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A place for women in church leadership


For two weeks from this Sunday, the much anticipated Synod on the Family will be held in Rome. Those attending include around 150 bishops, some specially appointed clergy, a number of lay experts and 14 married couples, a total of about 250 participants from all corners of the globe. Only the bishops and clergy will have voting rights at the Synod. 

The deliberations will be in two stages: this first gathering will discuss the multiple issues and problems surrounding contemporary family life – issues such as contraception, cohabiting couples, same sex unions, whether divorced Catholics who remarry should be allowed to receive communion – and in a second meeting twelve months later in 2015 they will formulate and vote on Church policy about the family.

Of course it is lay Catholics – not the bishops and clergy – who are living contemporary family life, and who will be most affected by Church teachings on the family. It seems obvious their expertise, experience and insights should be central to the upcoming Synod.

The Australian lay delegates to the Synod are: Ron and Mavis Pirola, chairs here of the bishops’ Catholic Marriage and Family Council and one of the married couples chosen; Christopher Meney who is director of the Sydney Archdiocese’s Life, Marriage and Family Centre; and Joan Clements, co-director of the World Organisation of Billings Ovulation Method Australia.

Several progressive Australian Catholic groups under the umbrella of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Renewal made a push for women’s participation in the Synod. They nominated former NSW Labor Premier, Kristina Keneally as a possible participant, but she was not chosen. In this interview, she talks about her hopes and frustrations with the Synod, and more broadly about women’s and lay leadership in the Church.

Kristina Keneally is one of the most prominent lay Catholics in this country. She was born in the USA and met her Australian husband at the World Youth Day Congress held in Czestochowa, Poland in 1991. After they got married she moved to Australia, and became an Australian citizen.

She has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and a Master of Arts in Religious Studies from the University of Dayton, a Catholic university in Dayton, Ohio. In 1990 she was elected President of the National Association of Students at US Catholic Colleges and Universities, and was chosen by the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference as one of eight delegates to attend the 1991 World Youth Day.

Keneally worked as a primary school teacher and youth worker before marriage and having three children. In 2003 she was elected as a Labor politician to the NSW State Parliament, and from 2007 she held the Ministries of Disability Services, Ageing and Planning before becoming Premier in 2009.

She is a former athlete and has a strong interest in sport and physical fitness. After leaving politics in 2011 she was chair of Basketball Australia till 2012, then its CEO from 2012-2014. She is on the boards and is patron of a number of charities and philanthropic organisations.

This interview is in two parts - Part 1 (10 mins) above, and Part 2 (5 mins) below:


Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Synod on the Family, Vatican, Pope Francis, Kristina Keneally, laity, family, Catholic Chur



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Existing comments

The Australian lay delegates to this Synod are completely unknown to me. They sound like the "good, sound people" my former Anglican Rector used to try to engineer onto Parish Council to not rock his boat. Kristina Keneally, the more I hear of her, the more I am impressed. She is no nonentity in the employ of the firm. She is also a modern feminist which would do the Church a lot of good. I think we need to move beyond stereotypes of single clerics or ancillary clerics, all celibate, to provide leadership models. Geraldine Doogue's talk of nuns is a bit passe now. We need female role models like KK, who actually has a range of interests, not just religion. The Church needs to let the light in. Jesus lived in the real world.

Edward Fido | 30 September 2014  

Why Kristina Keneally is lauded as a model Catholic woman is a mystery. She is on the public record as being supportive of abortion, and of gay marriage. She cites the primacy of conscience, but doesn't understand that concept of a 'formed conscience' . She doesn't support Catholic moral teaching - and yet sees herself as some sort of authority. There is no doubt that Ms Keneally considers herself an important Catholic voice, but I'm not sure many other women think so.

Cath | 30 September 2014  

I found myself listening to a person who truly understands, and is truly committed to, the teachings of Jesus, and asking myself how the institutional Church could have strayed so far. I had three main reactions: 1. Thank God a natural leader of Kristina Keneally’s calibre is responding to the Church’s own Canon Law that recognises that the people of the Church “have the right and even at times the duty to manifest . . . their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful" (Canon 212, 3); 2. This very able and compassionate person, along with half the population of the same gender, is excluded from top decision making roles in the Church, let alone pastoral leadership as a priest, because of the gender God gave her; and 3. How can the Church as an institution avoid clericalism when it reserves to unmarried celibate males, often lonely and disproportionately aged, the decisions on how we should best live our lives in accordance with the teachings of Christ?

Peter Johnstone | 30 September 2014  

Could it be that Kristina Keneally presents a new model of Catholic?

