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An Opportunity [Lost] to Hear Catholic Women and Men Speak

An Opportunity [Lost] to Hear Catholic Women and Men Speak

Mary Jo Iozzio


On Saturday, October 24, Pope Francis addressed the participants of the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World, concluding with thanks and cautions that the results of the gatherings over the previous two weeks remain a work in progress. In those remarks, Francis pointed repeatedly to what the Synod was about and what it will mean for the Church. On October 25, the Synod ended formally with the Sunday celebration of Mass and with Francis excoriating those with closed hearts and rigid doctrine, leaving the Synod’s efficacy to the days and years ahead of us.

At this moment –from the lineamenta to the instrumentum laboris and the reports during these weeks of the Synod—I find myself wondering, what is the place in and contribution of the laity to the Church? In 2015 the overwhelmingly clerical nature of this meeting, devoted as it was to the family, exposes the ongoing marginalization of women and lay men in the Church. Consider those present at the Synod sessions and the underwhelming number of women and lay men: of 316 in attendance, there were 46 auditing/non-voting laypersons of whom were 29 women (3 women religious, 9 single, 17 married) and 17 men (all married); among 270 voting participants, were 269 prelates and 1 professed religious brother. This news is, sadly, not surprising although it is disturbing, particularly as the conversations at the Synod were to have engaged the realities of family life in our day. How is it possible, I wonder, for the Church to miss the opportunity of what is obvious to so many? That is, why so few women and lay men, married and single, dialogue partners? Why no votes from lay participants on what becomes the concluding sensus sinodi? Perhaps more disturbingly, reports indicate condescension toward and dismissal of some of the women auditors. How can a Synod on families not engage the realities of family life as told by families living those realities? Along with many others, I hope that the Church hierarchy will soon find ways to remedy this disservice to the Catholic faithful, including the sexist (even misogynist!) insults and slights against all women and men, religious and lay.

 In the months leading up to the Synod, one of the ways that 44 of our women colleagues around the world found to present their voices and their talents in preparation for the Synod was the Facebook group “Catholic Women Speak.” Inspired by Tina Beattie of Roehampton University, UK, the CWS network developed and published, with remarkable speed (just over 9 months from conception to print!) and to-be-expected acumen, Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table  (Paulist Press, 2015). The network hosted a book launch in Rome over the weekend before the Synod began; copies were provided to each of the bishops present for the Synod. It was hoped that with those copies in hand, the bishops could not fail to hear our theologically trained women colleagues nor could they ignore the insights in this collection and in their many articles and texts published over the years. Although not one of the contributors was a Synod auditor, time may be on our side as their voices could yet have an influence on Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation to come. The Pope may yet surprise in the coming months with the fruits of his own examen on the Synod proceedings.

            In the meantime, consider the not-yet-published final report of the Synod, Section 27: “Women”. Following references to the debt(s) owed to women and mothers and the conventional identification of women with marriage and motherhood, the conclusion of the paragraph offers a glimpse into a possible future. With its recommendation that women serve in positions to influence dialogue and shared work in the family, in societies –especially in those where just being a woman provokes discrimination and/or violence, and in the Church. The section concludes by noting that “A greater appreciation of their responsibilities within the Church can contribute to the social recognition of the role of women: their involvement in decision-making, their participation in the government of some institutions, and their involvement in the formation of ordained ministers.” Perhaps a woman or a lay man will lead the new dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life?

            With the Synod complete, what next? At minimum, despite whatever the expectations may be regarding the Apostolic Exhortation Francis develops in the weeks ahead –and given his penchant to surprise both conservative and progressive camps—I am trusting in the Jubilee Year of Mercy as the gate through which he will lead. Perhaps Francis will engage the opportunity, at the moment lost, to hear the stories and respond to the realities of family life today: stories from mothers and fathers, single parents, non-heterosexual couples, widows and widowers, divorced and/or remarried parents, grandmothers and/or grandfathers, hetero and lbtiq parents and children. However they are constituted, many families struggle to survive. They could thrive if only those with power, privilege, and passion took note and then began to dismantle the systemic injustices that failed them at this Synod.