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Whenever I read a Vatican statement on the role of women, I conduct a thought experiment. I imagine that I know nothing whatsoever about the Roman Catholic Church or its faithful. If this document were my only source of information, I ask from behind my ecclesial veil of ignorance, what basic conclusions might I draw about women in the Church? I’ve done this mental exercise with dozens of texts over the years, and one conclusion surfaces over and over: women are all exactly the same.
It’s a rather astounding conclusion to draw about a tradition populated all the way down by women who lived and died in wild and unique ways—shaving heads, chronicling visions, leading armies, renouncing fortunes, forswearing marriage, and birthing God, to name a few highlights. Yet there is little in Church teaching on women that does not appear to proceed from a fundamental illusion that women—the billions of us—constitute some sort of monolithic, quasi-theoretical body with an articulable essence, singular vocation, and narrow set of essentialized gifts. A sociologist attempting to devise a typology of women in the Church based on magisterial writing would, in the end, not find much to differentiate in the single category of “women.” This is the governing imagination behind Pope John Paul II’s notion of the “feminine genius.” But it also shapes, if less obdurately, Pope Francis’s comments on women, though one can trace real evolution since his early pontificate. In any case, the result is exaltation through condescension. Even the most well-intentioned statements on women in the Church bear the unmistakable hint of the male CEO who calls his female secretary “the real boss” and sincerely believes it’s a compliment.
On October 27, the Vatican issued the Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) of the ongoing Synod on Synodality. Prepared over two weeks by an international group of laypeople, religious, and clergy under the direction of the general secretariat of the synod, the document synthesizes hundreds of reports from the synod’s consultative phase—local reports from nearly every bishops’ conference as well as lay associations, religious superiors, dicasteries, online communities, and individuals and groups throughout the world. The DCS is not a declaration of conclusions but a sort of working snapshot of the polyvocal sensus fidei, meant to be used as a source for the synod’s next phase. Its release was met with fascination, even emotion, because it concretized what, until this point, has felt to some like a nebulous process. The document’s tone is forthright, warm, and non-defensive. As I read it, I imagined the committee responsible for its creation offering it to the Church on open palms.
When I reached the subsection of the DCS titled “Rethinking women’s participation,” I conducted my usual thought experiment. And for the first time, I was surprised.