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Francis should let women preach

Pope Francis arrives for a tribute to the

Pope Francis arrives for a tribute to the Virgen de la Puerta in Trujillo, Peru, a week ago Saturday. Credit: AP / Martin Mejia

The Donald Trump playbook is not bedside reading for Pope Francis. Even before the 2016 election, the pope and the candidate disagreed. But this is a moment for Francis to imitate two classic Trump techniques: distraction and playing to the base.

On his flight back to Rome on Jan. 21, Francis had a chance to mitigate the damage he did on his trip to Chile and Peru, where he defended his appointment of a Chilean bishop, Juan Barros Madrid. Advocates for sexual abuse survivors say the bishop protected an abusing priest, and they criticized the pope for labeling accusations against Barros “calumny.” Francis apologized, but he doubled down, insisting: “I am convinced he is innocent.”

This raises a question not often heard: WWDD, What Would Donald Do?

Here’s what: When he causes a major outrage, the “very stable genius” makes us forget it by causing a fresh outrage. That new outrage plays to his base.

So, who’s in the pope’s base? Well, not the traditionalists, including cardinals, who hope the next conclave will produce a pope rooted in the period before the Second Vatican Council. Generally, this pope’s base includes progressive Catholics who embrace his emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, on care for the poor, on curbing clericalism.

What could Francis do now that would excite that base? Here’s a thought: The pope, not exactly speedy in overcoming the church’s marginalization of women, could act fast to make it possible for women to preach the homily at Mass.

So far, the pope has made a gentle bow in the direction of women: appointing a papal commission to study whether they can be ordained deacons. As the commission moves at a geological pace, conservative Catholics fear that, once women can be ordained deacons, they’ll clamor to be ordained priests.

If he embraces his inner Trump, Francis could elevate women without even stepping on the third rail of women’s ordination, by letting them preach the homily at Mass. The obstacle is Canon 767, which says this is the most important form of preaching, and it’s “reserved to a priest or to a deacon.” That, of course, rules out women — and men who have not been ordained.

Sadly, the gift of preaching does not always come with ordination. Many Catholics suffer through poorly prepared, woefully delivered sermons by ordained men — sometimes when gifted women well-educated in theology sit in the pews. We know the skills that pastors don’t always have, such as leading people and running budgets. The more enlightened pastors seek out laypeople with skills to make up for the ones pastors lack. So, why not reach out to men and women who have preaching skills, but have not been ordained?

The pope could change Canon 767, taking out the words about reserving the homily at Mass to priests and deacons. In its place, he could add language that imposes on pastors the duty to put preachers in the pulpit who will proclaim the Gospel skillfully and compellingly.

In September, Francis demonstrated he can make words in canon law disappear: He modified two clauses in Canon 838, making clear that the Vatican’s role is not to impose liturgical translations, but to “recognize” translations approved by national bishops’ conferences. This came as hopeful news to Catholics weary of praying with such wooden language as the jarringly Latinate word “consubstantial” in their creed.

If Francis can amend canon law on liturgical translations, he can change it to allow women — and unordained men — to preach the homily at Mass. He could do it now, to change the subject and excite his base, like Trump.

If not now, he should do it soon, just because it’s right.

Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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