The National Catholic Review

To my mind, the Synod on the Family, no matter what the outcome of the Synod’s final report, or the Pope’s final statement, has been a resounding success. The assembled participants have had the chance to discuss some of the most important issues facing the church, and the discussions have been open, transparent and free. Thus, it has been a great success, and betokens still more openness in the future. Pope Francis has given the church a gift with this synod.

But this morning something very disturbing was revealed, thanks to a perceptive question by Thomas J. Reese, S.J., former editor in chief of America and currently a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. Brother Herve Janson, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, an order noted for its poverty and simplicity, was one of the participants at the daily press briefing. It was noted that he was also a voting member.  

Father Reese asked, rightly, “What is the rationale for you being admitted to the synod and religious women not being admitted to the synod?" (The exchange can be seen on the video below, starting at 42:00)

What does that mean? Basically, Brother Janson is not ordained. Some may not be aware of this tradition, but you can be a member of a men’s religious order and not be ordained: thus the term “Brother.” Brother Janson is neither a bishop, nor a priest, nor a deacon. Technically, his canonical “status” in the church is that of a layman. That is, he has the same “status” as that of a woman religious, or in common parlance, a Catholic sister. And the same status as a laywoman as well. 

In response to Fr. Reese’s question, which produced some uncomfortable laughter from the other panelists (who immediately grasped the challenging nature of the question): Brother Janson said (my translation from the French): “That is a big question….I felt very uncomfortable (malaise)….Before, the distinction was between cleric and lay. And now, it became between man and woman, exactly as you said very well….I asked myself the same question.” Strikingly, Brother Janson said he thought of refusing (renoncer) the invitation to be a voting member, out of solidarity with women religious. (This exchange can be viewed at 42:00 in the video below.)

This is a serious failure for the Synod. Previously, at least as far as I had known, it seemed that ordination was a prerequisite for voting. That is, there were priests who were appointed, in addition to the bishops, as voting members. There were strong theological arguments that could be advanced for that: it was a synod of bishops, and, in Catholic theology, priests participate in the ministry of the bishop through the sacrament of holy orders.

Now, it seems that the prerequisite for being a voting member was not ordination, but being a man.

It would have been extremely easy for the synod to have invited—as it did with Brother Janson—a Catholic sister to participate in the Synod, with voting rights. Perhaps the head of a women’s religious order could have been invited, or a woman religious who worked in the Vatican, or a woman religious who had experience in the theology of family life. It would also have been easy (since Brother Janson is a layman) to invite another layman or a laywoman to vote. 

For me this is the worst kind of sexism. It goes against the pope’s explicit desire to have more women in “leadership roles” in the church, as he said in "Evangelii Gaudium": “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” (10).

It is also, to use some theological language, a sign. The church teaches, as Jesus did, by both word and deed.  The “sign value” of having a voting member who was a woman—even one—would have been immense.  It was a huge missed opportunity.

Finally, while some may dismiss my comments as off topic, the decision to not to include women has to do with the family. Sexism is something that many, if not most, of our mothers, daughters and sisters have to deal with. The last thing the synod should have been doing is creating more problems for the members of our family.

Show Comments (23)

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Mike Escril | 1/8/2016 - 3:41am

Exactly...the women who WANT to vote are those who should NOT vote: radical feminists, progressives, lesbians, witches, contraceptive advocates, social justice liberals, anti-war Pax Christi types, etc.

Those people have helped to ruin and confuse our Church.

Lisa Fullam | 10/28/2015 - 1:28pm

Hear hear! One quibble: "Now, it seems that the prerequisite for being a voting member was not ordination, but being a man." True, but since a prerequisite for ordination is being a man, It really amounts to the same thing--being once excluded (by being female) or twice excluded (female and therefore not ordained,) hardly matters since all women are out either way. The latter only adds clericalism to misogyny. It does boggle my mind that they can talk so much about the family while excluding the voices of at least half of the members of all actual families, and more than half of all people raising kids. This in the presence of a Pope who claims to be all about dialogue, yet!!

Tim O'Leary | 10/26/2015 - 11:43pm

I wonder who thought it a good idea to give Brother Herve Janson a vote? Pope Francis?

CHARLOTTE MAHONEY | 10/25/2015 - 11:49am

Thank you, Fr. Martin, for your clear statement on the need for women's voting participation in the synod.

Lisa Weber | 10/25/2015 - 4:39pm

"No one listens to women" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, it is difficult for a woman to be heard, but you can only speak the truth and hope that it will be heard. An angry tone makes it less likely that a person will be heard. I know that I don't seek out angry people to read or listen to.

I found it interesting that Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the canon specifying that only the ordained may participate in governance of the church. That is a recent canon and canons can be changed.

