By Mary E. Hunt
The Roman Catholic Church made history this year by allowing women to vote in a synod for the first time in 2,000 years. This “victory” was dubious, as the voting was on a consensus document that did not advance anything and even managed to backburner several important issues, like LGBTIQ+ inclusion, that figured in the reports leading up to the meeting.
At a conference of progressive Catholics held in Rome at the same time, former president of Ireland Mary McAleese observed: “Equality is a right, not a favor. The women attending the Synod on Synodality are there as a favor, not as a right.” From a feminist perspective, this synod portends little change in the near term, which in Catholic years is a century or more. Given the Roman Catholic Church’s track record on women in my 50 years of paying attention, high expectations were naïve at best. It is hard to think of another global institution that still prohibits by law qualified women from certain jobs, as in the case of Roman Catholic priesthood.
The synod, a Greek-inspired word for “walking together,” has roots in early Christian church practices that were revived by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). A synod refers to the gathering, until now, of bishops who develop proposals for the pope to consider. Adding lay people who can vote is the novelty here, but it does not change the advisory nature of the outcome and the hierarchical, pope-topped structure. Pope Francis initiated the current synod in 2021 with local, regional, and continental gatherings culminating in two international sessions in Rome, this year and next.
Blowback against the process was swift and stern by conservatives, who rightly discern that widespread demands by progressives for change are in the air. Some local bishops ignored the expectation that they lead their dioceses in participating in the synodal process. Nonetheless, the unquestioned assumption that a tiny cohort of bishops (there are more than 1.3 billion Catholics in the world and only 5,500 bishops) could or should make decisions for an institution with global reach will be hard to enforce now that a more inclusive model has been tried.
Catholic market share is dropping like a stone in the West, especially in Europe, though it is growing in Africa. Catholicism remains the largest single denomination in the US, but former Catholics now comprise the second largest group.
The Vatican had to do something. A synod with a small percentage of non-bishops gave the appearance of change without changing any structures, teachings, or laws. A future pope can act as if it never happened. Those who attended had a powerful experience. Some reported new friendships, the obligation to talk with people with whom they disagree, an experience of listening as much as talking, some spiritual deepening. But the rest of the Catholic community is largely uninformed about and unmoved by the synodal effort.
Catholic problems are due in large part to the worldwide scandal of clergy sexual abuse that many bishops have covered up for decades. The credibility of the church continues to tank as the institution refuses to recognize the equality of women. Failure to share decision-making, to ordain women to the priesthood from which the right to jurisdiction stems, and the rejection of women’s right to reproductive justice chase people out the doors. Theological teaching against LGBTIQ+ persons (same-sex activity is considered “morally disordered”) and pastoral rejection of queer people (the sacrament of marriage is limited to heterosexual couples) are integral parts of traditional patriarchal Catholicism despite (or perhaps also because of) a large number of closeted gay clergy.
Pope Francis is perceived as relatively open to and even welcoming of LGBTIQ+ people. His recent tentative consideration of maybe, someday far away, blessing same-sex couples was lauded by people who took it at face value. But on closer inspection, it was mired in hopelessly heterosexist norms which could be deviated from only in the most limited of circumstances for reasons of pastoral “prudence” and “charity.” Many self-respecting queer Catholics would sooner line up with the gerbils and cats for a blessing on the feast of St. Francis than beg such an offensive blessing.
Some Catholic-identified but not churchgoing Catholics claim and reshape their spiritual heritage while distancing from the institution. Groups like Catholics for Choice, the LGBTIQ+ organization DignityUSA, and the various Roman Catholic women priest groups are people who, despite many being officially considered excommunicated, claim that their Catholic faith inspires their social activism, which includes calling the institutional church to account. Women voting in a synod is quite a tame little step given the expectations such movements engender. When progressive Catholics work with secular groups and other religious movements for justice, they function as a powerful counterwitness to the institution’s damaging antiwomen, antisex stands, and they take many people with them.
