An array of Roman Catholic women are questioning whether Vatican rules barring women from voting at an important global meeting are fundamentally discriminatory ― arguing that the right to vote has already been granted to lay Catholic men.
Liberal and conservative Catholic women are calling on the church to allow female religious superiors ― nuns who lead women’s religious orders ― to vote alongside male religious superiors at the Synod of Bishops, an annual Vatican assembly that advises the pope. The final document produced by the month-long meeting, which began on Oct. 3, has the potential to become official church teaching if approved by the pope.
The debate over whether women can vote at the Synod of Bishops has become a flashpoint for those seeking proof the centuries-old, male-dominated Catholic church is finally willing to listen to women’s voices.
More than 5,000 people have signed an online petition calling for female religious superiors to be allowed to vote at the synod. The day the synod opened, 20 men and women gathered to protest at the Vatican, according to the National Catholic Reporter. The protestors read out the names of Catholic cardinals and chanted, “Knock, knock. Who’s there? More than half the church!”
Although progressive Catholic organizations organized the petition and rally, the issue also seems to resonate among mainstream Catholic groups.
Benedictine nuns from Switzerland, holding signs with the words #VotesForCatholicWomen, posted a photo showing their support for women’s voting rights on social media.
Sister Sally Hodgdon, a superior general from the U.S., predicted women eventually will win the right to vote, according to The Associated Press.
“I am a superior general. I am a sister. And so in theory, logically, you would think I would have the right to vote,” Hodgdon told reporters.
“I believe that in future synods — I will not say the very next synod — but in future synods we will probably see a change as to who votes,” she said.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents most American nuns, declined to comment on its position on the issue.
Journalists and activists have repeatedly asked bishops at the synod to explain why women can’t vote, the AP reports. The bishops typically respond by citing Vatican rules.
“We have to listen to women, but there are no women bishops. We don’t have women cardinals. We have to live with that,” Dutch Bishop Everard de Jong told the AP.
The synod is attended by about 300 bishops elected to represent their colleagues around the world, according to Religion News Service. Special delegates appointed by the pope also attend.
The theme for this year’s meeting is how the church can minister to its young people. Surveys conducted in preparation for the meeting indicate that many young people want women to have greater, more visible roles in the church.
Centuries-old Catholic doctrine maintains that because Jesus’ apostles were male, only men can be ordained as priests ― which means that, by extension, only men can become bishops.
However, ordination is not required for men who want to join a religious order. Technically, these un-ordained religious brothers are considered lay members of the church ― having a status equal to Catholic sisters who join religious orders, and equal to ordinary Catholic men and women in the pews.
This distinction became a point of contention in 2015, when an international group of male religious superiors elected a religious brother to be one of their 10 representatives to the bishops’ synod. This brother was allowed to vote on synod resolutions, even though he was not ordained.
That incident raised questions about whether female religious superiors would also be given the opportunity to vote in the synod, since it appeared that being ordained was no longer a prerequisite for voting.
This year, two male religious superiors who are not ordained are voting participants of the synod, the AP reports.
Lay Catholic women and religious sisters have attended synods as auditors and speakers ― but they can’t vote on synod resolutions. A global group representing female religious superiors was not invited to send voting delegates this year.
But some experts say Catholic canon law doesn’t technically bar these women leaders from voting on synod resolutions.
“The only theological or canonical difference between a religious brother and a religious sister is gender,” the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Catholic columnist and former editor-in-chief of the Catholic magazine America, wrote in an article. “Excluding women is, therefore, indefensible.”
Katie Prejean McGrady, a Catholic speaker and writer, was one of the American delegates who gave bishops insights about young Catholics ahead of the synod. She told America that she hopes to see women voters included at the meeting soon.
“I keep reminding myself: The Church is a slow-moving ship. Things don’t happen overnight or with the snap of a finger, and I can’t get mad every single time I disagree with some procedure or process,” McGrady said. “So rather than be incredibly frustrated by the lack of women voters in this Synod, I’m going to remain hopeful that we’ll have women voting in the next one.”
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