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Family Synod neglects feminine genius

Beth Doherty |  28 October 2015

Hopeful signs have emerged from the extraordinary session of the Synod on the Family that ended on Sunday. Pope Francis will go away with much to reflect on. However, due to systemic inequities in the Synod process, the document that will form the basis of this reflection will be fundamentally limited. In particular, the omission of women's voices at the Synod was both stark and bizarre.

Camila Leiva Martinez'Early church fathers preferred asceticism but figured out that without marriage and children the church would not last long. They wrote that married households are the basis of Christian community,' wrote Phyllis Zagano in National Catholic Reporter. 'Skip ahead several centuries and they are at it again. A room full of celibate men talking about marriage.'

Alice Priest, a Catholic educator with over 20 years experience working for the church, took a more whimsical but no less incisive approach. Her riff on Alice in Wonderland, published in The Good Oil, saw the White Rabbit (presumably Pope Francis) running late for a very important date — a Mad Hatter's tea party where the only participants are women in funny fascinators, rumbling about the life of bishops, a subject about which they know little. The piece touched a chord with many women in the Australian church.  

Priest and Zagano have a point. While there were a few people admitted to certain levels of the Synod (17 married couples and some women religious), they didn't have voting rights. That's right: not a single woman had a vote. They were effectively excluded from a subject that touches them deeply.

Such exclusion flies in the face of the reality on the ground in many places. Last year, I worked in one of the world's poorest (predominantly) Catholic countries, Paraguay. Churches there were full of women: single mothers, female religious and youth workers etc. There aren't many similarities between the Latin American church and the Australian church, but one is the presence of women, who outnumber men perhaps 2-1.

Demetria Martinez is a leader of a basic ecclesial community. She leads the group with songs, reflection on scripture, and faith sharing. Demetria has never studied theology at university, but still she is an undisputed faith leader of the community. She certainly doesn't kowtow to her feminist-theologian friend, Margaret Hebblethwaite, who regularly joins the group. 

Hebblethwaite herself runs numerous development projects in the little pueblo, while maintaining her own broader ministry as an internationally renowned writer and thinker on church matters. Both are practising Catholics and faith formators, as are the religious sisters living in the pueblo.

In fact, the priest comes just once a week to celebrate mass. He shies away from being called the parish priest, and jokes that Hermana (Sister) Fatima takes on more of that responsibility than he. This is a parish run by women, a phenomenon occurring throughout the world.

Contrast this with the facts on the ground in Rome. There were 30 women at the Synod, out of 315 people attending. And even the women who attended were not allowed to vote.

Fr Thomas Reese SJ, senior analyst at National Catholic Reporter, was one who named the elephant in the room. During a final session, he addressed Br Hervé Jansen, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus and the only non-ordained man to be given voting rights, and asked: 'What is the rationale for you being admitted to the synod, and religious women not being admitted?'

It was an awkward question that was met with an awkward response. There was no justification (though to be fair, Jansen had reportedly considered relinquishing his vote in solidarity with religious women).

We can reasonably assume that despite the Synod's focus on families, most of the voters have never had any involvement in raising families, and certainly not of experiencing pregnancy and childbirth.

While hopefully all would at times have provided pastoral care to families, none have directly dealt with an abusive spouse, struggled to regulate family size, questioned whether to stay in an unhappy marriage, or dealt with a child identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

'If the church's voice is to be heard, women must share the work of proclamation,' wrote historian Lucetta Scaraffia, who served as an auditor at the Synod and works at the Vatican, in an essay titled 'Breathing with Only One Lung: Where Are the Women's Voices in the Synods?' (from the collection Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table).

Regardless of pastoral or life experience, no one in this 'room full of celibate men talking about marriage' was qualified to speak on behalf of women.

I'm not arguing for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, nor pandering to a particular feminist ideology. What is however at issue is the continuous lack of clarity and willingness to accept that ordination isn't the main barrier to women's participation in the Church.

