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One Man, One vote; One woman, No Vote: Where stands the Synod’s Credibility?


What the Vatican’s synod could learn from Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 under difficult circumstances. Having traveled 3,000 miles from the United States to London, Mott and others arrived as delegates but were relegated to observer status and barred from voting. Why? Because they were women.

It was at this convention, that Stanton and Mott began dreaming about a women’s equality movement for the United States, one that would lead to a woman’s right to vote. As the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops comes to a close this week, I think back to those women who were ushered into a balcony and barred from voting at a convention 175 years ago. Some things haven’t changed. At the synod on the family this month there were women observers, but not one woman was permitted to vote.

I believe Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the renowned suffragist, would have sympathized with today’s women observers at the synod. She always believed that gender equality in religion was inter-dependent with gender equality in society. She encouraged women “to insist on her right to be heard in the councils of Church and State.”If Stanton were alive today, I imagine she would pick up her pen — or laptop — and write a few words to “educate” her fellow Christians towards change in the wake of the synod. “Educate” being her demure 19th-century word for a full-scale political campaign.

Her “educational” writing still resonates today. In the introduction to her collaborative book, The Woman’s Bible, she wrote, “If the Bible teaches the equality of Woman, why does the church refuse to ordain women to preach the gospel, to fill the offices of deacons and elders, and to administer the Sacraments, or to admit them as delegates to the Synods, General Assemblies and Conferences of the different denominations?”

Good question, Elizabeth.

To those who challenged her work, Stanton wrote, “Others say it is not politic to rouse religious opposition. This much-lauded policy is but another word for cowardice. How can woman’s position be changed from that of a subordinate to an equal, without opposition, without the broadest discussion of all the questions involved in her present degradation?”

She firmly believed the words of the Bible that men and women were created in God’s image. “Thus Scripture, as well as science and philosophy, declares the eternity and equality of sex,” says commentary in The Woman’s Bible.
In the midst of her busy schedule of lectures and political organizing, Stanton never gave up her quest for women’s equality in the church. In 1902, her final year of life, she proclaimed in an articlethat “the canon law, with all the subtle influences that grow out of it, is more responsible for woman’s slavery today than the civil code.”
She personally knew how religious views were used against women. In fact, Christian pastors were the most vocal opponents against female participation at the World Anti-Slavery Convention where Stanton first conceived of a women’s equality movement.
It was at that convention where the Rev. Henry Grew, a delegate from Pennsylvania, stated, “The reception of women as a part of this Convention would, in the view of many, be not only a violation of the customs of England, but of the ordinance of Almighty God… .”
While most convention delegates decreed that women could not participate, there were some strong male allies. George Bradburn of Massachusetts was recorded as saying, “Prove to me, gentlemen, that your Bible sanctions the slavery of women — the complete subjugation of one-half the race to the other — and I should feel that the best work I could do for humanity would be to make a grand bonfire of every Bible in the Universe.”
Gratefully, no such bonfire was necessary. The fire that did spark from that convention, however, was in the heart of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. While she is usually remembered for her secular political work, she was also a church reformer who knew that until women and men were equal in faith, they would not be equal in society. Her belief still resonates this month as the Vatican’s male-only synod debated ideas about families — ideas that have deep political implications, as well.
Meanwhile, next month marks the 200th anniversary of Stanton’s birth. I can think of no greater gift to her legacy than the women and men who persist in the quest for faith-based gender equality. “Votes for women” may have been the cry in politics, but in Elizabeth’s heart it was also clearly a cry for the church.
[Nicole Sotelo is the author of Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace, published by Paulist Press, and coordinates WomenHealing.com. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.]

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  1. Soline Humbert says:

    There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
    In his discussion of justice in contemporary society in his social encyclical Pacem in Terris(1963) Pope John XXIII observed that one of the “signs of the times” was women’s new consciousness of their human dignity and their growing refusal to be treated as objects or as less than full human persons(no.41)
    However, half a century later, this sign of the times continues to be largely ignored within the catholic church itself, especially in its institutional structures and canon law: women remain very much the objects of men’s decisions (for instance no woman has a vote at the present synod on the family )and the governance of the church is reserved to (ordained) men only.
    There are seven sacraments for men, but only six for women. Because of their gender women are excluded from the sacrament of orders and therefore from all the ordained ministries. Women’s vocations are still determined and limited by their gender, not by their charisms or gifts of the Spirit. This situation has been described by people like Mairead Corrigan Maguire, an Irish catholic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, as “deeply offensive, dehumanising, demoralising, and a form of spiritual abuse”.
    (Women’s Ordination Conference Dublin 2001).
    Yes,a form of SPIRITUAL ABUSE.
    my vision for the church is that of a community where there is radical gender equality, where all forms of discrimination and exclusion based on gender are ended and where all ministries and offices are open to all the baptised, according to their spiritual gifts,charisms and vocations, not their biological make up. I believe this vision of church is faithful to the vision of Jesus for his disciples and a core element of his Good News for the world.