The first synodal vote by women took place at an oddly titled event: “XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops First Session” in October 4-9, 2023, in Rome. Odd but telling. Instead of the usual gathering of bishops (only men can be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, hence all Catholic bishops are men), this time the group of 464 people included about 20% lay women and men. Nuns, sometimes mistakenly considered to be clergy, are in fact all lay because they are women. Of the participants, 365 were eligible to vote, including about three dozen women. The rest were theological consultants, facilitators, and staff. Still, the Vatican could not concede the obvious and drop the word ‘bishops’ from the title, a sign that not much would change—and it didn’t.
The monthlong synod session in Rome displayed the symbolic and liturgical trappings of Catholicism with clergy dressed up in vestments and cassocks to reinforce clerical hegemony. The synodal process, for all its claims to inclusion, dialogue, and discernment, had the fatal flaw of still leaving all final decision-making in the hands of the pope. Francis made abundantly clear that a synod is not intended to resemble, even remotely, a democratic or parliamentary model of governance. It is not meant to make rules or change teachings. It is advisory at best.
The pope put a lid on the meeting. He insisted that the doors be closed, that discussion and debates not be shared beyond the walls. Periodic press conferences were tightly scripted. Even seasoned members of the press complained bitterly about the lack of transparency, though they understood that the safety and well-being of some participants would be in jeopardy in their home settings if they were known to have held controversial views. The biggest innovation of this meeting was that participants sat at round tables and used computers. That was touted, pitifully, as if the whole crowd had just left the 19th century in their dust. Otherwise, this synod was like previous ones but with a smattering of lay people included.
Efforts to claim the pure, sacred, even mystical nature of this all too human meeting were in vain. People leaked information strategically on background, as is common. The Vatican played politics and the media with the best of them. Just as the gathering got underway, Pope Francis published Laudate Deum (2023), a short update to his popular encyclical Laudato Si’(2015) on the environmental crisis. Would that issues of women and queer people were discussed with the same level of scientific rigor as climate change.
At the same time, he published his responses to his harshest critics, five cardinals who expressed their “doubts” about his willingness and/or ability to avoid giving away the store when lay people were at the table. They worried about how solid he was on keeping bishops in charge, keeping women out of the priesthood, keeping queer people from receiving blessings, and other such gatekeeping functions that they expected him to fulfill. His jesuitical responses seemed to satisfy no one, but served as a reminder of who is in charge.
The “Synthesis Report,” which was voted on by the assembled, fulfilled the low expectations of synod skeptics like me. While it claimed to convey the major issues discussed, there is no mention of LGBTIQ+ anything. Leaked reports from the floor made clear that homosexuality was the subject of much, not always friendly, discussion. Apparently, a story was told of a young queer woman who killed herself because of church teaching, moving many participants to tears. Yet not even the initials LGBTIQ+ merited a mention in the report despite their prominence in the preparatory materials and many synod reports from around the world. Backsliding in the face of opposition is not surprising, but complete ghosting (other than two cryptic mentions of sexuality) suggests the pathological fear that grips some church officials at the mere mention of the truth of many lives, including some of their own.
The lightning rod that is the priestly ordination of Catholic women was studiously avoided in the document. Ordination of women to the diaconate seems to be gaining traction. This makes a perverse kind of sense in that the model of diaconate is basically service-oriented and without decision-making power, a recipe for a woman’s job in patriarchy. The Vatican succeeded in having women participate fully in a process that was not, finally, in their best interest. No wonder the Catholic Church has endured for two millennia.
Many progressive groups went to Rome to meet outside the walls to make their cases for women’s ordination, queer rights, reproductive justice, justice for abuse survivors, and more. They presented another face of Catholicism, and gained great momentum from being together and clarifying the contradictions of the institution. But even they were swept up in the centripetal force that is 2,000 patriarchal years old and not about to yield much. The synod process managed to recenter Rome as the place of pyramidal power. Very clever.
The Synod Assembly will meet in Rome again next year. Barring a miracle, it will be more of the same slow-walking, spiritualized, status quo tolerating of teachings and practices that emanate from a structure that has long outlived its usefulness and that degrades its own message of love and justice. Let the buyers beware.
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