The Catholic Church could be one of the most conservative of organisations that are long functional and whose decisions touch the lives of millions of people. So a step the Holy See takes to rework its hugely patriarchal system and make it more inclusive would be making history, and will have a catalytic and cascading effect. The latest decision of Pope Francis to formally recognise the role of women in the celebration of mass is one such.
As per a revised clause in the Canon law, now “lay persons”, instead of the former “lay men”, can perform “the ministries of lector and acolyte” in Catholic services. In his decree, called Spiritus Domini, the Pope said women were making a “precious contribution” to the Church and the effort was to “rediscover the co-responsibility of all of the baptised in the Church”. The Pope, however, has once again refused to give women the permission to become priests.
The announcement in itself has nothing revolutionary: the Pope has only given his formal assent to a practice prevalent in the Church in many parts of the world. But by doing so, he has ensured two things. One, the changes that visit the Church, even though incremental, are irreversible. Two, the conservatives did not rise up in revolt and undermine every single change he has ushered into the 2,000-year-old institution by letting priesthood remain a male domain.
The Catholic Church stood its ground when several others, including the Anglican Church, liberalised itself in the matters of faith and rituals, giving women more roles. That Jesus Christ took only his 12 male disciples and no woman, not even his mother, to the Last Supper, which offers the basis of the Eucharist, is an argument the conservatives have offered while resisting granting priesthood to women. The Pope seems to be trusting the dictum, slow and steady wins the race.