What the synod doc says about women, and what it could mean for the future of the church
Proclaim the good news! The journey toward a synodal church is well underway, and it offers great hope for the people of God, especially for women. Pope Francis recently declared that 70 lay people and consecrated religious will have voting rights in the October 2023 synodal assembly, and 50 percent of those appointed will be women. For the first time in history, women will be included as voting members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
This announcement is indeed good news for women in the Catholic Church, both echoing and furthering the signs of hope witnessed thus far in the synodal process. In October 2021, Pope Francis convened the Synod on Synodality with the goal of becoming a church that listens and discerns, especially to those on the margins of the church and society. Over the last year, millions of Catholics around the globe engaged in the initial phase of the synodal process through listening, dialogue and discernment at the local level. The contributions of different communities and groups were sent to every diocese. These submissions were synthesized and transmitted to the episcopal conferences, and the episcopal conferences, in turn, drafted reports for the General Secretariat of the Synod.
“Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” indicates a new way of proceeding, one that comes from genuine listening, honest dialogue and discerning consultation of all the people of God.
In October 2022, the General Secretariat of the Synod released the Working Document for the Continental Stage entitled “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent.” This document is the fruit of discernment from the first stage of the synod. It represents what the people of God around the world have said in this first year of “journeying together.” “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” is the product of careful, prayerful reflection on the syntheses of 112 out of 114 episcopal conferences, all 15 Oriental Catholic Churches, 17 out of 23 dicasteries of the Roman Curia, institutes of consecrated life and lay movements. Moreover, the synod secretariat received over a thousand contributions from individuals and groups, as well as insights gathered from social media.
“Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” also offers the opportunities for local churches to listen to each other’s voices in view of the 2023 Continental Assemblies. The document is good news for all the baptized, and in particular, it is good news for women. The working document's paragraphs on women (Nos. 60-65) show the fruits, seeds and potential weeds of synodality.
“Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” represents a dialogical and dynamic approach between the universal and particular churches. It indicates a new way of proceeding for the Catholic Church, one that comes from genuine listening, honest dialogue and discerning consultation of all the people of God. The document gives witness to the sensus fidelium, which emerges from ecclesial consultation of all the baptized, not only from the episcopal consultation of the ordained. It cites quotations that allow “the voices of the People of God from all parts of the world [to] speak as much as possible on their own terms and find resonance” (No. 6).
Much like the document as a whole, these paragraphs evolved from the process of consulting, dialoguing and listening to the people of God around the globe. The very presence of these paragraphs is a sign of genuine synodality and a positive step toward rethinking women’s ecclesial participation; they are evidence that honest dialogue and sincere listening have taken place in the initial phase of the synod. These paragraphs are also significant because they represent not only the voices of women, but also the voices of the faithful worldwide. The public nature of these paragraphs shows that the global call to rethink women’s participation in the church cannot be dismissed or extinguished.
The tone in paragraphs 60-65 is another positive example of synodality for the ecclesial future of women. The tone signifies both the urgency and critical importance of re-envisioning women’s roles in the church. The issue “registered all over the world” with “almost unanimous affirmation,” making it impossible for the working document to ignore the issue of women’s ecclesial participation (No. 60). Moreover, the tone of these paragraphs is not only urgent and important but also empathetic and understanding.
This genuine listening to women’s experiences in the church leads to yet another fruit of synodality, namely, the document's clarity in articulating problems and desires around women’s ecclesial participation. One problem mentioned in the text is the tension between women’s love for the church and the feeling of sadness when our lives are not understood and/or our gifts undervalued. Another named issue is that women tend to be the most active participants in the synodal process and ecclesial life, and yet men hold the decision-making and governing roles in the church (No. 61).
The synod documents underscore the problem of sexism in the church. In different forms and across cultures, lay women and women religious do not have meaningful roles in ecclesial life.
