General, Joy of the Gospel

‘Where is your [sister]? God asked ” Women’s voices and the 2023 Synod

By Dr Nontando Hadebe

The text of the title is taken from Genesis 4:9 and is a question that God asks Cain after he had killed his brother. As a non-scripture scholar I take liberty in interpreting the text as a call to accountability to God for the welfare of the one to whom harm has been done. I contend that although the history of the Church in relationship with women is not monolithic, harm has been done to women in theologies, beliefs and practices. Hence it is not surprising that the Synod Preparatory Document is intentional in its few references to women, that women’s voices be heard and included. The Archbishop of Johannesburg Buti Thlahale has also added his voice and in a communication on the synod described patriarchy as an issue that women in the Catholic Church need to address. So it would seem that the synod has in the context of the question asked by God to Cain, that they are doing their best to be their sisters ’keeper!

This paper will begin with a brief introduction to the context of conflict in the lives of women which I refer to as the conflict of the 3 ‘cs’ representing: Constitution (human rights); Cultures and Christianity (Catholics) and then to another brief overview of the ambiguous status of women in the Catholic Church which I refer as the ‘unequal equality,’ of women before discussing women and the synod based on the report from the listening Circles done with small group of women (approximately 170) in the Catholic Church in South Africa. I will conclude with the question that God asked Cain and evaluate whether the synod would be a place of accountability for women.

Context of Women: Conflict of the 3 ‘cs’ Constitution, Culture and Christianity (Catholicism

Constitution (Bill of Rights) Human Rights
Human rights based constitutions in many countries in Africa confer equal rights to women. At a continental level, the Maputo Protocol represents a commitment by African governments to eradicating all forms of discrimination against women and protection of women from all forms of violence. In reality women in general continue to face challenges from culture and different expressions of Christianity and religions that compromise their rights and create a conflict of interest. The international community now recognizes that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. Women possess these rights not because they belong to a particular culture or religion, but because they are human beings. Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms.

Culture and women’s rights
Women’s rights are often denied in the name of cultural and religious preservation. Questions related to cultural preservation “whose interests are served by traditions and customs that control women’s autonomy, sexuality, production and reproduction” and “who is defining culture because culture is referred to as though it was a stable, easily recognizable, static entity?”

With regards to culture Kanyoro describes the status of women and culture in Africa as follows:
“All questions regarding the welfare and status of women in Africa are explained within the framework of culture” (2002:18) and that culture Kanyoro describes culture as a double edged sword which is a: “creed for community identity on one hand and on the other hand the main justification for difference, oppression and injustice” (2002:13).

The international community now recognizes that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. Women possess these rights not because they belong to a particular culture or religion, but because they are human beings (Afkhami 1999:481)

Christianity/Catholicism and women’s rights
As mentioned in the introduction, I argue that the teaching of the Catholic Church is unequal equality of women.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2003), teaches the equality of women and men based on the shared imago Dei, (369) Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other, in their respective beings as man and woman. “Being-man” or “being-woman” is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator (240).

Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design (2003)
The equality of the sexes is also reiterated by Pope John Paul II in the Mulieris Dignitatem: “6. […] both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image” (n.p. 1988). Further, the imago Dei is sexually differentiated between ‘being-woman’ and ‘being-man’. These differences between the sexes are not incidental but ontological that is being a woman is fundamentally different from being a man: “Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the “masculine” and the “feminine” that the “human” finds full realization” (Pope John Paul n.p.1995). These ontological differences are not neutral but are definitive of the nature of women and men and prescribe the differential power relationships between them. Pope John Paul II explains the nature and distinction of the sexes through the ‘Marian principle’ and the ‘Apostolic- Petrine principle’ (n.p.1995). The Marian principle is definitive of women because “Mary is “the new beginning” of the dignity and vocation of women, of each and every woman” who embodies the three characteristics of virgin, wife and mother (Mulieris Dignitatem n.p. 1988). These characteristics define the identity, role and characteristics of all women irrespective of context, history, culture, class or race based on their shared biology.

The “Petrine principle” on the other hand describes the basis of the differential power relationships and exclusion of women from ministerial priesthood. This argument states that the male is the gender of choice for the representation of God because the incarnation took place in the male body of Jesus who then confirmed the preference for the male by choosing male disciples. Pope John Paul II elaborates further as follows, If Christ-by his free and sovereign choice, clearly attested to by the Gospel and by the Church’s constant Tradition-entrusted only to men the task of being an “icon” of his countenance as “shepherd” and “bridegroom” of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, this in no way detracts from the role of women, or for that matter from the role of the other members of the Church who are not ordained to the sacred ministry, since all share equally in the dignity proper to the “common priesthood” based on Baptism (1995).

