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, 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 Synod was both stark and bizarre.

‘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 mem 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 wo 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 i 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 experienci 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 whe 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 T
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 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 opportunitie 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 tru reflections on the changing nature of family life in the context of evangelisation will be flawed or incomplete.

Beth 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 servers in the parish. Photo: Beth Doherty, 2014