Pope Francis celebrated the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous dissent from Catholicism — the one that started the Protestant Reformation — by presenting a joint declaration pledging “renewed theological dialogue” between the churches. But the Pope’s openness to change and renewal does not include the ordination of women Catholic priests. According to reports, when the Pope was asked about a future including female priests he responded: “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear.”
Pressed by a reporter on the subject, the Pope cited a 1994 apostolic letter by his much more conservative predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The “last word,” that Francis references was “given by St. John Paul II and this remains.” (Others report the statement as “it stands.”) Outlets like the USA Today conclude from this statement that the “Pope says women will be banned from priesthood forever.” But there is room to interpret the statement differently. It depends on the interpretation of “last” — does “last” mean “most recent” or does it mean “final” or even “inviolate”? If it is only the former, then a future word on the issue is possible. Also the Pope says “and this remains.” That is a statement of the present tense, the present situation. It is decidedly not “and this will remain forever thus.” Interestingly, while appearing to close the doors on women as priests, the Pope addressed the world’s immigrant crisis by saying “It’s not human to close doors.” That sentiment better represents this Pope’s abiding spirit, and furthers the possibility that his remarks on women priests — looked at carefully — allow some ambiguity.