Without doubt, the best line to emanate from the Synod on Synoldality is “Excuse me, Your Eminence, she has not finished speaking.”
That sums up the synod and the state of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward change.
In October, hundreds of bishops, joined by lay men and women, priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers met for nearly a month in Rome for the Synod on Synodality. At its end, the synod released a synthesis report brimming with the hope and the promise that the church would be a more listening church.
Some 54 women voted at the synod. Back home, women are still ignored.
It is not because women quote the Second Vatican Council at parish council meetings. It is because too many bishops and pastors ignore parish councils.
It is not because women of the world do not write to their pastors and bishops. It is because without large checks, their letters are ignored.
The Synod on Synodality was groundbreaking in part because it was more about learning to listen. It was more about the process than about results. Its aim was to get the whole church on board with a new way of relating, of having “conversations in the Spirit,” where listening and prayer feed discernment and decision-making.
Even now, the project faces roadblocks. At their November meeting this week in Baltimore, U.S. bishops heard presentations by Brownsville, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores, who has led the two-year national synod process so far. His brother bishops did not look interested.
To be fair, some bishops in some dioceses, in the U.S. and other parts of the world, are on board with Pope Francis’ attempt to encourage the church to accept the reforms of Vatican II, to listen to the people of God.
But too many bishops are having none of it.
The synod recognized the church’s global infection with narcissistic clericalism. It said fine things about women in leadership and the care of other marginalized people. Yet the synod remains a secret in many places. Its good words don’t reach the people in the pews.
Ask about synodality in any parish, and you might hear “Oh, we don’t do that here.” You are equally likely to hear “When I” sermons (“When I was in seminary,” “When I was in another parish”), and not about the Gospel.
Folks who were excited by Francis’ openness and pastoral message just shake their heads.
The women who want to contribute, who want to belong, are more than dispirited. They have had it. And they are no longer walking toward the door — they are running, bringing their husbands, children and checkbooks with them.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, it was recently discovered that Mass attendance had dropped 40% since 2017. It is the same in too many places. The reason the church is wobbling is not a lack of piety. It is because women are ignored. Their complaints only reach as far as the storied circular file.
What do women complain about? Bad sermons, as discussed. Autocratic pastors. And the big one: pederasty. If truth be told, women do not trust unmarried men with their children. Worldwide, in diocese after diocese, new revelations continue. Still.
Many bishops and pastors understand this. Francis certainly does, but he is constrained by clerics who dig their heels into a past many of them never knew. More and more young (and older) priests pine for the 1950s, when priests wore lace and women knew their place. That imagining does not include synodality.
Will the synod effort work? Francis’ opening to women in church management is promising. Where women are in the chancery, there is more opportunity for women’s voices to be heard. No doubt, a few more women there could help.
Getting women into the sacristy is trickier.
While it seems most synod members agreed about restoring women to the ordained diaconate as a recognition of the baptismal equality of all, some stalwarts argued it was against Tradition. Still others saw the specter of a “Western gender ideology” seeking to confuse the roles of men and women.
So, they asked for a review of the research. Again.
Women know the obvious: Women were ordained as deacons. There will never be complete agreement on the facts of history, anthropology and theology. Women have said this over and over.
If there is absolute evidence that women cannot be restored to the ordained diaconate, it should be presented, and a decision made.
Dressed in purple and wielding lavender banners, dozens of women took to the cobblestone paths lining the Vatican to advocate for female ordination this past October. The organizing group — Women’s Ordination Conference — has become one of the largest organizations calling for the ordination of women and gender equality within the Roman Catholic Church. The WOC’s recent march took place during the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, a month-long summit where members of the Catholic Church gather to discuss concerns facing the Church. Amongst the issues addressed, women’s role in the church emerged as one of the most contentious topics.
Female ordination has been banned within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. The 1994 apostolic letter issued by Pope John Paul II further cemented the Church’s strong opposition to women joining the priesthood. Still, the topic has continued to be one of the most criticized stances taken by the Church. Although Pope Francis expressed that there is no “clear and authoritative doctrine” regarding the ordination of women, some members of the Church feel differently.
Proponents of female ordination often assert the fact that all 12 of Jesus’s Apostles were men as justification for prohibiting women from being ordained. Indeed, Jesus and his apostles were men, but this logic seems to blatantly ignore the fact that women also held leadership roles in early Christianity. In Colossians 4:15, Nympha is described as hosting a church in her home, similar to Apphia in Philemon 2. And in Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe for being a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. To assert that women are unqualified to preach solely because of their gender is a myopic reading of the Bible that silences the stories of female biblical figures. Archival evidence further shows that women served as priests and even bishops from the second to sixth centuries, affirming their experience as preachers.
Still, picturing a woman dressed in an alb and chasuble can be difficult for some to imagine. One participant at the recent Synod explained he felt “violated” by the concept of female priests. The current sentiment regarding female ordination is partly attributed to the Church’s view on gender roles: that there is a clear distinction between men and women. Yet using this as reasoning to prevent female ordination is hypocritical. Under Gaudium et spes, discrimination, including gender discrimination, is called to be eliminated. Preventing women from being ordained because of their gender contradicts the Church’s own teaching.
Certain Catholic women have sought to pursue their dreams of priestly vocations despite the current policies in place. The Roman Catholic woman priest movement, consisting of over 200 women globally, takes part in unauthorized ordination practices to help women become priests. But it comes at significant risk: Women who become ordained can face hostility and be punished with excommunication from the Church.
