Catholic Women Speak Up in Time for the Synod

CWSEven before the Synod of Bishops could get up to speed after Vatican II, it suffered setbacks under Popes Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Instead of forums for real discussion and decision-making, the “rubber stamp syndrome” came into play as bishops learned to firmly align themselves with the Pope in power.

Pope Francis has set the synod on a new path that is closer to the vision of Vatican II.  Still, as a way toward collegiality, it includes only those who are ordained.  There have been no provisions that allow for full and equal decision making powers by the laity.  Lay input and decision-making are important across the board, but are especially critical as we head toward a synod where family and marriage are front and center. Women’s voices have only been heard at the very margins of synods in the past, yet are critical components in any credible decision making process that involves discussion and debate about pastoral practices related to family life, relationships, marriage and birth control.

This year, a new effort has been launched to make bring women’s voices forward in the lead up to the 2015 Family Synod.

Catholic Women Speak: Bringing our Gifts to the Table, is an extraordinary effort to make women’s experience and reflections on a variety of topics related to the 2015 Family Synod available to synod delegates, auditors, experts and to Catholics everywhere.

Tina Beattie, Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton, headed this effort and is a force of nature in the Catholic Church.

With almost miraculous speed, she and a small group of dedicated editors wove together this first-of-its-kind resource.  Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table is an anthology of essays by women who represent a broad international perspective and come from a variety of personal backgrounds, who believe that the Church cannot come to a wise and informed understanding of family life without listening to women (Paulist Press blurb).

The book is divided into four sub-parts with more than 40 authors from diverse geographies and backgrounds addressing a) our traditions, b) family, marriage and relationships, c) poverty and exclusion and d) our institutions.

The book begins with an essay by Cettina Militello, an Italian theologian who sent a few blessed shockwaves when, at the April 28th conference held at the Pontifical University Antonianum entitled “Women in the Church: Prospects for Dialogue”, she gave an overview of a history of misogyny in the Church, spoke about the devastating effects of Inter Insigniores and criticized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for its  demonization of gender theory.  In her essay in Catholic Women Speak she follows a similar track sketching the history of women as well as the new realities of 21st century life that should inform Church teaching.  She calls for equality and greater roles for women in the Church noting, “Women have moved from silence to speech, from invisibility to presence, from submission to co-responsibility. The journey has been long and is far from complete, but the goal is now illuminated by the new awareness that God’s design is an inclusive one.”

Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of Donne, Chiesa, Mondo for l’Osservatore Romano likens a synod without women to “breathing with just one lung.”  She makes the observation, “The absence of women at the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family reveals two negative aspects of the life of the Church: ignorance of and lack of interest in the female point of view – even in situations where women are at the heart of the matter – and disconnection from daily life.”

Amelia Beck tells of her experience with Vatican sanctioned birth control and the many babies she conceived even though she was meticulously following the Natural Family Planning method. She calls her essay “Vatican Roulette.”

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, writes about the marginalization of women in the family and points to the challenges their lives pose to the idealized notions of family and marriage set out by the Church. Where women have little to no access to power of any sort she points out that, “struggling to survive in a world that is marked with poverty, exploitation and lack of personhood, marriage for them is a burden and being born female a curse. Sold or off-loaded into marriage before the age of sixteen, for many of these women “the desire to marry and form a family” is not a choice (Lin. 1). It is a prison sentence, replete with marital rape, domestic violence, isolation, subservience to the point of slavery, and unplanned pregnancies that have fatal consequences for both mother and child.”

Agnes Brazal of the Philippines looks at family life through the prism of out-migration where greater and greater numbers of women are leaving home to bring in much-needed income.  Linked to “international capital’s search for cheap labor and domestic services, as well as to the increasing poverty in the sending countries,” families and especially children are suffering as their parents leave in search of work.  Brazal examines Church teaching with its assumptions about male/female and parenting roles and shows how it fails to take into account the economic strains on family life in the Philippines and beyond — adding to their burdens rather than relieving them.

In the last sub-section dedicated to the institutional church, Christine Schenk, CSJ, describes how the Lectionary leaves out the stories of women, and especially those who acted with authority in early Christianity.  Madeleine Fredell brings in the powerful story of the witness of Mary of Magdala and Rhonda Miska talks about young Catholic Women working in ministry in the Church.

These are just a few of the authors who have contributed to this well-produced resource.  Bishops attending the 2015 Family Synod would be better informed by reading it.

A synod on the family that does not engage women in meaningful ways leaves the Church limping, “breathing with just one lung.”  But more than that, it leaves women and children at risk by what is passed over or assumed because of the blind spots created by race, sex, geography, class, age, privilege, etc.

In my international travels to South Africa a few years ago, I met a women whose words unsettled me because they were so counter-intuitive.  She said, “the most dangerous thing a woman can be is married.”  As my jaw fell open, she explained that she lived in a region where the HIV Aids rate is one of the highest in the world and where men bring the disease home to their wives.  In one of many moments in my life, I, again, saw how limited my own understanding was and how my own privilege blinded me to the realities of women from other parts of the world.  May our bishops understand this is true for them as well, especially as they try to fashion guidance in worlds where women, children and men face life and death situations daily.

May this new book of essays help fill the gap.  Where male experience and wisdom has its limits, may it help the Church to provide meaningful and, yes, life saving guidance to all the baptized.

Deborah Rose-Milavec

FYI, this book is being published by Paulist Press and is available for pre-order from their website.  It is also being offered as part of FutureChurch’s Pentecost campaign.  Learn more.


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