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European Synod II

Women’s role, marriage and divorce surface as synod issues


As the European synod enters its final week, two issues that have generated deep divisions among Catholics in Europe and around the world have finally broken into open discussion: the role of women in the church, and pastoral care for remarried divorcees.

Both subjects were largely missing from the first round of speechmaking, but surfaced once the participants broke into small groups organized by language.

No one has broached the officially taboo question of women priests, but one group proposed that women should be able to run even the highest offices of the Vatican curia. Several groups called on the church to boost efforts to include women in public roles.

On remarriage, another group said that for many priests divorce is such a painful pastoral matter as to represent a kind of martyrdom.

A synod unfolds in three phases. Each of the nearly 200 participants has the opportunity to deliver a speech (called an “intervention”) to the general assembly; language groups discuss the interventions and suggest propositions to the assembly; finally, the assembly discusses these recommendations and votes on a set of proposals to go to the pope.

The pope alone has the authority to draw conclusions, which he will do sometime next year.

Perhaps the most provocative proposal in the second phase, which wrapped up on Oct. 15, came from one of the three Italian-language groups - this one chaired by Fr. Aldo Giordano, secretary of the Council of the European Episcopal Conferences based in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

“We propose that the possibility of woman's access to the public functions of the church be favored, considering that the ‘potestas’ [power] tied to the ordained ministry is not the only one,” Giordano’s group concluded.

The group went on to add that women should be eligible for all positions in the church, ranging from “pastoral responsibilities in the parish to significant offices in the Roman curia.”

The line about the curia was not included in the group’s official summary, which is the only record of its deliberations released to the press. Sources inside the synod, however, quickly spread word of the recommendation to the media.

The suggestion was echoed, albeit indirectly, by an English language group chaired by Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick, Ireland.

“We should reflect on how the importance of the role of women might be more visibly expressed in the church where no theological principle prevents it,” the group concluded.

Several other groups addressed the issue of women in the church.

“In various ecclesial communities, great steps have been taken to entrust women with new and greater responsibilities,” the summary from the first French working group read. Bishop Bellino Ghirard of Rodez chaired the group.

“They are being given increasingly important tasks. This effort deserves constant consideration,” the group said, but added a caveat: “While being careful not to regard men and women as being interchangeable in everything.”

The idea of male-female complementarity - that men and women, while equal in dignity, have complementary roles and hence cannot replace one another in certain capacities - is part of the rationale offered by the Vatican for the exclusion of women from the priesthood.

“We bishops are called upon to adopt an equally positive attitude towards women and their world, their legitimate rights to employment, their social responsibilities and their effort to gain them,” the summary of the Spanish group read. Bishop Juan María Uriarte Goiricelaya of Zamora was its chair.

“In our ministry there must be generous words, gestures and actions showing the sincere appreciation of the Church for women,” the group said. It too called for women to hold all offices in the church “beyond the scope of the ordained ministry.”

The German group, under Fr. Heinz Steckling, superior of the Oblate order, added that women serve the church even as critics.

“The Church should open new spaces for the participation of women,” the group said. “The new co-patronesses of Europe could be the inspiration; they were models because of their significant influence, for their scientific contribution, even for their criticism of what they considered not right in the church.”

John Paul II opened the European synod on Oct. 1 by naming Sts. Edith Stein, Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden patrons of Europe.

Murray’s group lamented the absence of women from its discussions. “It was a matter of regret to us that we had no women as part of our group and we felt that our discussions were thereby impoverished,” the group concluded. “We hope that the synod might reflect on how we might counteract the alienation which exists among many women.”

After it had completed its official business, Murray’s group invited a woman present in the synod hall to join them and offer her perspectives.

It was the second French working group under Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium that put the issue of marriage and divorce on the table.

The group noted that many people today seek a religious marriage in order to ritualize a significant moment in their lives, without fully understanding or accepting the theological meaning of the act. This creates a pastoral dilemma: are the marriages they contract truly valid?

Working through the pastoral dilemmas this situation creates, the group concluded, is for many priests a kind of martyrdom.

The comment was viewed here in part as a reference to the problem of pastoral care for Catholics who divorce and then remarry under civil law. Given the high divorce rates in Europe and North America - where one in three marriages ends in divorce, including Catholic marriages - the exclusion of remarried divorcees from the sacraments is an issue with consequences for virtually every parish and pastor.

Three German bishops in 1993 proposed that the decision about receiving the sacraments by divorcees should be made by the individual after consultation with a priest, not by an inflexible application of canon law. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rejected that solution in 1994, insisting that Catholics who divorce and remarry without receiving an annulment - a church declaration that the first marriage never existed - must be excluded from the Eucharist.

In a talk during the synod’s first week at the French national church in Rome, Daneels said the question should remain open. He urged compassion for divorcees, and suggested that Catholicism may need to learn from the Orthodox church, which sees the sacraments as “medicine for the soul” rather than something earned by good behavior.

The Orthodox church allows members to divorce and remarry three times, though the second and third marriages are marked by a different liturgy that includes a component of penance.

During the first phase of speeches, two other synod participants alluded to the problem of divorce: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, who included “the discipline of marriage” among his list of issues facing the church, and the Dominican superior Fr. Timothy Radcliffe.

Radcliffe included divorcees among other groups sometimes marginalzed. “Our words for Christ will not have authority unless we give authority to their experience, learn their language, accept their gifts,” he said.

The full synod will consider the proposals from the language groups this week. One bit of trivia: This is the first synod in which there has been no language group in Latin.

John L. Allen Jr. may be reached at JLA12065@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 1999