Mormon women cannot be priests. Catholic women cannot be priests. Muslim women cannot lead prayers in mixed-gender congregations. Jewish women are restricted in praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But Mormons have the “Let Women Pray” campaign. Catholics have the “Women’s Ordination Conference.” Muslims have “Muslims for Progressive Values.” Jews have “Women of the Wall.” What is going on here?
Last week, a Mormon woman led a prayer before 100,000 people gathered in Salt Lake City — a first for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Also last week, 150 Jewish women prayed at the Western Wall, five of whom were arrested by Jerusalem police. In West Hollywood, a Muslim gender-equal prayer space has been in operation for most of a decade. On Holy Thursday last month, in an annual ritual commemorating Jesus’s washing of the apostles’ feet, two of the 12 whose feet Pope Francis washed were women — another first.
Conservatives blasted the pope, since the exclusively male make-up of the 12 apostles goes to the heart of the church’s rationale barring women from the priesthood. Likewise, a spokesperson for the Mormon church in Salt Lake City appealed to divine authority, saying that the male-only priesthood “was established by Jesus Christ himself, and is not a decision to be made by those on Earth.” Speaking of the women praying at the Western Wall, a Jewish critic declared, “Their whole practice betrays the creator.”
But religious people are finding that the creator’s will is debatable, and so are appeals to tradition. Muslims detect no teaching on the subject in the Koran, and find ample precedent for women serving as imams in early Islamic settings. Christians must reckon with Jesus’s own choice of women as intimates, and the gospels’ emphasis that all of his male followers, unlike the women, deserted him at the crucifixion. Women were first to preach the Resurrection. In his letter to Romans, St. Paul identifies 27 prominent Christians, 10 of whom are women. He names two, in particular — Prisca and Junia — as his specially designated leaders of the community. Despite his reputation to the contrary, St. Paul can only be awkwardly yoked to the movement to keep church women in their place.
Do these debates among religious people have broader importance? One can note that the press for change in God-sanctioned male supremacy comes mainly from privileged women. Is this yet another gender-equality battle that favors the elite? That impression at first finds an echo in Sheryl Sandberg’s hit book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” — the equal rights manifesto of the former Google executive and current Facebook honcho. But, in truth, all of the equality battles of women are linked. Sandberg reports that when she asked Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist and Nobel Peace laureate, how Americans can help the dispossessed women of Liberia, Gbowee replied simply, “More women in power.”
Women and girls make up perhaps 70 percent of the world’s poor. Half of all pregnant women lack adequate prenatal care. Malnutrition accounts for a third of infant deaths. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterates are women. The single surest measure of a poor country’s economic growth is the improvement in the status of women. Education of girls defines the heart of development, because the benefit is exponential. “To teach a man is to teach one person,” said a Qatari researcher studying education among Muslim women in China. “To teach a woman is to teach everyone.”
One can argue that the only true solution to the intractable problem of mass poverty is the global empowerment of women. One can argue, equally, that the most direct route to such a goal runs through religion, because of its near universal reach and its hold on the human imagination. Religion has sanctified male supremacy. Now that the cost of female powerlessness is openly calculated in the suffering of billions, religion must generate the empowerment of women. Poverty falls as women rise. Those are the stakes in Salt Lake City, Jerusalem, mosques around the world, and Rome.
“To protect Creation . . .” This is how Pope Francis defined his purpose in his papal installation sermon. “. . . and to protect every man and every woman.” Whether Francis sees it clearly yet or not, that vow can only be fulfilled by gender equality — inside the Catholic Church, and out. And, yes, creation does depends on it.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.