As someone who has been very moved by Pope Francis and his recent visit to the United States, I have been prayerfully following the Synod on the Family these past few weeks. Much has been written about the controversies and intrigues of this Synod (which officially ended today), including in-fighting amongst the bishops regarding contentious issues like gay marriage and communion for divorced Catholics. I won’t get into those issues, since a lot has already been covered in well-written, well-balanced articles on NCROnline and America Magazine.
According to the USCCB, “The XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will continue the work of the III Extraordinary General Assembly by “reflect[ing] further on the points discussed so as to formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines” for the pastoral care of the person and the family (Instrumentum Laboris, III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops).” In other words, this Synod has been convened by Pope Francis to discuss the challenges facing individuals families in the world today, in particular those whose status in the Church have been the subject of contention, such as gays and lesbians, as well as those Catholics who have divorced and remarried without first receiving an annulment.
This Synod consisted of 279 bishops and priests from all over the world. Additionally, 17 individuals and 17 couples were asked to attend as auditors. Of the 17 individuals, 13 were women, including 3 religious sisters. None of the auditors, including the religious sisters, were able to vote. I was under the impression that voting rights were dependent on one’s status as an ordained minister, however it has come to light that Br. Herve Janson, Superior General of the Little Brothers of Jesus, was also granted full voting rights. As Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ pointed out in his article in NCROnline, “Theologically and canonically, he is are no different from the superior of a women’s religious order, except for his gender.” One has to ask then, if Br. Janson, a non-ordained person, was invited to the Synod and granted full-voting rights, how come women were not given the same treatment?
Failing to grant women equal voice and any voting rights at the Synod was a missed opportunity. How can the Synod Fathers claim to have the best interest of the human person and the family, when they uphold a patriarchal structure that continues to discriminate against and disenfranchise all women? Can a major discussion on the family and the problems they face today be relevant and meaningful if it does not take into serious account, with equal importance, the voice of women, married, single, or religious? And this is even without asking why other laymen were not given equal voting rights as well!
I think part of the beauty of a vocation to brotherhood is the ability to identify with and insist on casting one’s lot with everyone else – brother or sister, man or woman. When Fr. Thomas Reese asked Br. Janson about his status as a voting member despite not being ordained, Br. Janson stated, “This is a huge question… I did not feel at ease when I learned that the pope was admitting me. It showed the distinction between men and women… There were only three women religious and they did not have voting rights,” he continued. “I wondered whether to accept or not. We try to be their brothers… Friars try to live with the people… This is a bishops’ synod. I asked the questions you asked. I asked myself and a cardinal. I said, ‘we are brothers, we are religious people.’ I am not ordained.” I am grateful that Br. Janson was able to articulate his uneasiness with the process and that he was able to acknowledge the inequality of the situation. He concluded, “My having a voting right is too much — in regard to our sisters. I think they should have a voting right.”
I am praying that the next Synod, or the next meeting that discusses the lives of all Christians, men and women, will be more in keeping with the spirit of Pope Francis’ invitation to have more women in Church leadership. Our sisters need to be heard!
Below is the video from yesterday’s press briefing in which Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ asks Br. Herve Janson about his status as a voting member at the Synod. The section starts at approximately 42 minutes into the video.
Photo © L’Osservatore Romano, October 20, 2015