The Petrine principle underscores the unequal equality of women in two ways. First women’s inequality is in their exclusion from ministerial priesthood based on their sex as non-males and as mentioned earlier are by extension denied access to power that determines orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Second women are equally included in the ‘common priesthood’ because of their baptismal status. The common priesthood however does not have the same status and power as the ministerial priesthood. So the priesthood of women sustains their exclusion and marginalisation. Feminist theologians continue to challenge these theologies and two examples will be discussed namely the use of gender theories to challenge essentialist views of women that lie at the heart of exclusion and unequal equality status and the reduction of Jesus to his maleness.

The Synod and women
Women are mentioned a few times in the Preparatory document for the synod as follows:
• The desire of young people to be protagonists within the Church and the request for a greater appreciation of women and spaces for participation in the mission of the Church, already signaled by the Synodal Assemblies of 2018 and 2019, are also confirmed.
• The recent institution of the lay ministry of Catechist and the opening of access to those of Lector and Acolyte to women also move in this direction.
• How are the Laity, especially young people and women, listened to? How do we integrate the contribution of Consecrated Men and Women?
• without overlooking the valuable contribution that consecrated men and women can offer in all the instances, there is a commitment to ensure the inclusion of women in the synodical process and a recognition of exclusion is presumed.

Listening Circles for Women’s Report
In response to the invitation to form synodal ‘listening sessions’, 170 women gathered (40 in person, 130 virtually) to reflect on their joys and challenges as Catholic women in the church. They listened to each other’s stories and together sought to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit through themes that emerged. After the sessions an online survey was sent to all participants and 98 responded. This report will share the themes that emerged in the listening circles as well as the results of the survey. Correlations will be evident between them.
The women were asked to prepare the following questions
1) In your experience what is it like to be a woman in the Catholic church, what are your particular joys and challenges?
2) Where do you sense the Holy Spirit may be inviting the church at this moment in our history, especially with regard to women.

Based on the listening group and questionnaire the report was summarized into 10 areas where women were seeking recognition:
1. RECOGNITION OF ON GOING FIDELITY. There are many positive evaluations, opportunities to minister and grow in spirituality, enriching membership in sodalities, supportive priests. Yet the limitations expressed here have been keenly felt. The opportunity to give voice to them – and the desire to continue sharing reflections such as these must not be lost. The realities of the experience of Catholic women as expressed here must be articulated to all ‘levels’ of the church.
2. RECOGNITION OF EQUALITY. In the equality of women’s creation as made in the image of God (Gen 1:27); in their baptism into the Catholic Church; in their service of the church and the world, they claim equality with all men, including clerics, in the life and service of the church. Vatican II revalorized the laity (all women are laity), whose Baptismal anointing makes us ‘priests, prophets androyalty’ within the Christian community, with corresponding rights and responsibilities (LG IV). Presently patriarchy in the church denies women’s equality and full participation and often renders women subservient in parish life practically (‘tea ladies’), in pastoral decisions (PPC secretaries), and liturgical ministries (only men as EMHC or boys as servers) and its exclusive language (‘brethren’). There are parishes where women do occupy leadership roles in PPC, are EMHC and girls are servers. However although women make up most of the active membership in any parish, they are often taken for granted, dismissed or side-lined in pastoral worship, life and decision making. In planning for these listening sessions, the fact that a category for ‘Women’ came under the wider topic of ‘Marginalized’ is further indication of this.
3. RECOGNITION OF CHARISM. The Holy Spirit gives charisms to each of the baptized for service of the church and its mission (LG #12). Women want recognition of the legitimacy of their individual charisms to be put at the service of the community. They are constrained from preaching, ministry of reconciliation, and administering sacraments, thus denying the church a rich source for ministry. Those involved in the ministry of spiritual direction or in ministering to the sick are dependent on finding priests to offer the sacramental aspects of healing often requested by those to whom they minister. Some women also have experienced a call to become sangomas in ministry to the community which is not validated or recognized by the church as a charism.
4. RECOGNITION OF CONSCIENCE. Women want recognition of their right, in conscience, to make decisions regarding their life and engagement in the life of their families and parish activities. Gaudium et Spes states that ‘deep within their consciences men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey. Conscience is the most secret core and the sanctuary of the human person. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths’ (#16).
5. RECOGNITION OF THE BURDEN, SHAME AND ABUSE TO WOMEN OF THE MORAL TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH. The moral teachings of the church weigh disproportionally on women. Unwed mothers, divorced women, single mothers, LGBTIQ+, all live with stigma or judgment from the church, including its clerics. Men who may be responsible, never suffer the same ostracization. One woman who fell pregnant before her marriage was dismissed as an EMHC while her fiancé was allowed to continue. Women have been denied reception of the Eucharist in situations of unwed pregnancy or divorce. The church’s teaching on artificial birth control must be changed. Adhering to ‘Natural Family Planning’ resulted in women bearing 4, even 5 children within a space of four years. Guilt continues to weigh on those who use other means of birth control.
6. RECOGNITION OF NEED FOR FORMATION. Many are not knowledgeable of their faith. Good theological education and catechetical formation need encouragement and support by and for women. Training of women as spiritual directors and guides should also be supported. Sodalities are also in need formation as they can become exclusive and their original purpose distorted and reduced primarily to fundraising. Seminary formation must address the theological, moral and liturgical conservatism and clericalism of young priests which is distressing.
Those who are differently-abled, aged, poor (who are mostly women) need inclusion in church structures and activities. Victims of Gender Based Violence (GBV), especially in cases of rape and teen pregnancy, need support and refuge. GBV must be ‘called out’ in preaching and supportive structures. The LGBTQI+ community must be recognized as full and equal members of the church, deserving respect, and allowed full participation in the life and ministry of the church, including the blessing of their unions. Rigid and outmoded understandings of the complexities of human sexuality should be challenged. Youth are a concern of all mothers who see their children alienated by the church’s discrimination, exclusion and its posture of ‘gatekeeping’. There are cases where mothers were denied access to Eucharist because their daughters were pregnant before marriage or answered the call to be sangomas.
Women who have been sexually abused by clerics need to be heard and compensated. Victims of such abuse can themselves be ostracized, even by others in the church. Clerics who abuse must be removed instead of relocating them to other parishes and not reporting them to the police. Abuse is a criminal offence! Women must be a part of those boards which address this problem within the church. Victims need to be included in all processes dealing with sexual abuse.
Some means of addressing incompetent, drunk, and/or abusive priests needs to be established. Channels to address this do not exist. A priest bragged to his congregation that he has ‘had’
50 – 60 women.
Seminary formation must be reconsidered. It is inappropriate and inadequate. The need to dismantle patriarchy and clericalism is an urgent issue of justice for women and laity. A married priesthood must also be considered.
Women who are called by the Holy Spirit to orders in the church must be allowed have that call discerned, recognized and ritualized formally within the church. The diaconate for women must be restored. Priestly ordination must be considered. Those women priests ordained in the RCWP must have their excommunication lifted.
10. RECOGNITION OF ONGOING STRUCTURES OF SUPPORT. Many women expressed the desire to continue to dialogue with other women as in these synodal groups as support for their spirituality, life and ministry in the church.