Pope Francis has been very clear about his desire to include women in the Church. In his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, he wrote: 'We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.' He has also suggested that a theology of women needs to be developed.

What is needed is a way forward. The Synod, for all its achievements, has not facilitated a real space for the feminine genius. As such, its results will be inconclusive. Any true reflections on the changing nature of family life in the context of evangelisation will be flawed or incomplete.

Beth DohertyBeth Doherty is a staff writer and editor at Jesuit Communications. She spent last year working in communities in Nicaragua and Paraguay.

Pictured: Camila Leiva Martinez is a young member of the basic ecclesial community in Santa María de Fé, Misiónes, Paraguay. She is also one of the many altar servers in the parish. Photo: Beth Doherty, 2014



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Submitted comments

Hi Beth, I more appalled at the fact that there was not a single woman at the table with Jesus during last supper! I still can't comprehend it. You know what I mean!

Jaison Paul 28 October 2015

Outstanding and incisive piece Beth. Your naming of the reality is grounded and stated fairly. Seeing and hearing the insightful and articulate voices of yourself & other young women who are both faith filled & faithful fills us with hope that one day the gifts of all people will be embraced in furthering God's mission. Thank you

Philomena 29 October 2015

Thanks Beth! I had hoped that Pope Francis would have had the authority to have had a balanced voting quorum out of the 315 attending the Synod, only 10%of whom were woman but then only one non-ordained person (male) with a vote! How where the voices of Steve and Claudia Schultz, U.S, Ron and Mavis Pirola, Aust, Steve and Sandra Conway SthAfrica, (inter alia). . how were their voices, cries of their people, heard above the rabble and babble of clericalism in a totally biased assembly. Having spent many years in mission work in PNG, I witnessed there the extraordinary work of women keeping the faith alive. Women need and must have a greater role in our church and this synod falls flat on its face in a lost opportunity to hear the cries of today's women. Shame on the church fathers! Shot in the foot again!

Murray J Greene 29 October 2015

Marianne Willamson's address to the world Parliament of Religions https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HF-2mBxfsjg

Maria Nechwatal 29 October 2015

Very timely and pertinent reflection, Beth. Every day we see women respected as leaders and commentators at the highest levels in our social institutions. Not in the church! Only when women (and all the people of God) are taken seriously, as truly equal in Christ, will the church be able to address its very real and urgent call to be the lifegiving body of Christ.

vivien 29 October 2015

Always thought you hired people on their qualifications for certain tasks that were required.Did no one work out that there were no qualified members on the Synod.Great article.Same problem with Aboriginals and the constitution.

marlene bracks 29 October 2015

Thanks for this Beth. I didn't have a problem with women not having a vote at a Synod of Bishops until I learned that some men who are not bishops are able to vote. That changes the whole complexion. I was happy with the paragraph on women and the support it received. I haven't yet managed to find an official English translation of the whole document.

Margaret McDonald 29 October 2015

We clergy – popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons - are nurtured in our mother’s wombs and beyond. Our mothers teach us, feed us, instruct us, clothe us, discipline us, guide us, inspire us, serve us, love us; and while this teaching and leadership role is, for the most part, honoured and embraced in mainstream society where women have a place in nation building, in corporate governance, in shaping culture; this is not the case within the church. In terms of leadership, in terms of being embraced as equals to help shape the Catholic Church, we are confronted with a number of closed doors. As aspiring Christ-followers, are we not compelled to challenge the ongoing patriarchal constraints being imposed upon women today? And, like Him, must we not also refuse to allow custom, or habit, or closed minds, or the way we have understood things in the past, to hinder us from giving women a voice; or, at the very least, having a mature and respectful debate about the issue? There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can neither be slave or freeman, there can be neither male nor female – for you are all one in Christ. (Galatians 3: 28-29)

Fr Peter Day 29 October 2015

Hi Jaison, not everyone thinks that women weren't present at the Last Supper, see http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=775&lang=en&action=show For me, the Ackland painting restores my belief that the truth will eventually be revealed.

