VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis on Saturday lauded women for their sensitivity toward the society's weak and "gifts" like intuition, insisting they take on greater responsibilities in the Catholic church, as well as in professional and public spheres.
Francis was full of praise about female talent and untapped potential in a speech at the Vatican to an Italian women's group. But the pope gave no sign that the Vatican glass ceiling against ordaining women for the priesthood might see some cracks during his papacy.
Francis has been trying to make the Catholic church more welcoming, but it forbids women from becoming priests, arguing among other things, that Jesus and his apostles were men.
Francis made clear back in November, in an extensive document laying out his priorities as head of the 1.2-billion-member Catholic church, that the ban against women's ordination would stand.
His audience was made up of Italian women, who live in a country with one of the lowest rates of women in the workplace in the European Union, as many in Italy leave jobs to raise children and never return or never enter the workplace at all.
Francis said families benefit from women's "gifts of delicateness, special sensitivity and tenderness."
As the Vatican toils to shore up sometimes flagging faith among Catholics, Francis laid out how the church sees women as crucial for that. "The presence of women in a domestic setting turns out to be so necessary" for the "transmission to future generations of solid moral principles and the very transmission of the faith," Francis said.
Shutting women out of the priesthood has also meant they have never climbed to the top ranks of the most crucial offices at the Vatican, since those jobs go to prelates. The pope's top advisers are drawn from cardinals, the elite group of men whose responsibilities include electing popes.
The Vatican has cracked down swiftly and severely on any women who defy the ban by being ordained priests, trying to discourage female ordination movements that have some support in the U.S. and western Europe.
Seven women who said they were ordained as priests in a ceremony on the Danube River were excommunicated by the Vatican a few weeks later during the papacy of John Paul II, who, like Francis, often praised women for their talents and what he called special "charisma." And during the papacy of Benedict XVI, the predecessor of Francis, the Vatican defrocked a priest who had supported women's ordination and had participated in a 2008 ceremony of female ordination.
Since Francis has stressed mercy as a dominant characteristic of his pontificate, any more female ordinations would present a highly-watched occasion to see how he would handle such a grave violation of church teaching.
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