A major milestone or a tiny drop in the ocean?
In February, Pope Francis appointed sister Nathalie Becquart (a member of the Xavière Sisters, Missionaries of Jesus Christ in France) as one of the two under-secretaries to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. The appointment was described by many as “historic”. It was not the first time that Pope Francis took steps to elevate the role of women in the Church. However, this specific position as under-secretary had never been held by a woman and it gives Sister Becquart the right to vote in a body that advises the Pope on crucial issues taken up by the Catholic Church.
Are these changes the start of a trend towards more gender equality within the Church? Or are they rather a (too) small drop in the ocean? To reflect on these developments, we asked three women close to CIDSE to share, each from their own perspective, on what this and other recent steps could mean for women’s dignity and rights in the Catholic Church.
Sister Anne Béatrice Faye is a sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of Castres and participated in the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in 2019; Susan Gunn is the Director of Maryknoll (CIDSE member in the USA); Sandra Lassak is a catholic theologian working as a theological advisor for Misereor (CIDSE member in Germany).
What did you feel when you first heard the news of Sister Becquart’s appointment?
Sister Anne Beatrice: “I felt surprise, emotion and pride when I heard that she had been appointed. I feel that this choice of the Pope demonstrates a real change in the decision-making location within the Church; mentalities are changing in the sense that the question of the place of women in the Church is not only carried by women but now reaches the whole Church. By putting the emphasis on common discernment, Pope Francis is making a concrete, prophetic gesture, which is not, however, isolated in the Roman Curia.”
Susan Gunn was also thrilled when she heard the news: “To have a woman involved with making decisions about what topics and who to include in the meetings strikes me as logical, appropriate – the way it should be. More than half of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics are women and the membership of female religious orders is about three times larger than that of male orders.”
However, with the pride and excitement also came other feelings.
Susan Gunn: “It only took a heartbeat for a second emotion to overtake me – embarrassment. Now the press will once again write things about the role of women in the Catholic Church like ‘what took so long?’ and ‘is change finally at hand?’ The truth is, I don’t know what has taken so long for this appointment to happen and I don’t know if change is at hand. As a lifelong woman Catholic in the United States, I have grown accustomed to turning away from the reality of the preponderance of men in leadership roles in the Church and instead, focusing my time and attention on what I call faith in action, living the beatitudes. As Pope Francis said to the people during his visit to Iraq in March, living the beatitudes can change the world. The beatitudes are not a call for a moment of heroics but about imitating Jesus each day, Pope Francis said. “That is how the world is changed: not by power and might, but by the beatitudes.”
Sandra Lassak: “The news that Sister Nathalie Becquart was elected as the first woman to receive voting rights in the Synod of Bishops seemed to be a sign of the will to implement much-needed reforms within the Catholic Church. But taking a closer look it becomes clear that neither the appointment of women to certain posts nor the admission of women to lay ministries of lector and acolyte are real structural systemic changes.
Indeed, Pope Francis published in January an apostolic letter modifying the Code of Canon Law so that women can now be formally instituted to the lay ministries of lector and acolyte. Is this official, formal recognition meaningful in any way?
Susan Gunn: “This formal recognition is meaningful to me because I am the mother of three daughters. When my husband and I were searching for a place to live near Washington, D.C. in the early 2000s, we chose not to live in the Diocese of Arlington, just south of the city, because girls and women were not permitted as altar servers. The bishop there decided to end that restriction in 2006, he said, to allow Catholics to “participate more reverently, more actively, more fully in Mass.”
What could the recent appointments mean for women’s dignity and rights in the church in the future?
Sister Anne Béatrice: “Increasingly aware of their dignity and specific leadership, women are less and less willing to be seen as an instrument. They demand to be treated as persons, both in society and in the Church. My hope is that this appointment will open other doors for women in the Catholic Church and remove the ambiguity of their possibility of exercising or not an ecclesial ministry and sharing decision-making powers in the work of the mission. By joining episcopal councils and some minor orders, they can help the Church to make its mission more transparent. With their dedication, self-giving, welcome, attentiveness to the poorest, their voices can be heard more fully. As Pope Francis points out, “we cannot understand a Church without women, without those women active in the Church, with their profile, who make things happen…”. Their voices are needed on environmental issues, peace, reconciliation and justice”.
Sandra Lassak: “For me, they are rather fig leaves or small pastoral consolations for those women still involved in church and parishes. Even though the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate brought a sense of hope and new beginnings for the Church, this has been rather disillusioned. Neither in questions of a rigid, controlling sexual morality nor in relation to structural gender discrimination anything considerable has happened. What remains for Catholic women is to raise their voices loudly and clearly, to organise themselves together and to creatively and self-determinedly create their own communal spaces of being and living in the church beyond the sacralized patriarchal power structures – as they are part of the church themselves.”
Susan Gunn: “Allowing women to participate more fully in the Mass and in decision-making is not only good for them, but good for all. As indigenous woman Lilla Watson said at the UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi in 1985, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Picture: Synod on the Amazon, 2019 ©CIDSE