Pope Francis Thanks Religious Women. Now What?

In his few days on U.S. soil, Pope Francis has made waves with his fearless approach toward addressing critical issues that have long divided the nation and the Catholic Church. Fresh off a marathon speech in front of a joint session of Congress — which, in fact, was the most English the pontiff has ever spoken in public — Pope Francis flew to New York to deliver an evening service at the St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. While his sermon hit all the grandeur and religiosity characteristic of a Catholic proceeding, a shining moment came with Pope Francis thanked religious women and recognized their service to the Church. But it was also a reminder the Vatican still has a ways to go to fully embrace women in its leadership.

A standing ovation met the pope when his message, interpreted from Spanish with the help of an English translator, addressed the all-important female ranks within the Catholic Church.

I would especially like to thank and express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States. Indeed, what would the church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you on the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters, and mothers of this people, I wish to say thank you. A big thank you, and to tell you that I love you very much.

The pope's lines appeared to be in direct response to a 3-year controversy that has quietly brewed among American Catholics. In 2012, the Vatican began investigating the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest organization of Catholic nuns in the United States, for its dwindling numbers and promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." Based on the Church's assessment, the group was accused of challenging church doctrine on issues such as homosexuality and male-only priesthood and not spending enough time on traditional teachings. American nuns were stunned, with many resisting the query. After a lengthy investigation, the Vatican backed off with just mild reprimand.

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While Pope Francis has remained firm on maintaining doctrine and keeping women from becoming part ordained, he has sought to increase their roles of women within the Church in other ways, but little has been done to live up to his early promises. Don't get me wrong — it was inspiring to see the pontiff explicitly thank the nearly 50,000 nuns living and working in the United States and other religious women in the country, and words do carry a lot of weight. But maybe, just maybe, this moment will be a chapter in the bigger story of women being fully recognized and ordained to teach the Gospel side by side with men.