In Ireland, January 6 is called Nollaig na mBan – Gaelic for Women’s Christmas. The idea was that women would be thanked and celebrated after all the work they had put in over the Christmas season. They could put their feet up, party with other women and hand over domestic chores to men. While this was a custom honored more often in the breach than the observance, the genial instinct behind this version of our celebration of the feast of the Epiphany sparks curiosity about what this New (post Trump and, hopefully, post COVID) Year will bring us in terms of Catholic Church reform, not least through the lens of the place of women in the Church.
Pope Francis, with his notion of a ‘synodal church,’ has been leading reform within the Church. In his recent book, cowritten with Austen Ivereigh, (Let Us Dream, 2020) Francis notes that new questions have arisen since he began this process of synodal reform within the Church (83). Among them is the issue of doctrinal development: Francis is keen to stress that tradition is not static, and, in the spirit of Newman, admits of change – but, the question arises, can this change involve not just ‘linear’ continuity but also be a corrective of previous positions? Further, why limit the work of synods to the Church’s norms and practices, and not also to doctrine and tradition? (56-7; 84-5). And then, with particular reference to the issue of women, how can we continue to laud their contribution and qualities, as Francis does in terms of female economists and political leaders in the COVID crisis, and still insist that when it comes to the church these qualities can best serve to change its institutional culture ‘in an organic process which calls for integrating, without clericalizing, the viewpoints of women’? (66). Of course, many feminists and others share the Pope’s critique of clericalism, but this does not stop the Church from continuing to ordain men, and is it not somewhat disingenuous to limit access to orders in this way, unless there are some compelling scriptural and theological arguments to that effect?
Francis is concerned that issues like this can become polarizing in a partisan way that leads to rifts between ‘progressives and traditionalists,’ a mentality of ‘winners and losers,’ to the reality of ‘isolated consciences’ when individuals or groups pin everything onto one issue and effectively separate themselves from the body of the church. This can be the work of the ‘bad spirit,’ can be ideology, is a parliamentary rather than synodal process in which true discernment is lacking, is conflict (which is divisive) rather than crisis (which is a biblical term and is an invitation to conversion). However, as Francis admitted to Spadaro apropos the Amazon Synod, even if on the contentious issues of married priests and female deacons the discussion was parliamentary rather than discerning, still it was a ‘rich and necessary discussion’ – in other words, a step along the way. And is not the apparent non-reception by the ‘sense of the faithful’ of the Church’s position on the ordination of women (and many other issues around sexuality and gender) calling out for synodal discernment?
In his recent Encyclical Fratelli Tutti (criticized for its lack of references to women authors and for its exclusive title) Francis notes that ‘…the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story’ (n 23). Is there no one close to the Pope who could give him a gentle nudge and say: ‘This is exactly what critics accuse the Church of doing!’? Somewhat ironically Francis’ own religious order, the Jesuits, understood this when in 1995 at their 34th General Congregation, they adopted Decree 14 (Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society). There we spoke of ‘the systematic discrimination against women … embedded within the economic, social political, religious and linguistic structures of society’ (n 3 – my emphasis). We accepted that we as Jesuits ‘… have often contributed to a form of clericalism that has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction’ (n 9) and committed ourselves to addressing this situation, not least by ‘the use of appropriately inclusive language in speech and official documents’ (13.7). And, not long after John-Paul II had reiterated the Church’s ban on female ordination, we noted that ‘… some other questions about the role of women in civil and ecclesial society will undoubtedly mature over time … (and) will inevitably have implications for Church teaching and practice’ (14).
It is very hopeful that Francis himself is keeping faith with the synodal process and has chosen synodality itself as the topic of the 2022 Synod of Bishops precisely to tackle some of the new questions that have arisen. There will be widespread consultation before that Synod and it is the responsibility of local churches at all levels to have their say. In that respect it is interesting to note the recent comment of historian John O’Malley: ‘... the emergence of synodality … in recent documents from the Holy See … in essence promotes modifications of the current processes of church government and polity. Unfortunately, theologians and the Catholic media in the United States have paid scant attention to this development. In that regard, we lag behind other parts of the church’ (America, October 16, 2020). Perhaps the prospect of a ‘dull but decent’ Joe Biden presidency in the United States, after a term of high-voltage chaos, will provide a more propitious context for that ‘long march through the institutions’ that enduring church reform requires?
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.