  2. Mary Cunningham says:

    Well said, Soline.
    Within the debate on women that ranges from appeals to a sense of natural justice, deeply held convictions and magisterial pronouncements, is there a place for a simple logical premise?
    All people are persons.
    Some people are women.
    Therefore women are persons.
    Susan B. Anthony, in a speech from the dock in 1873 when indicted for illegally voting in a US election, skilfully used this argument to expose the fundamental flaw in the American Constitution, which begins with the words, ‘We the People’.
    We, the People of God, are the Church. The exclusion of women from voting is a fundamental flaw.
    Will somebody at the Synod on the Family, please stand up and ask;
    Are Women Persons?
    Mary Cunningham

  3. Soline Humbert says:

    @2, Well, Mary, it looks like women are not full human persons,as far as the synod’s organisers /participants are concerned: see the article by James Martin SJ (who is finally waking up to the sexism in the synod!…)(http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/where-were-voting-women-synod-0.
    Tellingly, the small number of women religious even had to ASK to be invited (with no votes of course),and to have the support of the male religious….

  4. Father John Fleming says:

    This column is misconceived. It is not a question of women not voting. It is a Synod of Bishops. So no lay person could vote, no ordinary priest or deacon could vote, but only those selected to participate in the Synod. the vast majority of bishops could not vote either! If you want to argue for women’s ordination then do so directly and not use who voted at this synod as a proxy! And by the way, your captcha thing is too difficult for people like me who are colour blind!

  5. Michael C. says:

    Fr John Fleming
    John your statement is factually incorrect and you should amend it and then argue your point.
    Men only were allowed to vote; whether lay or ordained.
    Could I sympathise with your difficulty with captcha but suggest there are worse blindnesses than colour blindnesses, that the church authorities are blind to the gross injustice they are doing to women.
    Please follow the link provided by Soline Humbert at 3
    I quote it in case of any difficulty
    “The assembled participants have had the chance to discuss some of the most important issues facing the church, and the discussions have been open, transparent and free. Thus, it has been a great success, and betokens still more openness in the future. Pope Francis has given the church a gift with this Synod.
    But this morning something very disturbing was revealed, thanks to a perceptive question by Thomas J. Reese, SJ, former editor in chief of America and currently a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. Brother Herve Janson, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, an order noted for its poverty and simplicity, was one of the participants at the daily press briefing. It was noted that he was also a voting member.
    Father Reese asked, rightly, “What is the rationale for you being admitted to the Synod and religious women not being admitted to the Synod? (The exchange can be seen on the video below, starting at 42:00)
    What does that mean? Basically, Brother Janson is not ordained. Some may not be aware of this tradition, but you can be a member of a men’s religious order and not be ordained: thus the term “Brother.” Brother Janson is neither a bishop, nor a priest, nor a deacon. Technically, his canonical “status” in the church is that of a layman. That is, he has the same “status” as that of a woman religious, or in common parlance, a Catholic sister. And the same status as a laywoman as well.
    In response to Father Reese’s question, which produced some uncomfortable laughter from the other panelists (who immediately grasped the challenging nature of the question): Brother Janson said (my translation from the French): “That is a big question….I felt very uncomfortable (malaise)….Before, the distinction was between cleric and lay. And now, it became between man and woman, exactly as you said very well….I asked myself the same question.” Strikingly, Brother Janson said he thought of refusing (renoncer) the invitation to be a voting member, out of solidarity with women religious. (This exchange can be viewed at 42:00 in the video below.)
    This is a serious failure for the Synod. Previously, at least as far as I had known, it seemed that ordination was a prerequisite for voting. That is, there were priests who were appointed, in addition to the bishops, as voting members. There were strong theological arguments that could be advanced for that: it was a synod of bishops, and, in Catholic theology, priests participate in the ministry of the bishop through the sacrament of holy orders.
    Now, it seems that the prerequisite for being a voting member was not ordination, but being a man.”

  6. I think God himself should come back down to earth for a while again and sort out a few things. The more they know seems to me to highlight how much more they have to learn. Or will they ever learn.?

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