Vatican Council into today’s Church,” said Schmid, who leads a congregation in canton Zurich.

“The pope needs to reconsider laws which don’t come from the Gospel, such as that only unmarried men can be priests, and ask what are the basics of our faith that we want to retain and where can we open up and be that community that we should be.”

The Christian Spring

The event in Lucerne on March 3 took as its motto a saying by Pope John XXIII:  “We are not here on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life."

It was organised by two Swiss Catholic magazines, “Auftrag” and “Ferment”, in association with the Catholic Church of the city of Lucerne, to mark the Year of Faith declared for 2013 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Remo Wiegand, the editor of “Auftrag”, said the idea was to bring together different forces in the Church, which want to see it move with the times and be more open to reform. “In spring things come to the surface that for a long time were not visible. We have the impression that signs of spring are emerging in the Church.” 

“Something is changing in the hierarchy. There are bishops who clearly believe that the Church cannot go on in this way and that change has to come sooner of later. They realise they have to listen to the people and their concerns, and those are not the same as those of Rome,” Wiegand added.

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Sexuality and celibacy

Old Testament scholar and feminist theologian Helen Schüngel-Straumann sees the Church’s position on sexuality as key to the issues of women’s ordination and celibacy for priests. The Church’s “negative attitude” towards sex is not shared by the Jewish faith, she says, although they have the same Bible. There is a need to turn back to the word of God, she says.

“We need to restore a proper sense of proportion. Celibacy should not be made as important as it is, and in any case, a lot of priests don’t stick to it,” Schüngel-Straumann told

In terms of the papal succession, she hopes the new pontiff  will be open to the idea of change like Pope John XXIII who initiated the Second Vatican Council. “Benedict was very stubborn with regard to women. He is completely convinced that the masculinity of Jesus is so important that women cannot be allowed to become priests or even deacons,” she said.

Angela Büchel-Sladkovic, a speaker at the Christian Spring event, told many women had no expectations at all of the new pontiff as they had been waiting in vain for change for 40 years.

“Personally I hope we won’t just see a continuation of the last papacy,” she said. “I’m a bit afraid we’ll get a Benedict XVII, but I’m hoping for a Pope John XXIV.”

What the bishops say

Reform-minded bishop of Basel, Felix Gmür, said in a recent interview with the newspaper Blick he hoped the new pope would foster a culture of dialogue and initiate an urgent reform of the Vatican administration.

Gmür said the ordination of women was “not unthinkable” but that it could lead to divisions. He said there should be discussion on allowing women to become deacons.

The bishop of Basel also said he could conceive of celibacy becoming optional for priests.

Markus Büchel, bishop of St Gallen and head of the Swiss Bishops Conference, has said in radio and television interviews he hoped the new pope would be “open to the new challenges of our time and our world”. The new pontiff needed to be prepared to listen and to discuss the issues affecting the Church in different parts of the world. The new pope should show an understanding of people today and of the movement for change among the grassroots.

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Women’s ordination

Büchel-Sladkovic of the Swiss Catholic Women’s Association said she was convinced the priesthood of women would come sooner or later as there was no theological argument against it. Other women present at the Lucerne event believed or hoped that women would first be allowed to become deacons – the step below priesthood.

Co-leader of the Elisabethen Open Church in Basel, Monika Hungerbühler, believes the position of the new pope on the priesthood of women is critical. “Pope John Paul II said women’s ordination was not an issue that could be discussed, but that could change,” she said.

But parish leader Monika Schmid says she doesn’t want to become a priest until a radical reform of the “centralistic, hierarchical” Church structures has taken place. 

For theologian Schüngel-Straumann the centralism in the Church has never been as great as it is now. Before the age of mass communication the churches in different countries did what they believed was right for their circumstances.

“We are all grown up Christians and maybe shouldn’t look too much to Rome but just do what’s right,” she said. The churches in different continents and countries should be led by their own cardinals and archbishops and not let Rome decide everything, she argues.

This could mean women or married men being ordained as priests in Europe but not in other continents where there is less cultural acceptance of the idea.

World issues

Hungerbühler points out that while justice towards women is a very important issue, it is not the only one. “There are other important issues where Pope Benedict spoke out, for example, environmental protection, peace and xenophobia. I hope this speaking out will continue and maybe even be stepped up.”

Büchel-Sladkovic said she hoped the new pontiff would not be afraid of the world but would address the burning social and political issues including poverty.

While all recognise the need for change to be initiated in Rome there is no expectation that it will begin with the new pope.

“Being realistic and looking at the cardinals appointed in recent years it is perhaps more realistic to think that not much will change,” said congregation leader Schmid.

Schüngel-Straumann is similarly cautious, but having seen the wall come down in Berlin she knows how quickly and unexpectedly change can happen.

“Something like that could happen in the Church too if a pope came along who saw what needed to be done and did something about it,” she said.

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