The Catholic Church should look to embrace female ordination as opposed to fearing it. From a pragmatic standpoint, allowing women to be ordained could help remedy the ongoing priest shortage in the U.S. by filling vacant roles. It has also been consistently proven that having women in leadership roles helps to improve fairness and increase collaboration. As nuns, American women have shown great involvement in forwarding social justice initiatives too. Given that as of 2015, 59% of Catholic Americans believed that women should be allowed to be ordained, there is evident support behind this movement. While the Catholic Church has remained relatively fixed in its stance on female ordination, women in general have seen tremendous strides in autonomy within the past few centuries, from gaining voting rights to serving as CEOs in the workforce. But it’s time for the Catholic Church, an institution grounded in the belief of solidarity, to start demonstrating that virtue toward women.
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.
It is nearly 50 years since the Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded there was no scriptural basis for blocking the ordination of women to the priesthood, and more than half-a-century since Vatican II declared “every type of discrimination … based on sex” should be “eradicated as contrary to God’s intent”.
In Roman Catholic churches around the country today, the faithful will attend in ever fewer numbers than before. That the once dominant church is regarded as in perpetual crisis is widely acknowledged, and almost routinely accepted by the church itself.
At what point, the faithful must wonder, will the decline end and renewal begin? To truly open the church to women priests would be a good starting point. Pope Francis has begun a dialogue about ordaining women as deacons, but that is still some way from full priesthood — if it ever happens. The winds of change blow slowly in Rome.
A letter-writer to the Sunday Independent today highlights a document read out by the bishop of his diocese recently, which referred to many issues facing the church, one of which was the lack of Irish priests. Our correspondent suggests bishops be encouraged to send out requests to colleagues around the world to send priests to Ireland.
In fact, this process is well under way. Many parishes are now run by priests from other countries, a reversal of the trend throughout much of the last century when Irish missionary priests were sent to the far corners of the earth.
The decline in the number of priests here is caused by many factors, not all related to the crises the church has faced for several decades.
For example, there is a general decline of religion throughout much of the Western world, although dioceses in some parts do buck the trend — in Perth, Australia, for example.
Another factor in the decline may be that families these days are far smaller than before and, as rudimentary as it may seem, young men have far more choices career-wise.
Other than the Dominican Order in Ireland, which runs a relatively successful vocations programme, the widely shared view is that the church here runs poor programmes that do little to attract young men to a vocational life with the institution.
Following recent submissions from dioceses around the country for women to be admitted to the priesthood, an Irish bishop said God chose men, not women, to be priests and stated his belief that allowing women to become priests would not be a “quick-fix solution” to the church’s recruitment crisis.
In other words, whatever the arguments in favour, it would not make much of a difference because other churches with women and married priests also have a vocations shortage.
However, doing nothing for much longer is not really an option for the Roman Catholic Church.
An organisation that sacrificed its integrity over the handling of endemic child sex abuse in the ranks simply has no moral authority to keep the doors barred against women any longer. It may well be beyond women’s power to save the Catholic Church from itself either, but perhaps they are its last hope.
When the summit on the future of the Catholic Church began on October 9, I allowed myself for the first time in many years to feel optimistic. I smiled at pictures of Pope Francis welcoming LGBTQ Catholic advocates Sr Jeannine Gramick and Outreach director Fr James Martin, finally feeling that this could be our moment, my moment to find a home in the Church that had raised me. I felt that little sacristy door slightly creak open as I fumbled to dial the phone to call my mom. Was this it? Sadly, no. My excitement faded as I followed the livestream of the Synod of Bishops, punctuated by anger as I read the summit’s 41-page report.
This past Friday I saw New Ways Ministry’s statement, “Synod Report Greatly Disappoints, But We Must Have Hope,” while walking down a busy DC thoroughfare. In it Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the LGBTQ+-affirming Catholic organization, points out how, despite previous documents discussing the welcoming and inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics, there were no positive statements on LGBTQ issues—not even one use of the term “LGBTQ.” Instead, a single paragraph—approved by vote—stated:
“In different ways, people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their marriage status, identity or sexuality, also ask to be heard and accompanied.”
Once more the door that’s historically been closed to LGBTQ individuals and women was shut in my face. As I had done many times before, I opened myself up to the possibility that Pope Francis’s acknowledgement and inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics would lead to Church action. I had faith in this Synod, just like I did the Synod on Young People in 2018 whose final report also omitted the term “LGBT.”
Each time this happens, many LGBTQ Catholics dare to hope. For example, when the pope said, in 2022, that God “does not disown any of his children,” or in 2023 that “people with homosexual tendencies are children of God,” a number of LGBTQ Catholics and advocates, myself included, got excited for a day or two—maybe even called our parents (if the Church hasn’t driven a wedge between them and us). But then the news cycle passes and, with each expression of anti-LGBTQ Catholic doctrine on diocesan and global levels, these small victories are tarnished with sadness and frustration.
This is not to say that these moments of recognition don’t matter to me or to so many other LGBTQ Catholics; it’s just to say that it hurts me so much more when these slight openings have no practical impact on my life as a queer Catholic woman.
Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator assured LGBTQ Catholics that “the space is there to continue to have this conversation,” that no issue has been finalized ahead of the next assembly in 2024. “Nothing is closed,” remarked the dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, who added that the document “attempts to pull together all the divergent positions.” But how can we represent all viewpoints if the document won’t even say my name, say our name—LGBTQ Catholics? So the door is unlocked, but we’re not permitted to open it?
I want to be hopeful, but I, as well as many other Catholics, acknowledge that the changes Francis and other LGBTQ Catholics and allies are pushing for will not be achieved this year. They probably won’t be achieved this century. The door is rusted and rooted—it’s probably going to take more substantial remodeling. The Church moves at a slow pace, and I’m hopeful that these small moments will mean something, perhaps in a few decades or centuries. But at this moment, it feels like it doesn’t. The progress that I, and so many other LGBTQ Catholics dream of realizing, is extraordinarily unlikely to come true while I’m alive. In the end we’re working to open a door we will never walk through.