03 October 2018
Synods should include women
It is hard to image a more serious allegation than that of the rape of a religious sister by a bishop who is a patron of her order. Yet it took many months of personal appeals, letter-writing and campaigning for the woman involved even to get an official acknowledgement of her allegation. When action was finally taken, it was by the police, not by the Church. Even while senior members of the hierarchy were repeating the claim that “zero tolerance” would be shown to any priests guilty of sexual abuse, they were ignoring this Indian nun’s appeals for help.
In the mid 1990s, there was a brief flurry of publicity around well-founded reports of the widespread sexual abuse of women Religious by priests and bishops, particularly in Africa. More recently some nuns have been emboldened by the #MeToo movement to speak out about their experiences of harassment and abuse by members of the hierarchy. In a courageous display of solidarity, a number of Indian sisters took part in public protests demanding that the allegations against the Indian bishop be properly investigated.
Is this a new crisis in the Church waiting to break, as women and girls who for too long have feared blame and shame if they speak out refuse to keep silent any longer? Yet this is not just about rape, abuse and harassment. In its continuing marginalisation of women, the Church risks becoming one of the last bastions of patriarchal privilege and male exclusivity. There are few signs of real willingness to change, even when opportunities to do so arise.
The Fifteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops began this week in Rome. Its subject is Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment. In a press conference this week, the synod co-ordinator, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, explained that the new laws which are set out in the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio seek to involve the “whole people of God” in the synodal process.
In the past, women have not been able to vote in Synods of Bishops because, in line “with the tradition of the Church”, this was restricted to ordained men. This year, the new rules allow for religious brothers to participate as voting members of the synod, at the discretion of the Pope. But no women – not even religious sisters. In other words, while synodality – a word that carries with it the hope that the “inversion of the pyramid” Pope Francis speaks of might translate itself into a significant structural change – is agile enough to embrace the possibility of including non-ordained men as partners with the bishops in their decision-making, it cannot be stretched to include women.
This is not an understanding of “tradition” true to the reality of the role women play in the Church’s life, nor is it one likely to have a significant appeal to the young Catholics taking part in the synod or the many more who will be invited to take notice of its final document.