Catholic men and women demonstrate holding placards that read ‘Votes for Catholic Women” during a meeting of the International Catholic Reform Network in Warsaw in 2019 (Photo: supplied) 

By Virginia Saldanha

Published: April 28, 2023 04:26 AM GMT

Pope Francis has decided to include 70 lay persons (women and men) as full participants in the forthcoming Synod on Synodality, with full voting rights, media reports said this week. In addition, the 10 religious men who voted in synods past, will now be five religious men and five religious women. It is a step in the right direction.

It is historic! For the first time, 41 women will vote at a Synod of Bishops that traditionally gave this right only to men. This includes Sr. Natalie Becquart, who gained the right to vote when she was appointed as Under Secretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in February 2021.

Gender discrimination at the Synod for Amazonia was stark. Bishops, priests, religious men and even one religious brother had voting rights but no religious woman was given that right even though ten of them were present as “observers.”

The exclusion of women from contributing along with men in decision-making in the Church runs contradictory to the way in which Jesus treated women and made them part of his mission. 

Women’s voices have been silenced thus far.  But Pope Francis has been taking small steps towards increased participation of women in positions of responsibility in the Church.

Women are grateful to Pope Francis for his efforts to correct the anomalies in the Church’s hierarchical structure that have kept it from truly being the People of God where the dignity of all the baptized are equally recognized.

“Women have been waiting and clamoring for a long time for change and hoping Pope Francis will finally deliver a revolution”

The steps are very small but are an important change to put the focus on women who are active in the mission of the Church but lack a voice in the Church structures of power and decision-making.

“This is not a revolution, but an important change,” pointed out Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary-General of the Synod Office and Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Synod’s General Realtor who made the announcement.

Women have been waiting and clamoring for a long time for change and hoping Pope Francis will finally deliver a revolution.

In 2018, women from reform groups around the world started a campaign for the inclusion of women with voting rights in the Synods of Bishops. The campaign began in Rome that year when women demonstrated at the Vatican holding placards that read “Votes for Catholic Women.”  That campaign continued at various meetings of reform groups till the Covid interruption.

Women are concerned about the selection of those who will represent their region. Will that process be a transparent one?  Bishops are likely to select women and men who probably will not challenge or disagree with their views or stand on various issues.

Pat Brown of Catholic Women’s Ordination in the UK  said, “CWO would want transparency, and lay people elected from dioceses rather than chosen by the hierarchy, but it is a start!”.

In Asia, the synodal process lacked transparency and was not at all synodal even though we have the Small Christian Community structure in most dioceses and countries. Vast numbers of people did not know when their diocesan synod took place.  They were unaware of who represented their parish at the diocesan synod.  They were unaware of who represented their diocese or their country at the National and Continental levels.

The results of the discussions at the diocesan and national levels were not shared with the People of God.  This was very disappointing for the people who have been taking an active part in the local Church at the grassroots.

“We can only hope and pray that Spirit Sophia will inspire the bishops and Pope Francis to make the right selection of persons”

The communique from the Vatican News office states, “The 2018 Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio already provided for the presence of “non-bishops” at the synod. The 70 non-bishop members will be chosen by the pope from a list of 140 prepared by the seven International Reunions of Bishops’ Conferences and the Assembly of Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches.  They shall represent “various groupings of the faithful of the people of God [priests, consecrated women, deacons, lay faithful].”

Will women theologians be present? Will persons representing different gender identities be present? Will those abused by priests and children of priests have a voice?

We can only hope and pray that Spirit Sophia will inspire the bishops and Pope Francis to make the right selection of persons. We hope the bishops present at the synod will listen to people’s voices both inside and outside of the synod gathering.

“In the near future, we hope that the synod continues to develop into a fully representative body of the people of God. This is an important step on the path toward gender parity, and we will continue our persistent efforts to work for lasting structural changes in the Church,” stated Kate McElwee Director of the Women Ordination Conference, in a press release yesterday.

A step in the right direction must lead to full and complete inclusion of all those who have been kept out thus far, so that the theme “Enlarge the Space of your Tent” chosen for the working document towards the 2023 Synod on Synodality, is made true.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.