Synod system stacks deck against women

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.
Prayer opens the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 5. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Prayer opens the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 5. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Mary E. Hunt

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The XIV General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops with its focus on the family has a big process problem. Not one of the relatively few women who are in attendance can vote. It is a classic example of what is wrong with the current ecclesial structure. The women are auditors, which means they can listen, even participate in some discussions, but not be involved in any binding decisions. As young people say, “What’s up with that?”

Here is the fine print:

Canon 346 - § 1. The membership of a Synod of Bishops gathered in Ordinary General Session consists of the following: for the most part, bishops elected to represent their individual groups by the Conferences of bishops in accord with the special law of the Synod; other bishops designated in virtue of this law itself; other bishops directly named by the Roman Pontiff. To this membership are added some members of clerical religious institutes elected in accord with the norm of the same special law.

In English, we say the deck is stacked. While the Synod pretends widespread consultation through survey instruments circulated around the world, the “membership” is made up of all men all the time. What possible justification can there be for this in the 21st century?

I puzzled over why the male delegates elected by the Union of Superiors General were treated differently than the female delegates of the International Union of Superiors General. Then I realized my conceptual error. Or, should I say, my clerical error. Of course the men belong to “clerical religious institutes” which by definition exclude women. So it follows that they can vote but the women cannot. How easy it would be to change that — either making the men auditors or making the women voters. Anybody in Rome have a pen handy? (Curiously, one of the male religious representatives is a brother, not a cleric, but because he represents his clerical order he votes.)

I still have not figured out why there are three women and ten men delegates when there seem to be more members of women’s congregations in the world than of men’s. But of course there is no logic to sexism. The matter has nothing to do with democratic representation. It simply has to do with power. Women are excluded. This is what proponents of women’s ordination are talking about since only ordination confers jurisdiction. Women want to make decisions commensurate with the responsibility we take on. Period.

My own view is that clericalizing women, especially women who are members of religious congregations, would be a big mistake. Such a move would simply shore up a system that is rigged against the vast majority of the community — in the case of this Synod, those who live the very family issues under discussion. So adding a few women clerics is no solution. But there is something so profoundly unfair about rigging a meeting like this, having three women religious and 17 married couples listening and commenting around the edges while male clerics make decisions, that it rankles the soul. Much as I think ordination as currently conceived is flawed for everyone, if it takes ordination for women to have decision making power, so be it.

These women religious and the other lay people have the same level of participation as the so-called “Fraternal Delegates.” Those include representatives of the World Council of Churches, the World Methodist Council, and the Christian Church Disciples of Christ. Miracles of miracles, even those guests are all men despite plenty of good women in their leadership. Is there some explanation for that? Ecumenical collusion so as not to rock the big boat? I hope not.

I can understand why Vatican II was set up as a men’s club. Fifty years ago most women simply did not have the expectation of equal treatment, much less the experience, training, and credentials to participate on an equal footing with men. But all of that has changed. It is high time that the Vatican get with the program or risk having even its most popular leader in recent memory sound like a walking contradiction in terms.

[Mary E. Hunt is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Md.]

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