Jennifer | 30 September 2014  

How can Kristina Keneally be given a wider voice in the Catholic Church in Australia and worldwide? Thank you for sharing her desire for wider lay participation on family issues and in the life of the Church, as well as her belief in the attitude of Jesus and Pope Francis for the Church to be more welcoming and inclusive. Her voice reflects many thinking Catholics.

David Strong | 30 September 2014  

Women will NEVER be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church because that would break the patrilineal descendancy of the priesthood from the reign of the king/priest Melchizedek, who willingly bestowed the priesthood to Abraham. According to Catechism 1544, the Christian tradition considers Melchizedek as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ. Hence, the issue of female priesthood was resolved generations before the advent of Christ.

Bob GROVES | 30 September 2014  

Cath, I think I understand why you challenge the respect granted Kristina Keneally as a Catholic woman. My mother who, if she were still alive, would now be 94, would agree fully with you. My sisters in their mid to late 60s, and my 39 year old daughter strongly support Keneally's perspectives. About ten years ago, my daughter joined me for Mass one Christmas morning in my home parish. I was pleased because I knew she was rarely attending Mass. After Mass, she said, "Sorry Dad, that was the last time. It is all so exclusively male, I just don't feel that I belong." I believe that Keneally's comments in this interview reflect the attitudes of the many women among the 90% of Australian Catholics who no longer attend Mass on a regular basis.

Ian Fraser | 30 September 2014  

Congratulations to Eureka Street for giving us such an outstanding interview and comment. Kristina Keneally bases her theology on the facts of current Christian life. For example, well researched statistics show that Catholics practice contraception and are divorced at similar rates to other Australians. I hope that no parish priests would ever refuse Holy Communion to any divorced and remarried person who comes to mass, but I do know such people who consequently attend Anglican or Uniting Churches. I attend an Anglican Church where the pew sheet always includes a statement: "All are invited to share in communion, as the parish community of St Paul's offers the hospitality of the altar to all". I agree with a comment which has been made that Kristina is a model Catholic.

Gerard Costigan | 30 September 2014  

Interesting. I dislike these labels 'progressive' and its counterpart "conservative'. They are divisive and profoundly oppositional in concept. As to who is or should be seen as a prominent or significant lay woman, that too is a subjective judgment. At least those people chosen appear to have an official position of some kind, therefore might be seen as ex officio. The old complaints about celibate men deciding things should just go away: Jesus Himself was a celibate man - or do the 'progressives' deny this - and no one has dared as yet to say that His teachings are therefore 'irrelevant'....how about a bit of optimism? And isn't the Holy Spirit supposed to be at work in these Synods? Or don't you really believe that either? What about the cardinal virtues of Faith Hope and Charity? A bit lacking here, it seems...

ann | 30 September 2014  

Began listening to this interview with Kristina saying "I asked the bishop when I was 8 years old why cant girls be altar servers? and his reply.. well i dont even remember.." With this respose of hers, i think was she even listening to the bishop, she never remebered his reply because, did she want to hear his reply? maybe this was the beginning of the church of keneally?

veronika | 30 September 2014  

The lay representatives to the Synod are not known to me or my Church friends. I am concerned that they may not reflect the mainstream thinking of our lay men and women. Our bishops have spectacularly been throughout history unsuccessful in meeting the many crisis that the Church in our world has experienced.in recent times- especially the Vatican Financial Management and the Child Sexual Abuse Scandal to name just two -which is very much known to us all. Once more I see the Church as paying lip service to the future directions the institution need to go in their thinking and theological development of families- what further crisis has to happen that will bring our Church and the message of Jesus to be part of the real world? This I pray, this I try to live and this family synod ought to say to the world that the future for families is the recognition of the sanctity and the integrity of the complex nature of family in our world..

John Elliott | 30 September 2014  

Extraordinary interview and commentary. Interesting to see that M/s Keneally reassures us that she bases her position on the life and teaching of Jesus. It is difficult to find anything to support that in the existing written record of Christ's life in scripture, not really a story of establishing his Word and teachings on the opinions of the people of his time. Keneally also doesn't have much truck with the gospels that seem clear enough on the matter of delegation of authority for His Church on Earth - "Whatever you bind will be bound and whatever you loose will be loosed". Bit churlish to suggest that those chosen to attend the synod are not representative in her opinion and that the Spirit might not put in an appearance. I think it more likely that the Spirit might boycott the synod if the likes of M/s Keneally and reformers like Peter Johnstone beating his rusty old drum turned up. Perhaps the Spirit has already spoken in those chosen to attend and in the omission of the Keneallys and Johnstones of this world. I wonder if, as suggested by Peter Johnstone, that he and Keneally are the only ones who "truly understand".

