Catholic women sharply call for synod to open to women's participation, voices

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.
(Paulist Press)
(Paulist Press)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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A diverse global network of Catholic women is set to launch an expansive and compelling collection of writings before the opening of October's Synod of Bishops, pointedly calling on the male prelates to include their half of humanity and its experience in the synod's discussions.

In 40 short essays mixing the sociological, theological, and sometimes deeply personal, the writers raise a number of weighty concerns for the hotly anticipated worldwide meeting of prelates on family life -- centered on the fact that extraordinarily few women are invited or involved.

At the heart of many of their concerns, however, is their own exclusion from the Synod process. While Francis has appointed 30 women to attend the Synod as auditors making contributions to the discussions, only the 279 male members of the meetings can vote.

Pressing that point in one of the essays is Italian historian Lucetta Scaraffia, who titles her contribution: "Breathing with Only One Lung: Where Are the Women's Voices in the Synods?" Scaraffia is one of the women appointed as auditors.

"The absence of women’s perspectives at times of reflection on these issues is not only an act of disdain toward women, who make up more than half of religious and believers, it is also an impoverishment of Catholic life," writes Scaraffia, one of 43 women writing for the essay collection, titled Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table.

"If the church’s voice is to be heard, women must share the work of proclamation," Scaraffia, who also edits a monthly edition of the semi-official Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano dedicated to women's issues, states.

The essay volume, to be launched in Rome Oct. 1 during an event at the Pontifical University Antonianum, brings together women from a range of professional fields and places around the world to express their views on the numerous and complex problems being faced by families.

The fruit of a yearlong online networking project to connect Catholic women from around the globe, the book hopes to influence discussions at the Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops, the second of two back-to-back yearly bishops' meetings called by Pope Francis to focus on family life.

The women in the book do not shy away from talking about some of the more heated issues facing the Synod -- like same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage, and widespread use of contraception.

But they also discuss little-publicized issues like struggles faced in interfaith marriages, specific challenges for women in Africa and Latin America, and the particular impact poverty has on women.

In their introduction, the editors of the new volume say they wanted to "disclose the rich diversity, engagement, and learning of Catholic women today."

"The hierarchy has not acknowledged this diversity because it speaks about us but seldom with us," the editors state.

Citing Francis' call in 2013 for the church to study a theology of womanhood, the editors say "such comments reduce women to objects of study, a separate category of reflection."

"We resist ... any suggestion that the Church needs a theology of 'Woman' or 'womanhood,'" they continue. "Rather than a deeper theology of women, we say that the Church needs a deeper theology of the human -- a theological anthropology that can be developed only by the full inclusion of women in the process of theological reflection informed by the experiential realities of daily life."

The essay volume is being published in the U.S. by Paulist Press. The online network's main organizer and one of the contributors to the collection, British-Zambian theologian Tina Beattie, provided uncorrected final proofs of the book.

Authors for the essay collection include a number of well-known U.S. theologians, among them: St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley.

Representation also spans the globe, with essays by African Srs. Anne Arabome and Nontando Hadebe, Latin Americans Carolina del Río and Ana Lourdes Suárez, Philippine Agnes Brazal, and Indian Astrid Lobo Gajiwala.

In one particularly compelling essay on "The Structure of the Church and Catholic Families," Catherine Cavanagh asks how the structure of the church's male-led hierarchical system sets an example for families around the world.

"What is the impact on the family of a church where Sunday after Sunday only men preach?" asks Cavanagh, a candidate in the doctor of ministry program at Regis College, University of Toronto.

"How does it affect the family to be told that only men can be the imago Christi?" she continues. "And what is it like to have all the decisions at the upper echelons of the church made by men?"

Proposing one answer, Cavanagh says the church teaching that only men can image Christ as a priest teaches families that: "Dad must be more important than mom."

"In general, God must think boys are more important than girls," Cavanagh continues to answer. "Sure, Mary is awesome, but she is not God. Christ is God and that makes God male and priests male (forget our teaching that all are created in the image of God.) So males come first, and females come second."

Arabome, a theologian and Sister of Social Social Service from Nigeria, says that women throughout Africa are "least recognized with regard to ministry and participation in leadership and decision making."

"The first identity of an African woman is seen as mother and wife, and the roles of motherhood and womanhood are intertwined," states Arabome, who is completing her second doctorate at the University of Roehampton in London.

"However, the church’s rush to endorse woman’s role as procreator and helpmate often bypasses the positive valorization of the personhood of the African woman in herself," she continues.

Gajiwala, who is a consultant for the Indian bishops' conference, focuses her chapter on the specific challenges of women in her region of the world. She says that many women in India have been left out of the excitement of the Synod because 42 percent of women in rural areas of the country are illiterate.

Many women there, Gajiwala writes, face incredible poverty, little to no education, and even forced marriages.

"Such women pose many challenges to the Christian vision of family," she states. "How can these women experience 'the joys of human existence' when they exist in inhuman conditions?"

Farley, whose work has attracted wide acclaim in the U.S., tackles the question of same-sex marriage.

Examining why Catholic teaching finds marriage to be the appropriate outlet for human sexual desires, she states that what makes marriage special for many theologians is the commitment partners make to one another -- a "special form of covenant."

"Now what in this description of the core of marriage would not fit same-sex relationships that are marked by profound commitments to love, to be faithful to the uniqueness of their love, to be fruitful together in myriad ways through the gift of their love, and to anchor their love and life in community?" asks Farley, a professor emeritus at Yale University.

"For many, marriage is understood as between two equal persons," she continues. "For each person, the gender of the other matters. But for the institution and sacrament of marriage, it need not matter."

"In a world where it would not matter whether persons were gay or straight, marriage would still be as important as it is today," states Farley. "Indeed, it might finally be as important as it should be."

The Catholic Women Speak volume will launch Oct. 1 with a press event and a series of roundtable discussions.

Among the participants at that event will be: Nigerian Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, British ambassador to the Holy See Nigel Baker, Chilean ambassador to the Holy See Mónica Jiménez de la Jara, and former Irish president Mary McAleese.

Orobator, a theologian who recently finished serving as the provincial of the Jesuit order's province of East Africa, is also the only man to write in the essay collection.

Introducing the volume, the priest says the voices within "enrich and expand the banquet of ecclesial conversation with assorted gifts worthy of a new Pentecost."

"Compiled with a view to the 2015 Synod on the Family, this anthology reminds us that treating half the members of the body of Christ as outsiders or assigning them second-class status is a detritus of history and tradition unsuited for the twenty-first century and unfounded in the Gospel," writes Orobator.

"The exclusion of the majority in deciding the teachings and affairs of the body of Christ seems like a distortion and mutilation of this body," he states.

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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