Pope Francis meets with Little Sisters of the Poor on Sept. 23, 2015. (Courtesy of the Little Sisters of the Poor)

Pope Francis writes and speaks about the innate, divinely ordained differences between men and women. He’s clearly opposed to artificial contraception, to sex outside of marriage, to abortion.

Given all that, could he be a feminist?

The answer just might be a resounding yes. Just listen to Hillary Clinton.

Last week on ABC’s “The View,” Clinton said, “Of course you can be a feminist and be pro-life.”

If Clinton thinks pro-lifers can be feminists, one has to wonder if the Democratic front-runner would be willing to say the same about Pope Francis, the dynamic Argentinian leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

It’s hard to argue otherwise after Pope Francis’s latest groundbreaking document, “Amoris Laetitia,” was released last week. In the roughly 260-page apostolic exhortation, Francis called on the church take up a new way of relating to modern men and women, particularly in regard to family life, love and sexuality.

The headlines zeroed in on the pope’s statements regarding divorced and remarried couples and his latest commentary regarding gay marriage. Below the radar, however, were Francis’s words on the progress of women’s rights: “Even though significant advances have been made in the recognition of women’s rights and their participation in public life, in some countries much remains to be done to promote these rights. Unacceptable customs still need to be eliminated.”

Even bolder were Francis’s strong condemnations of those who blame societal woes on the women’s liberation movement: “There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid. … The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity.”

In the past, some of the strongest criticisms of the feminist movement have come from Catholic leaders. Theologian Megan McCabe wrote last week that Pope John Paul II said femininity was linked to motherhood, so all women, mothers or not, were necessarily compassionate and nurturing. “One consequence has been that mainstream feminism has often been viewed as suspect in Catholic circles because it seeks to modify gendered roles in families and is seen at the popular level to be synonymous with sexual liberation,” McCabe wrote.

Francis takes a different tack. While he maintains that there are meaningful differences between genders, he doesn’t mince words against the limits of gender stereotypes. “Masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories,” he writes. “It is possible, for example, that a husband’s way of being masculine can be flexibly adapted to the wife’s work schedule. Taking on domestic chores or some aspects of raising children does not make him any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame.”

Francis continues, “Such rigidity, in turn, can hinder the development of an individual’s abilities, to the point of leading him or her to think, for example, that it is not really masculine to cultivate art or dance, or not very feminine to exercise leadership. This, thank God, has changed, but in some places deficient notions still condition the legitimate freedom and hamper the authentic development.”

It’s hard to overstate what a monumental shift this is for the Catholic Church on issues on sex and gender identity. This is altogether different from what church leaders were teaching just a few years ago.

It is also a remarkable shift for Pope Francis. Though he is considered a pioneer on many issues, Francis has faced harsh criticism for some of his clumsy statements on women.

As journalist David Gibson wrote in December 2014, “When he speaks about women, Francis can sound a lot like the (almost) 78-year-old Argentine churchman that he is, using analogies that sound alternately condescending and impolitic, even if well-intentioned.” One of his worst moments was earlier that month, when he tried to compliment leading female theologians by calling them “strawberries on the cake.”

Francis has said the church must enter a period of discernment regarding how it relates to issues of family life, love and sex. Clearly Francis has learned a lot in his own discernment.

Thank God for that.

Christopher Hale is the executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and co-founder of Millennial. He has written for Acts of Faith about Rick Santorum and Planned Parenthood.

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