Alan M 29 October 2015

Thanks Beth for your insightful article, so far to go and so little achieved to date which is why many women still practice their faith but also look to other groups for spiritual sustenance. Sometimes I can laugh at the ridiculous nature of this male hierarchical church but when I read articles like yours I just fume!

Carol 29 October 2015

The recent synod lacks any credibility because of this issue. It was doomed from the outset and filtered and sanitised at every point as it made its way from parishes to Rome. I feel great sorrow for Francis as he navigates amongst the dark shadows still lurking in Vatican corridors. Thank you Beth for an honest and realistic article about an event that could have provided so much hope to struggling women and families around the Catholic world. The Holy Spirit resides in all of the faithful by virtue of Baptism so that inspiration is not limited to male celibate clergy. To exclude women and families from a synod on the family would be both laughable and intolerable in any other organisation.

Geoff Geaney 29 October 2015

The teaching authority of the Church is the pope and bishops. As for celibate men teaching about marriage, colleges and universities are full of people who 'teach' rather than 'do' their particular crafts. More people teach from textbooks than do the practical research of those who wrote them. The teachers are, however, obliged to make sure they are getting the best information possible --- in the case of the synod (or a political cabinet) from the advisers sitting along the wall than at the main table. This gathering isn't called a Sensus Fidelium Convention or some such thing. Until bishops cease to be responsible for being the sole teachers of what is true, a synod is a discernment place for bishops only. The meaning of a word is important. However, as absolute ruler,the Pope can change the practical meaning of 'synod', although this would have affected the status of bishops as men chosen by charism to teach. Can a person without a charism to teach direct someone with the charism, and the responsibilty to discern between various advice, as to what they should teach? That's what a non-bishop's vote would amount to - a direction.

Roy Chen Yee 29 October 2015

It's mothers who are thought of by soldiers who are at war in times of vulnerability ... It's women who uphold the relay of faith to their children ... It's women who give birth to all these bishops ... Its mothers who have to find food to put on the table. Shame on the Synod.

Mary tehan 29 October 2015

You strongly imply, Ms Doherty that celibate men are not qualified to speak on behalf of women. Logically, then, you must support the contention that celibate women are not qualified to speak on behalf of men and, therefore, all unmarried women, lay and religious, should be excluded in any discussion or vote on Church teaching involving men - marriage perhaps, or even contraception and abortion?. Christ's prescription for his Church was certainly not democratic and to be a Catholic , I suppose, means that we accept Christ's delegation of authority to St Peter and his successors. If not, we might as well forget about the whole business and get on with life outside the ChristIan Church.

john frawley 29 October 2015

No voting rights for the handful of women attending the Synod was a major disappointment. While only 30 women were present, it is still an indicator of progress in the synodal process. However, voting rights for Br Hervé Jansen and not for any of the women effectively negated the positive symbolic value of their being there.

Ian Fraser 29 October 2015

For a thousand years every person who was baptised was described as 'alter Christus' (another Christ). It has since been bracketed off for the exclusive use by ordained priests. "Is Christ divided?" Paul asked of the Corinthians. Yes, it seems so but maybe that will be reversed when some day the Magisterium wakes up and takes Christ seriously.

David Timbs 29 October 2015

Hi Beth, Very incisive piece - and something that has to be given serious consideration. It is a laughable situation that the hands that rock the cradle of the voting men, could not be the same hands that put up their hand to vote on proposals put forward in the Synod. This to me was far less controversial that some of the matters discussed, including communion for the divorced and remarried! Fr Thomas Reece, puts it well in this article: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/if-brother-why-not-sister-synod . It is perhaps remarkable that on July 28, 2013 Pope Francis himself quipped "A Church without women is like the Apostolic College without Mary. The role of women in the Church is not only maternity it's stronger .... a woman's role in the Church must not end only as mother, as worker" Sometime what upsets me about the current administration, is that they can be big on rhetoric, but short on putting this rhetoric into practice.