john frawley | 30 September 2014  

Thanks for this interview with a very committed and articulate catholic woman. Kristina raises what many people know to be the issues that the Clerical Celibates and the Virginal Religious just don't understand. They are in some other place when it comes to living a life in the world with family. It is no fault of theirs that they are like this as it comes from their training and their exposure to delusional thinking that they are better than laity because they have denied themselves sex and a family. This causes them to believe that they know all the answers and they alone are the interpreters of God's thoughts and words. Let's join with Kristina and other women who are able to put forward alternative viewpoints and interpretations that allow the Church to move forward in the areas of family and marriage Rebuilding trust being critical since the exposure of the abuse of innocent and vulnerable people by clerics and religious. It is a crucial time for the Church to hear the voices of women who are the mainstays of families and who bear most of the child rearing responsibilities and the caring roles for their elderly parents.

Carmel Sheehan | 30 September 2014  

It is a bit of a worry having the "co-director of the World Organisation of Billing's Ovulation Method Australia" being invited to the the Synod. The Billing's Method demands very concentrated intent and co-operation by both partners in a marriage with the express purpose of deliberately preventing pregnancy. To assume a favourable moral position for the Billing's Method flirts with fallacy or, more explicitly, embraces it. Indeed, acceptance of a moral position for the Billing's Method represents a simple Aristotelian syllogistic fallacy. (All contraception [A] is deliberate prevention of pregnancy [B] - All deliberate prevention of pregnancy [B] is immoral [C] - therefore, All contraception (including the Billing's method) is immoral [C].The Billing's Method should logically be considered in the same light as other means of contraception, since the immorality exists in the intention to prevent God's creative covenant with the married couple, not the means whereby that intention is achieved.

john frawley | 30 September 2014  

I believe that a set of rules governing morality imposed or put forward by a church should conform, in general, to the rules that nature would impose. We have many obligations under such a set of rules: obligations to our family, to our community, to our race, to humanity, and obligations to our own selves. To ourselves we have the obligation to look after our bodies, to keep them, as best we can, healthy and functioning well. Artificial contraception prevents the natural functioning of the body and its operation. how could it be moral?

Gavan Breen | 30 September 2014  

Since when is a pro abortionist a spokesman for Catholicism? That's like a paedophile priest representing the Priesthood. Wierd.

Mary Anne Borg | 30 September 2014  

Ian Fraser thanks for your comment. I'm sorry your daughter found a Parish that didn't make her feel welcome or accepted. In raising my own children, I always tried to emphasize the fact that their own personal faith in Christ needed to come first, and that there participation in Church life would flow as a consequence of that personal relationship with Christ. The truth is no parish is perfect; but I'm surprised that you took her to a parish that was so male dominated.... she ought to come to ours where men and women serve in a wide range of roles. The quip about your 94 year old grandmother made me smile - no I'm not 94, but I certainly respect the wisdom of women such as your grandmother. As an educator, I can testify to the fact that faith in God often jumps a generation and is passed between grandparents and grandchildren. (It was great to see grandparents recently honoured at our parish Confirmation mass) My experience is that women already have profound influence in the Church - sure there could be more opportunities to be part of the leadership process, but my point is that women, like Ms Keneally who do not support fundamental Catholic teachings, will never find themselves invited to the leadership table. Never. If you're pro-abortion you can expect to be excluded. Keneally has used the curly, "safe, legal, rare" position about abortion... but quite frankly its not good enough if you expect to be a trusted Catholic woman leader.

Cath | 01 October 2014  

Cath-:-"Kristina Keneally ,,,, cites the primacy of conscience", ,, So does Pope Francis... " but doesn't understand that concept of a 'formed conscience' ". .. .Perhaps not in the out-dated definition of forming one's conscience according to traditions that were formed by men who were living in times when they had no conception of how changed circumstances would render old conceptions obsolete, such as .the idea that charging interest on money lent was sinful. There has always been a tradition of the importance of "Vox Populi".. The time is long overdue since it should be extended to the Voice of All the People.

Robert Liddy | 01 October 2014  

The Synod will equally impact on priests who are heavily involved with families. Eg, in my 44years of priesthood at marriage preps, weddings, family celebrations, and crises,confessions,hospital bedsides and gravesides etc.

Father John George | 01 October 2014  

Although I add my support to what Ms Keneally said, I rejoice in the pro & con reaction drawn forth to them. That is what she sees as lacking in the structure of the Synod.

