Hoping against hope: The Synodal process and prospects for equality for women in the church 

Oct 29, 2023
Stained Glass Window Of A Famous Catholic Church.

The most pressing challenge for the Catholic Church remains addressing women’s inequality in its ranks. The current Synod on Synodality offers some hope, but there are huge roadblocks.  The likelihood of equality for women in the Church requires a leap of faith, extremely long-term thinking, and hoping against hope. I cannot see it happening in my lifetime.

The most pressing challenge for the Catholic Church remains addressing the inequality of women. There have been high hopes in reform quarters that the Synod on Synodality will address this urgent issue. It is on the Working Document agenda, and it is a hopeful sign that some women are present for the first time as voting members at this Synod. Some important male Church leaders, including Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Relator General of the Synod, and American Cardinal Joseph Tobin, have spoken out strongly to condemn such inequality. Australian Bishop Shane Mackinlay has declared that he is open to the idea of women deacons. Yet we don’t know if these are minority views.

In his opening meditation for the Synod retreat, Hoping against Hope, Dominican Fr Timothy Ratcliffe recognised that in a polarised church: “ Some hope that the Church will be dramatically changed, that we will take radical decisions, for example about the role of women in the Church”.

Yet against such hopes there are major roadblocks. The embedded culture of inequality towards women within the Church prevails not just among clerics and men generally, but also among many women including, according to the recent International Survey of Catholic Women, among younger women. This culture accepts the status quo and defends a view of women as ‘complementary’ to, rather than equal with, men. The opposition of some women should not be underestimated. One Australian woman delegate to the Synod, Prof. Renee Kohler-Ryan of Sydney, has portrayed any focus on women’s equality, including ordination to the priesthood and the diaconate, as a ‘niche’ issue and not very interesting.

For Fr Bill Uren SJ, however, in a recent review in Eureka Street magazine of Wifedom by Anna Funder, the endemic sexism revealed in the marriage of Eileen O’Shaughnessy and George Orwell, is an apt description of the role of women within the Church. They suffer not just from patriarchal institutions but from what Uren calls ‘casual patriarchy’. He reckons that all Synod participants would have benefited from a reading of Wifedom (and, also, from a viewing of the movie ‘Barbie’).

According to Uren:

Patriarchy masquerades in many forms in the Catholic profile… Hierarchical male governance, clericalism, celibacy, non-inclusive liturgical language, the reservation of priesthood exclusively to males, sexuality and reproduction matters generally, all consideration of these is impregnated with patriarchy.

The church also moves at an excessively slow pace when considering reforms. This is certainly true for the equality of women as demonstrated at the Australian Plenary Council last year where even modest changes about the equal dignity of women and men were resisted. Faced with regular calls for patience, many reformers have run out of patience with snail’s pace progress.

The starting points for women in the Synod Working document are the positive statements of a general kind about synodality, but carefully limited statements on specifics, such as admission of women to the diaconate. Recognising and promoting the dignity and gifts of women in the Church goes side by side with tepid suggestions about involving them in leadership and decision-making, including the possibility of women deacons. Rights go unrecognised.

Nevertheless, the combination of the presence of women (54 women among 365 delegates) and the agenda items about co-responsibility in mission in a synodal church provide women’s equality with some opportunities. The progressive women and men inside the Synod have been supported outside by those in the Spirit Unbounded movement, organised by the International Reform Network, which has provided public reflections by major reforming voices. Irish theologian Dr Mary McAleese, the former Irish President, was scathing that the presence of women was seen as a favour not a right. She described opposition to women’s equality as old-school sexist humbug masquerading as theology. Other outsiders in Rome, such as New Zealander, Christina Reymer, of the Pink Shoes in the Vatican movement, have reported on the difficulties faced when trying to penetrate official Vatican measures protecting the privacy of the Synod from public gaze. The Synod itself has deliberately declined to be transparent to the wider Catholic community.

Sister Liliana Franco Echeverri, president of Latin America’s religious superiors, pointed out that in many dioceses and parishes the Church numerically ‘has a woman’s face’. Women in the Church she said seek a ‘greater presence and participation in the Church’ not out of ‘an ambition for power or a feeling of inferiority nor egocentric quest for recognition’, but out of fidelity to God’s plan for us all as sisters and brothers working together.

Sister Maria de los Dolores Valencia Gomez from Mexico presided over a session of the Synod in her role as president-delegate. Reportedly she saw her role as evidence that the church saw women ‘at the same level’ as men. This, she said, was ‘setting the stage for future changes’. But she went on to say that ‘I feel that this is a gradual process. Little by little we shall see changes’. According to Gomez, her role as president-delegate was a ‘new practical compromise [by Pope Francis] that bypasses difficulties for the Church’.

These so-called ‘difficulties’ for the Church are a major impediment to reform. They can lead to some clever moves and tortured logic to overcome them. Rather than confronting injustice and inequality within the Church directly, they lead to ‘work around measures’ such as female chairs, as Gomez wisely recognised. Such an approach can pay dividends within church governance and bureaucracy where the role of women will inevitably grow. But they are much less effective, if at all, in advancing the participation of women in ministry.

We can’t predict the outcome of the Synod on Synodality because it is happening behind largely closed doors. Information is rationed and carefully manicured. But it appears likely that any outcomes will give priority to the process of ‘being church’ rather than directly addressing knotty issues. That does not bode well for women’s equality despite the future of the Church depending upon it.

The upshot of all this is that to be optimistic about the likelihood of equality for women in the Church requires a leap of faith and extremely long-term thinking. I cannot see it happening in my lifetime, nor that of any member of the Vatican Two generation. Radical decisions are unlikely and to expect differently is to hope against hope.

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