Neil De Cruz 29 October 2015

Some women in predominant positions in parishes are not very welcoming towards those in need, other women, and new parishioners. And instead of knowing when to leave graciously, and allow their positions be filled by younger women, some elderly women stay on and on for years and years. On the other hand, very good priests are expected to leave after a few years, and their positions replaced for the so called 'good' of the parish community.

Mary 29 October 2015

Alan M paintings have zilch magisterial standing vis a vis women at the last supper versus Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on male only priests and that blokey petrine commission [Mt:16:18] After 40 years priestly ministry involved with families from birth to death; before during and after and door knocking Australia wide [then five-year necropolis chaplain to grieving Sydney] Plus Housemaster of 110 teenagers, I utterly reject the notion of totally hermetically sealed celibates. I am fully cognisant of female positives and flaws [As is synod!!] The Holy Spirit is guiding Pope and synod with charisms beyond male or female genius or lack thereof. By the way, a highly nuanced celibacy Apostolic, etc. was there from Last Supper onwards [even with married present] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_chisto_en.html

Father John George 29 October 2015

Does any woman ask a gynecologist/doctor/psychologist/social worker male if he is married, "experienced pregnancy or childbirth" before helping advising, counselling women?

Father John George 29 October 2015

A very incisive article, Beth, and so true. I send this from my home in Ireland. I feel that women were present at the Passover meal because, in that society, women always did the cooking, serving, and cleaning. It suited the first male-dominated Christian communities to pretend that they weren't. Look how successfully Magdalene and the other women, who financed Jesus' Ministry and didn't run and hide during His Passion and death, were airbrushed from the whole story? Again, a wonderful article -- kudos to you.

Esther Greene 30 October 2015

Were there any families at the Synod on the Family?

Susan 30 October 2015

Great article ...wondering what the answer to the question was about the rationale??

Andrea 30 October 2015

Ms Greene John's gospel clearly states that only the apostles were present at the last supper... recall that earlier that day Jesus ordered to apostles (men) to find the room and prepare everything for the Passover. That also lets out the notion that women must have been present as cooks, servers, etc. clearly, the men did the preparation. (it was the custom at that time for the lambs to be roasted in central locations after the ritual slaughter and families to reclaim their own meat after cooking, so they did not necessarily cook the meat as well. Furthermore, other prepared foods that are part of the feast could be purchased. Either way, the apostles prepared, served and ate the meal)

Father John George 01 November 2015

Fr John George, I can't see why your faith in God would be rattled if one day we found archaeological evidence that women were present at the last supper. I believe the scriptures are divinely inspired, but I don't believe they are scientific documents, and even if there were no women at the last supper, I can't see why that would mean banishing women from then to eternity from certain roles in the church 2000 years later. Most of the genealogies of Jesus in the New Testament don't mention women either, but that doesn't mean there were no women involved.

AURELIUS 06 November 2015

Sometimes it is embarrassing to be a woman when I read articles like this - women spend too much time talking about themselves and what they would do if they were a man.

Rose 17 November 2015

Until women are accepted in every role in the Church (including the "ordained" club) the Church will continue to wander in its Middle Ages, fuedal, dream state, disassociated from the 21st Century. Most Catholics would neither know about or care about the family synod. I saw it described as lot's of dress up dresses but no women. Anyway, Beth, keep up the good work and pray to God, she will support you. Peter

Peter McA 27 November 2015

What makes you think that there were no women at the Last Supper? I think poor old Leonardo and his painting have a lot to answer for! The role of women in the life of Jesus and the early Church was minimised to the point of extinction by the writers and editors of the gospels.

John O'Leary 13 December 2015

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