Pope Francis greets Sr. Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, at the Vatican. The synod is raising hope for some, fear in others, on what it will mean for women. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Women share hope, fears for synod on synodality

  • January 21, 2022

Pope Francis’ goal of a more synodal Church, hearing the voices of all the faithful, may be a sign of both progress and the lack thereof when it comes to the role and representation of women.

The pontiff launched an unprecedented Synod on Synodality at the Vatican Oct. 9-10 and in dioceses worldwide Oct. 16-17. While most synods are traditionally a space for bishops and Vatican officials to resolve questions of discipline and administration, this ambitious two-year global process seeks the equal inclusion of clergy, religious and laity, from every diocese around the globe.

This, say prominent women within Canadian Church circles, could have significant implications for women.

Moira McQueen, executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and moral theologian in the University of St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, believes the Church’s reform of hierarchical structures in recent years through the promotion of women is a sign of advancement, however incremental.

The appointment of France’s Sr. Natalie Becquart as a consultor to the Synod of Bishops and undersecretary in 2021, Barbara Dowding as chancellor of the Archdiocese in Vancouver as well as women being named presidents of theological schools in Rome is momentous, says McQueen, and cannot be understated. Barriers are being dismantled.

“To have women represented at that level is amazing,” said McQueen, author of the new book, Walking Together: A Primer on the New Synodality. “It doesn’t seem like much but they are significant steps. There’s an awareness that there are women that can do these things. … It will undoubtedly be a slow process but it’s happening and that’s the main thing.”

On the other hand, some are waiting to see the results before proclaiming any sort of victory for women in the Church.

Sr. Sue Wilson, CSJ, executive director of the Office for Systemic Justice with the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada, says while a more inclusive and diverse synodal process has been something to celebrate, how it’s handled on the diocesan level may be cause for concern.

“It’s one thing to value diversity in the documents outlining the vision for the synodal process but it’s going to be another thing to see that value put into practice at the local diocesan level across the country,” said Wilson. “For me it raises questions of what processes have been put in place to listen to the voices of women who still consider themselves in the Church as well as the voices of women who have left the Church, to understand why they left.”

“We have to deal with the fears,” Becquart told the Dec. 16 “Women in Synodality” conference at the Vatican.

Catholic women, Becquart said, need to encourage and support one another for the realization of “the Church we dream about,” one that is “truly inclusive,” that values the gifts of all the baptized, promotes collaboration and listens to the Holy Spirit.

McQueen attended the 2015 Synod on marriage and the family and says the experience highlighted for her the general importance of the role of laity in the process. This is reflective of the Pope’s positive impact in recognizing the equal value and capabilities of women in the Church.

“(The Pope) has said the promotion of women is a good thing and he follows through,” said McQueen. “What I love about him is it’s not theoretical or something that should be done. He does it. He’s saying that this is his vision for the structure of the Church with more women. It’s much more a merit type situation. If a woman can do it, then a woman will be appointed to do it.”

While the involvement of women is a positive sign of progress, Wilson says, it is not reflective of the level of gender equality necessary for a truly inclusive synod. She is critical of feedback from diverse voices filtered through a synod of bishops and the effect that will have on subsequent generations.

“To have a woman here and a couple women there, that’s not the same as gender equality throughout the process,” she said.

The Vatican is counting on the synodal questionnaires at the diocesan level to play an important role in collecting information to provide the food for thought beginning at the national level, culminating in the synod of bishops in the Vatican in 2023.

“I’m hoping that women react fairly rigorously to the synod questionnaires to back up (the truth) that women are interested and have, through their comments and insights, a significant contribution to make,” said McQueen.

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