Anne Chapman | 10/25/2015 - 8:41am

Which is why, Ms. Zagano, the Catholic church needs women priests - not just women deacons. It also needs to drop mandatory celibacy.

Crystal Watson | 10/25/2015 - 3:48pm

Yes, I think the idea of women deacons (or 'deaconesses' - cringe) is just more of an obstacle to women's ordination than a help. And anyway, they won't let us even be deacons, so ...

Lisa Weber | 10/25/2015 - 12:43am

The Synod was about the family. One might think that those who create families, raise children and live within family life would be asked to vote - that would be married women and men. If the Catholic Church had a structure for women's leadership that had the support of the women, there would be married women leaders to speak on behalf of the women. Women leaders chosen by the women would be able to cast a meaningful vote in a synod.

Brian Pinter | 10/26/2015 - 12:47pm

This is exactly why I have a hard time taking this synod seriously. We have a bunch of well-meaning, celibate, old men - who've never had to live with the anxiety and joy that comes with raising a family - who would presume to teach us about the family. This faux pas of allowing no women to vote just underscores a conclusion I came to long ago after many years of working for the Catholic church - the men who lead it and its institutions don't understand, or have much respect for, women and families (despite these meetings and synods). And I could tell you stories from now til Christmas of stuff I witnessed that bear this out. After reading Jim Martin's article here, all I can do is shake my head and say, "No surprise; they still don't get it."

Catherine MacDonald | 10/25/2015 - 2:22pm

With respect, if this is about those involved in families, that involves more than just married women and men. I am a divorced Catholic raising my children in the Roman Catholic Church. I think I deserve a voice as well.

Mike Escril | 1/8/2016 - 3:36am

Presumably, your needs are the same as a married couples. But the Church can not treat your family structure as the norm or the preferred. I trust you understand that. Even though you have not remarried and even if the divorce was 100% your spouses fault.

That said, I have the highest regard for a woman raising children by herself. You are in my prayers.

Lisa Weber | 10/25/2015 - 4:21pm

Divorced Catholics deserve a voice as well - absolutely! The laity deserves a voice - we are more than 99% of the church. One might think we know something about the issues being discussed in a synod on the family.

alan macdonald | 10/24/2015 - 8:02pm

Father Martin is always first with insinuation which he never answers. He questions gay marriage and female ordination and then leaves the reader hanging, knowing if he goes any further he's done.

Tammy Gottschling | 10/25/2015 - 5:19pm

That's not original to Fr. Jim and an insightful observation that is important (I think) in Catholicism. But, all-in-all, understandable if not appreciated.

Austin Cabral | 10/24/2015 - 7:56pm

This is yet another example of the Roman Catholic Church living up to its reputation of being a patriarchal institution that does not practice basic human rights. Are we to forgive without limit?

Janet Millen | 10/24/2015 - 7:19pm

I continue to be deeply saddened by the absence of women's voices in Church leadership particularly in conversation about the family. I'm the youngest of my family with three older brothers. This synod (and all other conversations by the hierarchy that involves topics related to women's lives) is like my dad and brothers going into a room to decide what my mom and I need to thrive. Impossible!! So so sad.

Jay Cuasay | 10/24/2015 - 2:55pm

I don't find your comment to be off topic. And this is not just because I am a subscriber to AMERICA or could possibly be labelled by that or independently as a liberal or progressive Catholic. I think many people from the very beginning wondered how a Synod on the Family would come to best minister to that dynamic when its deliberating body was less than even the smallest nuclear family of members.

Anne Chapman | 10/24/2015 - 2:52pm

Maybe you and Fr Reese might be beginning to see the light.

The Catholic church is patriarchal, often misognyst, and the sins that come from this are enabled by priests, by bishops who "go along", and also by laity, who, by continuing to pay and obey, give docile assent to teachings that denigrate women.

Women cannot fight this battle as the church has denied them any "weapons". If you aren't male, especially if you are not an ordained male, you are voiceless.

Is it any wonder that young women are deciding not to marry in the church, nor to baptize their children in the church? Is it any wonder that educated young adult women in the church are leaving it in numbers never before seen in the western church?

This Synod has been an assembly of old, celibate males, who have the arrogance to believe that it is their "right" to dictate to families.

Cody Serra | 10/24/2015 - 2:01pm

So sad, and disappointing. A blatant discrimination of women in an very public ecclesiastical event.

Why some of the women religion auditors, theologians in themselves, and present at the synod, were not given the right to vote? Only males can opine on the family?

I'm sure we are not going to and answer any time soon.

Anne Chapman | 10/24/2015 - 2:55pm

There is blatant discrimination against women on display in every ecclesiastical event in the Catholic church, including in every single mass.

Crystal Watson | 10/24/2015 - 12:32pm

Thanks for posting about this.