Additionally, the document clearly describes the need for the church to ally with women in addressing the social realities we face around the globe, such as poverty, violence, exclusion and diminishment. It states, “Women participating in the synodal processes desire both Church and society to be a place of flourishing, active participation and healthy belonging” (No. 62). The document also underscores the problem of sexism in the church. In different forms and across cultures, lay women and women religious do not have meaningful roles in ecclesial life; often, women are not given a fair wage, regarded as “cheap labor,” and overlooked when a role could be given to a permanent deacon. Hence, there is a global desire for greater recognition and full and equal participation of women in the Catholic Church (Nos. 63-64).
Paragraph 64 of the working document also acknowledges the diversity of opinion on “the subject of priestly ordination for women,” indicating that some reports call for further discussion and others consider it a closed issue. That the church is even presenting these questions, particularly those of women’s ordination to the diaconate and priesthood, and opening them for dialogue is noteworthy. It plants the seed for continued growth through synodal discernment.
The document also affirms the ways in which women, especially women religious, already engage in synodal practices. Referencing the International Union of Superiors General, the document recognizes areas in the church where new ground for solidarity has been broken. Women religious already practice synodality in their work “securing a future of racial and ethnic justice and peace for black, brown, Asian and Native American brothers and sisters (United States); connecting in depth with indigenous and native sisters and brothers (Americas); opening new avenues of presence of religious sisters in diverse movements; alliance with like-minded groups to address key social issues (such as climate change, refugees, and asylum seekers, homelessness), or issues of specific nations.”
In these various contexts, the working document acknowledges that women are already collaborators in synodal processes and thereby can be “teachers of synodality within wider Church processes” (No. 65).
“Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” also acknowledges that weeds will inevitably grow if the theology of synodality does not impact actual ecclesial life. As the document indicates, in concrete practice across the church there has been difficulty understanding what synodality means, a failure to organize gatherings and even resistance to the basic proposal, whether due to fear or passivity.
If synodality and rethinking women’s roles is to flourish, the people of God must work together to ensure that the working document does not just remain a document, but that it has real meaning for people in (and out of) the pews and a tangible impact on ecclesial experience. As the synodal preparatory document notes:
The purpose of the Synod is not to produce documents, but to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.
How do we avoid the weeds and cultivate the fruits and seeds of synodality for the whole church, and especially for Catholic women?
The work ahead
So how do we avoid the weeds and cultivate the fruits and seeds of synodality for the whole church, and especially for Catholic women? We must continue to educate the church about synodality, and to promote and participate in the Synod on Synodality in whatever ways are possible.
Specifically, we need to educate people in various ecclesial and secular spheres about the meaning of synodality and spread the good news of the synodal work that has already occurred. The working document itself, and the paragraphs on women in particular, already show the fruits of synodality, and we must allow them to have an impact and flourish in concrete experience.
We must also promote continued opportunities to learn about synodality, pray for the synod and engage in ecclesial discernment. In the long term, synodality entails the perennial call to personal conversion and reform in the church; in the short term, the document encourages local churches to dialogue, listen and discern among themselves on three specific questions (No. 106). This continued ecclesial discernment again will be brought to dioceses and episcopal conferences for collecting and synthesizing for the continental assembly. The synod secretariat will incorporate these reports into the final document of the continental assemblies, the “Instrumentum Laboris,” in June 2023.
All this is to say that synodality is an ongoing process, and we must participate in this important opportunity to dialogue, to share our voices and to listen to others about living as an active church in these times. But in terms of women’s participation specifically, the synodal process has given a boost to one organization that is working diligently to promote this dialogue: “Discerning Deacons.”
Throughout the United States, Discerning Deacons is providing educational and engagement opportunities to explore the fruits and seeds of synodality. For example, the organization is hosting a number of synodal discernment sessions to reflect on the working document and rethink women’s ecclesial participation; these sessions are happening throughout 2023 in various places, such as St. Paul-Minneapolis, Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston.
If the people of God work together to cultivate the fruits, plant the seeds and prune the weeds of our current synodal processes, we can renew the life and mission of the church today and offer hope to all the baptized, especially women, of a more participatory ecclesial future.