The Church needs to separate decision-making from ordination

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Despite Pope Francis' appreciation of "the feminine genius", women still have not been granted "a proper place in decision-making in the Church", writes Nuala O'Loan

Watching the proceedings of the Synod of Bishops on the Family one cannot help but reflect on how our Church engages with its women members. Not one woman has a decisive role to play.

It is curious. Pope Francis, in Evangelii  Gaudium described how “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures”.

Yet it really does not happen very much at all. There can be little doubt that the voice of women, their experience, is not utilised as it could and should be in the interests of the Church. Women can feel marginalised and excluded by this.

Of course, there have been many great women in the history of our Church. I think, for example, of the woman who gave everything she had to God – bearing his son and then becoming more and more fearful as his teaching provoked the authorities. Seeing him seized, tortured, murdered, hanging crucified in the hot sun for hours slowly dying in agony, staying with him in his pain and desolation, able only to let him know that she was there, that she loved him despite all that others were doing to him, praying no doubt for the agony to stop – a magnificent role model for us in terms of self-giving love, generosity, fortitude and how to live with suffering and pain and fear.

I think too, of other women whose work lives on after their death – Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Mother Teresa, Chiara Lubich, Phyllis Bowman who fought so hard for the pro-life cause, Hildegard of Bingen who in the 11th Century recognised that sickness was not the punishment of God but something to be investigated, so that ways of healing could be found, Edel Quinn of the Legion of Mary – women whose contribution to life was magnificent and who lived for God.

They were all able to do great things. They may not have had much access to the corridors of power, yet they were able to live the Gospel with courage and integrity. At the end of the day maybe that is what really matters. It is just that the Church would be a better place if it enabled women to play a full role in proper, structured decision making.

The problem seems to be the joining of the decision-making process in the Church to the fact of ordination. Only the ordained can make decisions, and women cannot be ordained. As Francis said, “the reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general”.

What we need to do as a Church is to separate decision-making from the issue of who can be ordained. Then we could work out how to give women a proper place in decision-making in the Church. This would mean the amendment of Canon Law, and probably the removal of Canon 129, which allows lay people only to cooperate, not to participate in decision-making. This could be done. The priesthood could continue to be reserved to men, yet women could have a full role in decision-making.

When that does not happen, the Church can seem less than respectful of women. Think of the conference ‘Women’s Culture: Equality and Difference’, which was organised in February this year by the Pontifical Council for Culture which is led by Cardinal Ravasi. The council consists of 21 cardinals and 14 archbishops and bishops. It also has three ‘men of culture’ but no women of culture. It has 28 consultors of whom seven are women.


In preparation for this conference, a group of women was asked to create a document about the position of women in the Church today. It is a concise, well-written document. Among other things they said this: “Women were the first believers, the first witnesses. And it is they, as mothers and grandmothers above all, whom Pope Francis has asked to continue to proclaim hope and resurrection. Women have always been a sort of silent rock of strength in the Faith, to them has always been entrusted the task of educating children to life as believers.”

I am sure many readers recognise this description of women. They went on: “An army of teachers, catechists, mothers and grandmothers that, however, instead of being seen as figures of the Church, seem to belong to a small ancient world that is disappearing. In fact, it is in the area of young women that the crisis is starting to be felt. In the west, women between 20 and 50 years old rarely go to Mass. They opt for a religious wedding less often, few follow a religious vocation, and in general they express a certain diffidence toward the formative abilities of religious men.

“What is not working, today, so that the image of womanhood that the Church has kept, does not correspond to reality? Today women who, perhaps with great difficulty, have reached places of prestige within society and the workplace, have no corresponding decisional role nor responsibility within ecclesial communities. If, as Pope Francis says, women have a central role in Christianity, this role must find a counterpart also in the ordinary life of the Church.”

The issues identified by the women were then discussed in private only by men! There were a few women advisors present, but they had no decision-making role. Cardinal Ravasi was reported as defining the process as “women directing the dance with men performing the steps”. The conference discussed issues such as domestic violence, the commercialisation of women, women’s role in the Church etc.

Following criticism of this process, on June 23 this year a permanent Women’s Consultation Group was appointed by Cardinal Ravasi to give explicit feedback on the various projects he oversees, vision and shape to any new initiatives, and help in identifying cultural priorities for women. The group consists of academics, mothers, diplomats and journalists, political activists and scientists, bureaucrats and women in the media.

Can this be described as enough in 2015? If, under Canon  Law women cannot be decision makers, then why not make these women consultors, part of the existing structure rather than creating a Women’s Consultation Group, which merits a mention but that is all on the Vatican website, on which are displayed the names and photographs of all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, the three men of culture, even the 28 lay consulters, but not the 20 women in the women’s consultation group!

The contribution which women can make has been much evidenced by their significant involvement over centuries, in the name of Christ, in the developing world, and in the poorest and most marginalised areas of the developed world. Women across the world make a massive contribution to law, medicine, the economy, philosophy, international relations and in so many other fields.

Over the past 10 years women have been very slightly more visible at almost the highest levels in our Church. The responsibility for enabling the contribution they could make rests heavily on those who hold power now in the Church.

by Nuala O’Loan, The Irish Catholic;
October 22, 2015