It’s been only a few hours since Benedict XVI announced his pending resignation from office — his term plagued by child sex scandals — but conjecture about the political leanings of his successor have already begun. Ian Dunt characterizes Benedict’s reign as conservative one, with little change: “'Semper eadem' – always the same”. His characterization begs the question of the role of change for whomever is selected as the new pope: will he be as conservative as the last? Already, critics of the pope, including those who think women should be able to be ordained, are speculating on the politics of the next person to be the Supreme Pontiff. But those who seek more liberal stances from the Catholic Church should look more locally than the Vatican.
Benedict is the first pope to resign since 1415, but his conservative papacy was remarkable even for an institution known for its commitment to tradition. His own personal theologian told The National Catholic Reporter that women should not be priests "because their mission is so beautiful in the church anyway."
Right now, as it has been for centuries, women who are ordained as priests are automatically excommunicated. Activist Father Roy Bourgeois was formally excommunicated a few months before for his support for ordaining women priests, and called sexism a sin of the Catholic Church. Another priest in Milwaukee was reprimanded in December for participating in the liturgy with a woman priest. Advocacy groups like the Women’s Ordination Conference, (with their breakaway pop hit, “Ordain a Lady”) call on the Vatican to retract the ban on women priests, but have received little response.
Until a new pope decides to weigh in (if one ever does), women will continue to be excommunicated when attempting to be ordained. Perhaps more likely than the appointment of a new pope with a passion for gender equity is a reexamination of the divides present in the Catholic Church today. Around the world, Catholics are split on a number of social issues, in disagreement with the Vatican on everything from gay marriage to birth control. As these divisions are exacerbated, perhaps the Church will become more lenient on the social issues that divide so many of its faithful, and allow women to be ordained. Either way, the fight for the acceptance of ordination of women will continue long after we know the identity of the next pope.