Pla can play. Pla, as in Caroline Pla from Pennsylvania; play, as in play football. The only question that remains: How did an 11-year-old girl make the unbendable Archdiocese of Philadelphia bend?
Before we get to the answer to that question, I should remind you that Caroline Pla is great at football, a monster on defense. So you won’t be surprised that it was someone from an opposing team in the the Doylestown, PA CYO league who complained. A quick check of the rule book found that no girls were allowed.
This infuriated Pla’s family, and they set up a petition on Change.org. Last check it had over 108,000 signatures. The petition led to national media attention, with coverage on CNN and Good Morning America and an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ show; Ellen praised Caroline and pledged support.
Caroline also wrote an email to the head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese pleading her case. Archbishop Chaput chastised her for going to the media. “I’m perplexed that you would contact me last, after publicizing your situation in both the national and regional media … that kind of approach has no effect on my decision making.” I guess the Archbishop is not an Ellen fan.
It does seem curious, after two decades of scandal in the Catholic Church, and an uncovered cover-up in Philadelphia, that any official with the Archdiocese would suggest a child not be a tattletale.
The Archbishop put together a panel of advisors to study the Pla case, and the rule that bans her from playing in the Catholic Youth Organization football league. An insider told Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky that the advisors overwhelmingly wanted CYO football to be boys only. When someone on the panel mentioned that other youth football leagues, including Pop Warner, allow girls, there was group indignation. The insider told Polaneczky, “It was like, ‘We’re the Catholic Church. We don’t give in to pressure from society!’”
From the Archbishop’s email and the panel’s recommendation, it seemed Pla would never play CYO football again. But then a miracle happened. The Archbishop ignored the panel’s recommendation and ruled that Caroline and other girls could play.
I don’t think it was just a coincidence that the ruling came just after the church installed a new Pope, a Vatican outsider, a media-friendly reformer, who has already hinted at elevating the role of women in the Church.
Pope Francis certainly wasn’t involved in the Pla case, but it is easy to see how his election could have inspired Chaput’s apparent change of heart. Had a Vatican hardliner been selected by the Cardinals, the Archbishop likely would have taken a harder line himself. The new Pope of the People would want Caroline to play.
Francis will be the preeminent figure in the reformation of the Catholic Church. But don’t forget the girl in Bucks County who just wanted to play football. She symbolizes greater changes to come.