ROME – As the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon approaches, women from several religious orders and organizations have banded together to demand they be given voting rights during the meeting, a privilege typically awarded only to ordained men.
“These are the modern-day suffragettes,” Deborah Rose Milavec, Co-Director of the Future Church advocacy organization, said of women pushing to be enfranchised during the Oct. 6-27 synod.
Speaking to journalists at an Oct. 1 news conference organized by Voices of Faith, she noted that roughly 80 percent of all consecrated people in the Catholic Church are women.
“We want to see women equally represented in all synods, in all decision-making bodies,” she said. While several women have been appointed to key positions in the Vatican, this “is just a first step,” she said, “but we would like to see equality for women in every area.”
Though voting rights in a synod are typically afforded only to priests or Church hierarchy, during the October 2018 Synod of Bishops on youth, an exception was made to allow two non-ordained male religious to participate as full voting members, yet no such exception was made for religious women.
When questioned about it at the time, participants argued that since the gathering is a Synod of Bishops, it’s natural that only bishops or ordained clergy have full voting rights, and that the exceptions were largely made due to something unique about the order to which they belonged.
In fact, both were Franciscans, an historic order in the Catholic Church founded not by a priest but by a layman. Given the importance of the Franciscans in the history of the Church and also in terms of their numbers, participants argued the exception made sense.
That didn’t cut much ice with the women who spoke to the press corps in Rome Tuesday, though several conceded they believe things are moving in the right direction.
Milavec said that while last year’s synod document insisted women’s inclusion is a “duty of justice,” which is “new language” coming from the bishops, it’s not enough. Women are still not voting, she said, “so there is still more to do.”
During this year’s synod, there are 185 voting members from the Amazon, none of whom are women. Of the 80 non-voting attendees, 33 are women and 20 are women religious, ten of whom belong to the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), the global umbrella group representing women’s religious orders.
Last year the Women’s Ordination Conference organized a rally outside the Vatican insisting that women be given voting rights. They launched a petition which drew nearly 10,000 signatures in just two weeks’ time.
Several women religious from different communities have banded together to campaign for voting rights again this year. Sisters at Tuesday’s press conference, which included a busload of nuns from Switzerland’s Fahr Monastery, have taken to social media to push for voting rights, launching a campaign using the hashtag “#votesforcatholicwomen” and “#overcomingsilence.”
Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, told journalists Tuesday that in the 2018 synod, “women religious were denied a voting role based on their gender” representing a “closed door” that has been painful for women globally, she said, insisting that “our Church deserves better.”
Zuzanna Flisowska, general manager of Voices of Faith, called the situation “symbolic,” saying the only reason women can’t vote “is because they are women.” That’s a fact, she said, that means “women are excluded from the discussion about the future of our Church.”
Sister Simone Campbell, founder of the lobbying organization Network and famous for her role in organizing the controversial 2012 “Nuns on the Bus” tour, said that while she is usually immersed in American politics, she came to Rome to help ensure that “the heart of the synod process is honored by our beloved Church.”
“What I discovered, yet again, is that the voices of women, the main protagonists in the region, are a small participation and won’t vote,” she said, noting that the majority of those who serve isolated populations in the Amazon are women religious.
“It seems the point of the synod will be missed,” Campbell said, questioning how men bogged down in bureaucracy who don’t share in the life and sufferings of ordinary people can make decisions without the vote of those who do.
“God made us women to be partners, to be supporters, to use our minds and to express our hopes,” she said, adding, “This is not about power or politics, this is about the body of Christ.”
Notably, there were no women who live or serve in the Amazon present on the panel.
Milavec argued there nevertheless has been “tremendous change” under Pope Francis with regard to spaces of leadership for women.
“He’s helped women to have much more influence in the synods themselves,” she said, noting the inclusion of some 10 members of the UISG in the 2018 synod and in this year’s gathering as observers has allowed women to have more input.
“What that’s done is to give women much more say in how the documents are shaped,” she said. “But we want women to have more than a consultative role, but a deliberative role …we will not stop until women have the vote.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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