Pope Francis joins leaders and members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops for a working session in the Vatican, October 23, 2023 (CNS photo/Lola Gomez).

In this past Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the people and his disciples: “You must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi…. You must call no one on earth your father… Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers…” Do not be guided by those like the scribes and Pharisees: “All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honour at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’”

As scripture scholar Brendan Byrne writes in his book Lifting the Burden:

Scarcely any injunction of the Lord has been so ignored as this ruling out of titles and, by extension, accoutrements of dress and ceremonial. The very appearance of such an instruction in the Gospel suggests an intention to nip in the bud tendencies in this direction already underway in the Matthean community. The instruction to live as brothers and sisters under the one Father in heaven, each striving to emulate the ‘servant’ rank and role modelled by Christ, has fought a losing battle against the tendency to institutionalise and socially elevate leadership figures. One wonders why the Church felt free to ignore literal fulfilment of Christ’s clear injunctions in this area, while taking others—for example, the sayings on divorce—with legal rigour.

The next phase of the Church’s Synod of Synodality drew to a close last weekend. There has been a lot of praise for Pope Francis convening a synod where participants sat at round tables. Of the 363 eligible to vote, fifty-four were women. That’s a record—15 percent—but not much to write home about. As the Synthesis Report noted: “Women make up most of those in our pews.” Yes, there were fifty-four women with voting rights, but also fifty-four cardinals. Though everyone sat at round tables, the clerics appeared in full clerical attire—and the zucchettos, the small skull caps, were always worn, marking the clear order of precedence: white for the pope, red for cardinals, and violet for bishops.

On the last day, the participants voted on the proposals put forward in the forty-one-page synthesis document, which had been amended about a thousand times. Of the eighty-one proposals voted on, the most “no” votes came for the paragraphs on female deacons.

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The Synthesis Report makes it clear that local churches are now to take up the issues raised, engaging in spiritual conversation and discernment, so that Synod participants can return to Rome in a year’s time. “Taking their starting point from the convergences already reached, [episcopal conferences] are called to focus on the questions and proposals that are considered most urgent.”

Of the eighty-one proposals voted on, the most “no” votes came for the paragraphs on female deacons.

Under each topic, the document sets out convergences, matters for consideration and proposals. It describes only four of these as urgent. They are climate change, the need for unity in a world of violence and fragmentation, support for families in ensuring that the online space is not only safe but also spiritually life-giving, and ensuring that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry. Cardinal Robert McElroy made the point that of the eighty-one proposals voted on, “There’s only one that’s called urgent. And that is bringing women into greater roles of leadership at all levels of the Church. Not a single one has the word urgent or any equivalent word except for that one.”

At the 2019 Amazon synod, there had been talk of ordaining women as deacons. In the lead up to this synod, Phyllis Zagano, a longtime advocate for women’s diaconate, predicted:

There will be significant argumentation against ordaining women as deacons, but to say women cannot be ordained, only installed to a quasi-diaconal ministry, insults their baptismal equality. The false argument against restoring women to the ordained diaconate—that women cannot image Christ—is implicitly if not directly the cause of the denigration and disrespect for women on every continent. As the Instrumentum Laboris points out, “A synodal Church must address these questions together, seeking responses that offer greater recognition of women’s baptismal dignity and rejection of all forms of discrimination and exclusion faced by women in the Church and society.

The section of the Synthesis Report entitled “Women in the Life and Mission of the Church” commences with what are said to be matters of convergence, including these three:

  1. We are created, male and female, in the image and likeness of God. From the beginning, creation manifests unity and difference, bestowing on women and men a shared nature, calling, and destiny, and two distinct experiences of being human. Sacred Scripture testifies to the complementarity and reciprocity of women and men, and to the covenant between them that lies at the heart of God’s design for creation.
  2. We have had a very positive experience of the reciprocity between women and men during this Assembly. Together we echo the call made in the previous phases of the synodal process, that the Church adopt a more decisive commitment to understand and accompany women from a pastoral and sacramental point of view.
  3. The Assembly asks that we avoid repeating the mistake of talking about women as an issue or a problem. Instead, we desire to promote a Church in which men and women dialogue together, in order to understand more deeply the horizon of God’s project, that sees them together as protagonists, without subordination, exclusion and competition.

Moving on from convergences to matters for consideration, the document states:

Different positions have been expressed regarding women’s access to the diaconal ministry. For some, this step would be unacceptable because they consider it a discontinuity with Tradition. For others, however, opening access for women to the diaconate would restore the practice of the Early Church. Others still, discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the Tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church. Some express concern that the request speaks of a worrying anthropological confusion, which, if granted, would marry the Church to the spirit of the age.

So you’ve got the full spectrum of views there, from a full-throated “yes” to an adamant “no, not ever.”

Then come the proposals, including:

  1. It is urgent to ensure that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry.
  2. Theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken. If possible, the results of this research should be presented to the next Session of the Assembly.
The progressives got the process, and the conservatives got the content.

Christopher Lamb in The Tablet reported: “One source close to the proceedings put it this way: ‘The progressives got the process, and the conservatives got the content.’”

Consensus, or at least the necessary two-thirds vote on each proposal, obviously came at a price. But that price is altogether too high when we are told that the research and findings of two previous commissions on women’s diaconate be presented at the next session in a year’s time only “if possible.” If this is the only urgent proposal to result from this phase of the Synod, surely it is essential that these findings be published well ahead of the next session of the assembly, and that the final session of the Synod next year present the pope with a clear recommendation, one way or the other.

The document notes: “Different positions have been expressed regarding women’s access to the diaconal ministry.” But it says not a word about women’s access to priestly ministry. Does this mean that no one mentioned it or suggested it or even ruled it out? Why weren’t the drafters of the document able to say of women’s priestly ordination what was said in part of women’s diaconate?

At the same time as the publication of this Church document, Australia’s first woman chief justice of the High Court gave an interview on her retirement, tracing the pioneering steps she had taken in the legal profession. Chief Justice Susan Kiefel said, “At core, what we were looking for was simply an equal opportunity. We were looking for a fair go, and a chance to prove ourselves.” When she commenced the practice of law, it was unthinkable that a woman would ever become a High Court judge. She lived to see a seven-member High Court with a majority of women as the members. I have often mused that when my mother was growing up, it was unimaginable that a woman would be prime minister, governor-general, or chief justice. My nieces have known all three.

Let’s pray for those many women who will search in vain in the Synod Synthesis Report for any real sense of urgency that “in the one Spirit we were all baptised in one body” (1 Cor 12:13)—to quote the very verse of scripture with which the Synthesis Report begins.

The roundtables have been a good start; 15 percent of the voters being women has been a good start. The spiritual conversation and deep, attentive listening have been a good start. But there is still far too much of this being called rabbi, father, and teacher, with all the accoutrements of clerical office. From this other side of the world, it does seem to me that “the progressives got the process, and the conservatives got the content.”

Frank Brennan, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne. He was a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia and is adjunct professor of law at the Australian Catholic University.

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