When Jesus was born, it was into a world of social division and rigid stratification, a world where everyone was expected not only to ‘know their place’ but to remain there. For Jews, the Laws of Separation governed all relationships based on ethnicity, social class, and gender; for all living in the Roman Empire, it was the Roman Law on citizenship.
The apostle Paul, Jew and Roman citizen, having reflected deeply on the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, came to understand that Baptism transforms human nature into a new creation and establishes a new order. Hence, to the Christian community in Galatia, he writes:
As many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer
Jew nor Greek
slave nor free
In their 17,500 submissions to the Plenary Council Australian Catholics insisted that the equal dignity of women and men had to be addressed as a priority. The Motions and Amendments document, published on 29 June 2022, addressed it with an Introductory Statement and 6 Motions, and prior to publication all Members, including bishops, were invited to submit their concerns as amendments to the Motions and speak to those concerns.
Sadly, the composition of the Plenary Council did not witness
to gender equality. Of the total 277 Members at each Assembly, only one third were
women. More than half (53%) were male clerics and another 13% were lay men.
During the Second Assembly many Members gathered in small groups and raised concerns about both clericalism and discrimination against women through tokenism, paternalism, rejection, exclusion, and judgment. Many Members who were mothers and fathers told of their children walking away from the Church as its leaders fumbled, grasped for justification, and lost their trust.
As Members listened to each other with mutual respect and
shared their desires, many hoped that the Assembly would listen to the voices
of the women among them and that things would change.
Things did change on Day 4 when the Chairperson announced
that the deliberative vote of the bishops had failed to pass the Motions promoting
the equal dignity of women and men. Some bishops, as if in a bubble, were
stunned to realise the pain they had caused. Why, if they had concerns with the
Motions, had they not raised them before the Assembly began?
The pain took visible shape when some 60 Members,
predominantly women but including 2 bishops and some other men, did not return
to their tables. It was a powerful yet dignified protest. Several women spoke
candidly, insisting that without change there was no way forward. The Vice-President and organisers acknowledged
this, and the process changed. It resembled
the Emmaus story (Lk, 24: 13-35): the Assembly recognising Jesus in
their midst and the Spirit moving.
When Members on the sidelines returned to their tables a
fresh and deeper listening began. The Concluding Statement noted: "At a pivotal juncture in the assembly,some of these differences helped move the Council from having a process to being-in process; from following an agenda to following the Holy Spirit into the unknown".
Particular group agendas quickly dissolved and a shared desire for each other’s good and the good of the Church emerged. A conversion of heart evidenced compassion, reconciliation, and hope, and on Day 6 a new set of edited Motions were passed with overwhelming support by both the Consultative and Deliberative Votes. They marked a turning point.
Action on witnessing to equality
The Acts and Decrees of the Fifth Plenary Council, recently approved by the Australian Bishops, are now on their way to the Holy See for approval. As none are controversial, early approval should be anticipated. Following approval it will be the local dioceses who must implement most of the Plenary Council's decrees, and since November 2020 the Australian Bishops Conference committed to having each diocese convene a diocesan synod within 5 years of the Council's close, Catholics for Renewal urges every diocesan bishop to begin planning their diocesan synod and preparing its agenda with full consultation without delay.
While the agenda is critical, so too is the membership. In the ACBC’s Social Justice Statement 2000
on Promoting the Participation of Women it committed to a “better
balance of men and women, clergy, religious and laity” and proposed the same to
diocesan bishops. That
‘better balance’ should be applied to the membership of every diocesan synod, as
well as to diocesan pastoral councils, parish pastoral councils, and to all leadership
positions and ministerial roles.
Catholics for Renewal welcomes the decrees on the female diaconate and “new opportunities for women to participate in ministries that engage with the most important aspects of diocesan and parish life”. High among these we see Parish Pastoral Associates, presently filled predominantly by women. We urge every diocesan synod to recognise the great value of this ministry, and provide it with quality formation, support, security of tenure and proper remuneration.
Witnessing to the equality of women and men in the Church is long overdue. We must all act now.
IMAGE: Gender Equality drawing for the European Commission by an 8yo girl from Sri Lanka
* The Committee Members of Catholics For Renewal are both women and men