Only 10% of respondents were under the age of 45; 50% were between 45 and 65; 40% were older than 65. This raises questions and concerns about the absence of youth.
Only 8% felt that their participation as women in the church takes them into consideration and that their opinion is valued. 58% feel ambiguous – they participate but don’t make the decisions. 25% seek alternative spaces to live their spirituality. 5 % feel they are no longer a part of the church while the rest are in the church but don’t actively participate.
84% think that women can act in the Church representing Jesus Christ as men do and 94 % said that women do not need a mediator to access God.
63% have a role in their parish for example catechist, PPC member; reader; Spiritual director etc
22 have experienced psychological violence in the church; 23 spiritual violence, 44 power abuse and 53 a sense of invisibility and lack of appreciation.
Only 50% of these women identify with a masculine/male image of God.
Women named the following issues as needing urgent attention
-participation and democracy in the church (87%)
-the issue of clericalism (83%)
-the issue of inclusion and equality (83%)
-the issue of sexual and power abuse (90%)
-the issue of violence against women (92%)
-the issue of theology and women in the world today (85%)
-the issue of sexual and marital ethics (83%)
Issues of ecumenical dialogue, interreligious dialogue and church finances were seen as needing attention but as less urgent.
Women identified the following characteristics of the church as patriarchal
-ordained ministries restricted to men (84%)
-absence of women in church leadership roles (83%)
-sacraments provided only by men (71%)
-masculine images of God only (61 %)
Only 15% consider communications in the church as free and transparent.
Only 5% feel the church welcomes the contribution and voices of women
Only 7% feel the church welcomes the contribution of minorities (including LGBTIQ, people with disabilities, and others)
Only 12% feel the church welcomes the contribution and voice of the poor
Less than half said that women participate in decision-making bodies in the parish/diocese; 16% said no while the remainder were uncertain.
Almost 60% think that the liturgy helps ‘a lot’ or ‘somewhat’ in deepening their spirituality. However, 36% said the established liturgy either does not help or helps only a little to deepen their spirituality and faith as a woman.
Women identified the most significant challenges for the church for the full participation of women as:
-access to decision-making (87%)
-the need to recognise women’s abilities (81%)
-exclusion of women from priestly ministry (74%)
-recognition of their work (62%)
-incorporation of justice and equity in the different ministries (68%)
Key strategies identified that women can use for greater participation in the church included knowing and making visible the contributions of women in the church throughout history (83%); creating support networks (78%) and formation spaces (75%).

The question asked by God to Cain needs to be poised to the Synod ‘where is your sister’ the answer will be evident during and after the synod.