Brian Cotter | 01 October 2014  

This is a fascinating interview and the comments are interesting too! Including more women's voices must be a good thing, right Mary Anne, Veronika and Cath? That's my take out of what Christina is so eloquently saying. So thrilling that Eureka Street bought us this interview (and I declare an interest being on the Jescom Board). Thank you!

Emma Rossi | 02 October 2014  

I was delighted with this interview and very glad that our denominations have women like her. Mine is Anglican, but I'd love to have Kristina in some of the discussions I have with my interfaith friends in the Women's interfaith network. Sue Emeleus

Rev'd Dr Sue Emeleus | 02 October 2014  

Great to see the KK interview produce 21 comments that were apposite, respectful and for the most part short. The interview reminded me that many months ago I dutifully and conscientiously filled in the survey/questionnaire that our Bishops circulated to gauge what Catholics (at least those who attend Mass) thought about The Family and Family Life in contemporary Australia. I live in a parish made up mainly of comfortable upper working class and lower middle class people. I discussed the questionnaire with several of them. They thought it was a good idea but unfortunately it had been drawn up by bureaucrats who framed the questions (those they could understand) in such a way that it was obvious the sorts of answers expected. The results of the survey appeared in The Catholic Weekly a few months ago. It was the most dry as dust collation of dogmatic assertions about the human person and family life I have ever read. From memory the part love played in marriage was barely mentioned. The church must look at the lived experience of human love - some people fall in love, marry and remain in love; others, sadly fall out of love.

Uncle Pat | 02 October 2014  

Just read Ms Keneally's opinion piece in the SMH. Its astounding that Ms Keneally has designated herself as some sort of official voice for Catholic women. Astounding - and slightly disturbing - that this Jesuit site has help to elevate her in this role....My observation of Church life is that people of influence - men and women - are rarely people like Keneally.

Cath | 02 October 2014  

Dr G. Fisher, archbishop of Canterbury in the years after the Council, said "what the Catholics are doing now, we did 400 years ago". It is the same with women in the church, still 400 years behind the Anglicans.

TREVOR GREEN | 02 October 2014  

True, Trevor Green. However, unlike the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church will never, thank God, abandon the Church founded by Christ. The Second Vatican Council did not alter one piece of fundamental Catholic teaching. Fisher's comment affirms his ignorance of what represents the true Church founded by Christ.

john frawley | 02 October 2014  

I think Orthodox Christians (and historians) might disagree with you there. And how dare Christina Kenneally claim "primacy of conscience" without a Phd in Godology - and being a woman at that!

AURELIUS | 03 October 2014  

Press release: Roman Catholic grassroots’ wish as to equal access to priesthood included in cantonal law In the two Roman Catholic churches of the cantons of Basel-Town and Basel-Country of Switzerland / Europe something extraordinary was achieved on 28th September 2014: At the ballot (Basel-Town 81.8 % votes in favour, Basel-Country 87.4 % in favour) the members of the two churches voted for the inclusion of the following stipulation in their respective ecclesiastical constitutions belonging to public law: The two cantonal churches are to submit to the church authorities that the access to priesthood irrespective of sex and marital status should be made possible. In most Swiss cantons members of the Roman Catholic Church are subject to two legal systems: a) to the global canon law as stipulated in the Codex Iuris Canonici, and b) to the local, democratic ecclesiastical law, based on a ecclesiastical constitution, modelled after the cantonal public law system. The new text passage will be included in the ecclesiastical law system. Even though the new stipulation will not immediately or compellingly affect global canon law, it will be a strong beacon of the rank and file of the church towards the church authorities, i. e. the bishops. All over the world church institutions and theologians have again and again submitted petitions and resolutions to ecclesiastical decision-makers putting forth the same comparable requests. The ballot of September 28th is a new form of expression of part of the church’s grassroots with an urgent appealing character. Behind the text passage two motives can be made out: 1) The equality of women and men in the church is also a matter of justice. The most important theological argument in favour of this principle is put forth on the first page of the Bible where we can read that the male and the female were created in the image of God (Gen. 1. 26-28). Even the Pontifical Bible Commission in 1976 stated that there are no biblical reasons against the ordination of women. That is why the future of our church must be under the responsibility of men and women alike. 2) In the Roman Catholic Church mandatory celibacy is a disciplinary measure and not a dogma and so could easily be abolished. An urgent wish of many church members now has been inscribed into constitutions, which in itself is so far unique in the world. We hope that this beacon will be seen by the all men decision-making bodies of our Church. The two committees of the „Initiative for Equality in the Church“ Basel-Town and Basel-Country www.kirchliche-gleichstellung.ch Contact: jjeker@bluewin.ch (Josef Jeker) 2’523 caracters

