Women and the Synod: Attending to the Sensus fidei fidelis
In 2022, the Catholic Women Speak network, which I facilitate, initiated an International Survey of Catholic Women (ISCW). Initially intended to be an informal survey of our 1200+ members to gather feedback for the Synod, it developed into a more ambitious project.
Drs. Tracy McEwan and Kathleen McPhillips of the University of Newcastle in Australia – both sociologists of religion – offered to work with me to design a professional survey, hosted by the University of Newcastle. The survey was translated into eight languages by volunteers and distributed through many Catholic networks. It attracted more than 17,000 responses from around the world. A summary report was submitted to the Vatican in August 2022, and in March 2023 a more in-depth analysis was published. It was presented to Pope Francis by Tracy McEwan in Rome on International Women’s Day on 8th March.
The survey included closed questions with tick-box responses and open-ended questions for written responses. The report is available online and it includes a full explanation of the research methodology and analysis of the findings, as well as the questionnaire.
Surveys are blunt instruments and must be interpreted with discernment. We are often reminded that the Catholic Church is not a democracy and, while many of us see scope for greater democratic participation in the Church, the failure of many western political institutions is a reminder that democracy itself can slide into populism and mob rule when it is not underwritten by a shared vision of the good life and the just society.
In 2014, the International Theological Commission published a document titled “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church”, which surveys the role played by believers in the formation of church teaching. Respect for the sensus fidei would entail that church leaders take seriously the ways in which Catholics experience their faith in different cultures and contexts, as a vital aspect of the development and interpretation of doctrine. This creative tension between the core teachings of the Church and the realities of everyday faith is, I believe, a way of balancing the desire for greater democracy with the need to preserve fundamental principles of justice in the context of the sacramental mysteries of faith. To read the ISCW report as an expression of the sensus fidei by thousands of Catholic women around the world is to recognize what a significant document it is.
It showed 88% of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “My Catholic identity is important to me.” The report notes that:
Many respondents expressed their ongoing commitment to the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist. They used terms such as: “love,” “source of grace,” “central” and “anchor” when explaining their relationship with the Eucharist (p. 23).
A majority 82% agreed or strongly agreed that “Catholic social teaching is a good resource for social justice action.” In the open responses, many framed their discontent with the institutional Church in terms of wanting closer adherence to Gospel values and the teachings of Jesus. One elderly woman from Vietnam wrote:
I see myself longing for the values of Jesus lived in the Church and find they are lost in heavy institutionalization, legalism and clericalism.
A younger woman from Poland called for:
A return to the gospel itself and what is most important – love of neighbor. I don’t hear it in churches or from priests. I don’t see respect for every, absolutely every, person.
The survey can therefore be taken as an authentic expression of the sensus fidei fidelis, given that the majority of respondents were practicing
Catholics whose faith meets the criteria listed in that ITC document. While a small minority expressed a desire for a return to a preconciliar model of church, the vast majority (84%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I support reform in the Catholic Church.” Most want greater conformity to Gospel values, to social justice and care for creation—and to a more welcoming and inclusive church. This lends authority to their capacity to discern where the institution fails to be church—in clericalism and abuses of power; in the continuing failure to tackle sexual and spiritual abuse; in a lack of accountability and transparency in church leadership and governance; in the exclusion or marginalization of people on the basis of race, sexuality, marital status and, unsurprisingly, in the failure to fully include women at all levels of church leadership. A majority of respondents supported women’s ordination (69%) and 74% agreed or strongly agreed that “Women need to have freedom of conscience with regard to sexual and reproductive decisions.”
Similar issues have been raised in Synod reports from around the world, most notably with regard to the roles and representation of women. It is clear that the Synod has unleashed a process that must lead to significant reform, or it will leave many Catholics feeling bitter and disillusioned about their voices not being heard and their concerns being ignored. A first step would be to give votes to women attending the Synod and to ensure that these women are truly representative of the rich diversity of women in the worldwide Church. This would be a significant move towards breaking through the barriers of clericalism, misogyny, abuse and corruption that still lead to many explicit and implicit forms of silencing, exclusion and humiliation for women in the worldwide Church, and prevent the living waters of hope, renewal and transformative action from flowing freely through our Catholic institutions and communities.
Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.