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Pope Francis to nuns: Don’t be old maids

St. Peter’s Square before the installation of Pope Francis. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

How do you say frickety frack in Latin, anyway?

The Associated Press reports that in an audience Wednesday, “Pope Francis has told nuns from around the world that they must be spiritual mothers and not ‘old maids.'”

I am at a loss to see how this could be other than insulting to women who’ve already given up having families of their own to serve God. And the pontiff compounds this impression by going on to warn the sisters against “using their vocations for personal ambition.”

Yes, Francis is a communications natural, but in this case, he broke the, um, cardinal rule: Know your audience.

The pope was addressing women religious from 75 countries attending International Union of Superiors General. And to review, these women truly do the Lord’s work. (See Matthew 25: 31-46.)

There have been some positive signs out of this new pontificate on the role of women: Symbolically, it was a big deal when he washed the feet of young women inmates on Holy Thursday.

Recently, the National Catholic Reporter ran an extraordinary piece reporting that the Vatican decision last year to place the main representative group of American nuns under the control of bishops “was made without consultation or knowledge of the Vatican office that normally deals with matters of religious life” — according to the head of that very Vatican office.

Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious, said the decision had caused him “much pain.” But on Tuesday, the Vatican issued an official statement contradicting his remarks.

And now comes the Holy Father himself to follow up with words that, to say the least, lacked sensitivity.

They were, however, in keeping with earlier remarks by Francis on the role of women — in a talk soon after he was installed as pope, in which he noted that women have an important role in passing on the Catholic faith to their children.

Of course, that isn’t our only role, right? Right?

But even on that front, as someone who is trying her darnedest to pass on the faith, can I just say that we could use a hand from the church in convincing said offspring that the church is not as constricted as advertised in its view of women? Remarks like these are not particularly helpful.

Update: Vatican Radio translates slightly differently, and quotes Pope Francis as urging the sisters not to be “spinsters,” rather than “old maids,” though the meaning is similar.

Here’s the context:

In speaking to the sisters about chastity, he said, “Chastity for the Kingdom of Heaven shows how affection has its place in mature freedom and becomes a sign of the future world, to make God’s primacy shine forever. But, please, [make it] a ‘fertile’ chastity, which generates spiritual children in the Church.

The consecrated are mothers: they must be mothers and not ‘spinsters’!

Forgive me if I talk like this but this maternity of consecrated life, this fruitfulness is important! May this joy of spiritual fruitfulness animate your existence. Be mothers, like the images of the Mother Mary and the Mother Church. You cannot understand Mary without her motherhood; you cannot understand the Church without her motherhood, and you are icons of Mary and of the Church.”

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.



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