Benedict XVI's resignation from the papal office can mean big changes in the Catholic Church.
For Catholics with progressive leanings, the end of the most conservative tenures in 50 years leads to speculation. Will the new pope be more favorable to contraceptives, LGBT rights, localized governance, and women priests? Don’t get too excited.
We are not very far from the ordination of women to become ordained deacons, priests, and bishops. From the church’s point of view, ordaining women priests is slightly harder than married priests (which are already legal), and much easier than becoming gay-friendly. Women priests could become legal by executive order, so to speak, or even by restoring the rights of local bishops. It is a theologically sound concept with strong historical precedent. But the blockage is not theology.
The hurdle for women priests is the situation of women in the church. Decisions have become centralized at the Vatican. All of the decision makers in the church are men, most of whom have separated themselves from women since their college (seminary) days. The Roman versions of think tanks and lobbyists (colleges, seminaries, commissions) are deeply misogynist. Clericalism dominates, in which ordained clergy are elevated and isolated, and lay people have no voice. This includes women with more experience and education than their male counterparts.
This culture has been breaking down for a few decades now, but subtle policies instituted by Benedict has slowed progress.
The future is uncertain. The next pope could allow women priests on the first day, and there are truly no front-runners. But the conclave is stacked conservative and leans new world — Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
While the first South American, Asian, or African pope would be exciting, none of those candidates is likely to further women’s rights. Furthermore, the next pope will likely be young, so we might not see change for decades.