Josef Jeker | 03 October 2014  

Mr Jecker Sir, something more extraordinary than Swiss Canton Law occurred at Scriptural Last Supper,[infallibly exegeted by Ordinatio Sacerdoralis-OS] viz, "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women". OS promulgated on 22/4/1994 so defined."that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance" The above abrogates and transcends doctrine of Swiss Canton grassroots local law re priestesses.Nb Jesus dd not consult grassroots re ordaining men only. Re Priestly Celibacy being merely discipline. Modern historical scholarship underlines the Apostolic Origins of Celibacy, and its enactment in early church conciliar legislation up to controversial 7th century Quinisext Eastern Council. It instituted sexual relationship within previous 'continent' clerical marriages. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_chisto_en.html

Father John George | 03 October 2014  

Thanks Kristina for your input. I agree wholeheartedly with you that lay people with a broad range of views should be represented at this Synod. They should also have voting rights. No wonder the Catholic Church is losing numbers so quickly and so drastically because of the cult of clericalism and the problems associated with having such a powerful, authoritarian cult. If the Church had optional celibacy, I don't think it would have such an appalling legacy of clerical child abuse. How ridiculous for a Synod on the Family to exclude normal family people from voting and to exclude progressive Catholics like KK! I refer readers to the "Catholics for Renewal" website. They are asking the official Church to listen to the 'sensus fideli' the true mind of the Faithful, the mind of the whole 'Body of Christ', not just a group of celibate males, many but not all of whom are a huge part of the problems the Church is facing. A Church that is reactionary and not in tune with the People of God will continue to fail miserably, in spite of fundamentalists trotting out highly selective scripture quotes as in comments above. Please Pray for Pope Francis

Grant Allen | 05 October 2014  

KK’s view of Catholicism doesn’t represent the views of Young Practising Catholics today. KK has done immense harm to the Church by her public stances, undermining Church teachings and purporting herself to be "Captain Catholic." She feeds of the hostility of the general public towards Catholicism, leading people to believe that she is authoritative on all things Catholic. Less informed people believe her, on the basis of the fact that she was a former NSW premier. She isn’t representative of the young thinking Aussie Catholic today. Whilst she may have been chosen as a WYD delegate almost 25 years ago and been considered for youth leadership of Catholic Students back then, as a young Catholic today, I can attest to the fact that no serious Catholic Student Body, no World Youth Day Group would appoint a young equivalent of Kristina Kenneally whose view of Catholicism does not represent the views of young Practising Catholics going forward- but represent the views of a dying liberal strand of Catholicism which has borne no progeny or young Catholics who can confidently articulate this vision (or lack thereof) of Catholicism. The Church has done well to ignore her candidature for the Synod

Neil | 05 October 2014  

For the people who talk about KK doing harm to Catholicism - look around, ask your friends and family about what they think of church teaching - it's either irrelevant or they can't/don't follow it. KK is merely presenting reality. In Catholic countries in Latin America and southern Europe, the quandary of having rules and laws on the one hand and doing another on the other doesn't seem to be such an issue.

AURELIUS | 05 October 2014  

Neil, very well put mate. My sentiments exactly. How KK can be calling herself a Catholic on one hand, whilst openly undermining the teachings of the church on the other, has got me scratching my head. What "progressives" like herself fail to understand (although I'm certain she is fully aware) is that the Church and the Holy Father CANNOT change the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The church is not a democracy where the majority wins, it is the authority of god himself which upholds his truth and teachings as to how we are to live our life. Regardless of how people like KK feel, what the majority think is right, isn't going to change Gods "mind" so to speak. It is irrelevant, it wouldn't matter if the whole world was against gods teachings, the fact is it is still true....and right now the young Catholics of Australia are more conservative/orthodox, as they can see the destruction of what modernism has done to the church; they can also see merit in the truth which has been proven time and time again through history.

Tristan Ross | 06 October 2014  

I don't understand how someone can consider themselves an authentic Christian voice if they ignore half the things Jesus said. As Catholics, we don't get to pick and choose which bits of our faith appeal to us - as Jesus himself said "I have not come to abolish them [the law] but to fulfill them." I'm a young, lay, practising, passionate, female Catholic. I'd love to have a conversation with Ms. Kenneally so that I can understand the basis of her conclusions. Because they don't make much sense to me.

Rue | 09 October 2014