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The Synod’s Final Document: Where Are the Women?

| November 20, 2014

While the watching world focused on whether the Catholic church would continue to condemn gay sex and same-sex marriage, and whether the divorced and remarried would be invited to communion, what was missing from the church’s recent Synod on the Family was women—not only in the ranks of the celibate, all-male voting bishops, but also in the final document that sets the stage for a year of dialogue about the future of church teachings, which arguably have their greatest impact on women.

The “Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” the formal name for the gathering of some 200 of the world’s bishops, was convened by the church’s still new humble, charismatic leader, Pope Francis. Its purpose: to figure out how to encourage families to be instruments of evangelization, that is, bearers of the faith into the future. Because of Pope Francis’s expressed commitment to dialogue in a church that has for decades sealed the door shut to any disagreement on traditional teachings, many observers had high hopes that the institution might begin to budge in a more progressive direction.

That hope was soon dashed. Despite early indications that the bishops in their conversations at the synod might be moving toward an end to the condemnation of homosexual activity and same-sex unions, when the voting came on the final document, nearly twice the number of bishops supported as rejected the position that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” As for the divorced and remarried, there was no agreement on even the possibility of giving them access to penance and the Eucharist.

But equally important, though absent from the public conversation, was the invisibility of women and the negative impact current church teachings have on women’s lives. The traditional Catholic belief undergirding the formation of the family has been that women must be willing to carry to term each and every pregnancy they conceive. Though such willingness cannot be separated from the physical, emotional, social, cultural, economic, and geographic factors that influence when and how women become pregnant and give birth, you won’t find reference to any of these factors in the final Synod document.

Fully 169 bishops supported—while only five rejected—the teaching that “openness to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love,” which translates to continued opposition to anything other than natural family planning. Despite the fact that this unlimited commitment to procreation presumes that women are physically able to survive multiple pregnancies, nowhere in the pre-Synod questions or in the final report is there any mention of how the church can act to protect women’s reproductive health. In fact, the only reference to women’s reproductive health in the final report is to denigrate it as part of a “mentality”—along with “a mentality against having children”—that is contributing to a “decline in population,” which in turn “will lead to economic impoverishment.” This continued anti-birth-control defense represents a shocking failure to respect the facts: that every major health organization maintains that birth control is crucial to the health of mothers and babies, and that population decline is decidedly not a planet-wide issue.

There were passing references to violence against women in the family and in the world in the final Synod document, but nowhere do the Church fathers make a moral case for protecting women from such violence in their own homes and supporting them in leaving such relationships. On the contrary: in addressing “those who have been subjected to the maltreatment of a husband or a wife,” the document reads: “To forgive such an injustice is not easy, but grace makes this journey possible. Pastoral activity, then, needs to be geared towards reconciliation or mediation of differences.”

The word “rape” appears not once in this document, even though raping one’s wife remains a prerogative of husbands in many countries worldwide, where women have absolutely nothing to say about when or how they have sex. This omission is doubly concerning coming from a church that forces childbirth on unwilling women by supporting laws that block access to birth control and condemn women to unsafe abortions, which take the lives of nearly 50,000 women worldwide each year.

While the bishops focused on the unapproved sexual practices of lay Catholics—from premarital sex to gay sex, “cohabitation before marriage,” and polygamy—they said nothing about the many priests and bishops who have violated their vow of celibacy and left a trail of wounded women and children in their wake.

Calling the church fathers to account for the consequences of these celibacy breaches, often characterized by sexual exploitation and abuse, fell to a UN panel on the Convention on the Rights of the Child earlier this year. In addition to holding the Holy See’s feet to the fire for failing to acknowledge the extent of child sexual molestation by clergy, to protect children, and to hold the perpetrators and their enablers accountable, the UN panel called on the Holy See to “assess the number of children fathered by Catholic priests, find out who they are, and take all the necessary measures to ensure the rights of those children to know and to be cared for by their fathers.” The panel also argued for putting an end to the bargain many mothers seeking child support from their child’s priest father are forced to strike with the church—that is, signing a confidentiality agreement in exchange for financial help. 

In that final Synod report, and in preparatory documents, the grounding for contemporary teaching on the family is traced back to the same old troubling Scriptural passages. To illustrate how “marriage and the family have been redeemed by Christ,” we are pointed to Ephesians 5:21-32, where lives the notorious directive that: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything…for the husband is the head of his wife.” There are various references to Genesis, keeping alive the myth of Eve the temptress who lured Adam into sin, brought the pain of childbirth upon herself, and precipitated The Fall. This is despite decades of work by Catholic feminist theologians who would have been only too happy to help the church fathers find less misogynistic grounds for contemporary teaching on the family. 

But no women priests means no women bishops, including women theologians who could have brought so much to the table. In fact, the US bishops continue to censure the leading Catholic feminist theologians, such as Sister Elizabeth Johnson, while Pope Francis has dismissed them and their work out of hand by insisting that what we need is “a profound theology of the woman.” What the church actually needs is to integrate the perspectives of these Catholic feminist theologians—on God, sexual morality, the very notion of revelation as a living, breathing process—into church teachings.

In the summary of the synod’s closing document, the bishops write that there will be a “collegial journey of the bishops” along with “the involvement of all God’s people” traveling together in search of “the road to truth and mercy for all.” Building on the final report, that journey will take place in conversations all over the world in advance of the next Synod on the Family, scheduled for 2015. Let’s hope that over the next year all God’s people will come to include flesh-and-blood women, and that the realities of women’s lives will be recognized and addressed in the future teachings of this church, whose influence—for better (its social Gospel) and for worse—goes way beyond the walls of its own cathedrals.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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