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Women, the Marian Principle, and the Synod process

The following commentary by Rev Mike James appeared in Guyana’s Catholic Standard, April 28 edition. It has been edited for length.

Rev James is a permanent deacon and once served as the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.

The news that Pope Francis has decided to give at least 35 women the right to vote at the upcoming General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to take place from October 4 to 29, in a reform that reflects his hopes to give women greater decision-making responsibilities and laypeople more say in the life of the Catholic Church, has made headlines around the world.

News agencies and newspapers from Australia, Azerbaijan and India to Germany, Moscow and South Africa and all major newspapers in Latin and North America have headlined the news hailing it as “a Historic Shift in Vatican Policy”.

Professor Anna Rowlands, a theologian from the University of Durham who has been seconded to the Holy See to help the team organising the Synod, told The UK Tablet: “There will be much joy as a result of today’s announcement that the Synod will include a fuller participation of lay men and consecrated and lay women.”

She added: “This is a most welcome move that will continue to build the inner energy of the whole community towards the task of the renewal of the Church in its mission. This can be seen, I think, as a fruit of the listening mode of this synodal path.”

The Synod office said that non-bishop members put forward for selection should have “theoretical and practical knowledge” of the Synod and have participated in the process.

Meanwhile, bishops’ conferences are asked to elect members to send to the Synod…CELAM, the Episcopal Conference of Latin America of which the Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC) and Guyana are members, will have at least 20 representatives of whom the President of the AEC is usually a participant. “Fraternal delegates” will represent other Christian denominations, participating as non-voting members.

Furthermore, the Synod Secretariat points out that the lay presence in the Synod assembly reflects that the process began with the consultation with the people and expresses the “relationship between the prophetic function of the People of God and the discernment function of the pastors.”

The changes ensure that the bishops do not gather to decide the future alone but, in a Church, where people and leaders walk together.

The latest decision comes as the Synod completes the continental phase of the process, with a working document for the October 2023 meeting expected to be released at the end of May.

Some Catholic women’s groups that have been critical of the Vatican for its treatment of women have also immediately praised the decision of Pope Francis as historic.

“This is a significant crack in the stained-glass ceiling, and the result of sustained advocacy, activism and the witness” of a campaign of Catholic women’s groups demanding the right to vote, said Kate McElwee of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for women’s ordination.


The Church is woman

Sister Nathalie Becquart, 54, the highest-ranking woman at the Vatican and the first woman confirmed by Pope Francis as a voting participant in the Synod was pressed about the possibility of women’s ordination at a New York meeting last month with young Catholic women.

As Undersecretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Sr Nathalie has been travelling the globe in recent weeks as an ambassador for the Synod on Synodality, that has the potential to shift the power in the Catholic Church more toward the laity, and especially women and young people.

The French nun confessed that she did not have answers for the young women in the audience so much as she had advice: Listen. “Synodality is a dynamic vision of the Church in history,” Sr Nathalie said. “It is not a theoretical, idealistic vision of the Church in the sky. It’s about being the Church of the people of God over time.”

Nor, she said, was it only for Catholics talking to Catholics. “It’s a way to be a Church in dialogue with people from other faiths, in society. It’s a way to bring the Church to the world,” she said, later adding that “it was already the style of the early Church.”

Some of her audience interpreted Sr Nathalie’s appointment as undersecretary and full voting participation in the Synod as a sign that Pope Francis is pushing the Church closer to ordaining female deacons, often the first step to priesthood. But Sr Nathalie told them that a more important goal than women’s ordination is to “seek the truth together, listen and to reach a consensus.”

With Catholics from so many different countries and cultures, it takes time to build a consensus, she said.

Pope Francis himself has upheld the Catholic Church’s ban on ordaining women as priests as recently as November 2022 in an interview with the Jesuit America magazine but has done more than any pope in recent times to give women greater say in decision-making roles in the Church.

The dignity of women, he told America, reflected the spousal nature of the Church, which he called the “Marian principle”: “The way is not only [ordained] ministry. The Church is woman. The Church is a spouse. We have not developed a theology of women that reflects this,” Pope Francis said.

“The Petrine principle is that of ministry. But there is another principle that is still more important, about which we do not speak, that is the Marian principle, which is the principle of femininity (femineidad) in the Church, of the woman in the Church, where the Church sees a mirror of herself because she is a woman and a spouse.

“A Church with only the Petrine principle would be a Church that one would think is reduced to its ministerial dimension, nothing else. But the Church is more than a ministry. It is the whole people of God. Therefore, the dignity of women is mirrored in this way,” the Pope said.

Pope Francis noted that “a theology of the Marian principle needs to be developed further.”

That development and consensus on the role of women in the Church is now set as a major priority in the Synod process of seeking wisdom and consensus in the Spirit.