This week in Rome, change is in the air in the unlikeliest of places: the Vatican.
Expectations are high that at the conclusion of a month-long meeting of Roman Catholic Church leaders, known as a Synod, there will be a recommendation to change the 1,200-year-old rule requiring mandatory celibacy for priests.
Since Pope Francis’ election in March 2013, these Synods have met every October to discuss pressing issues in the church. This year’s gathering is focused on the Pan-Amazonian region where the land is enduring catastrophic environmental destruction and indigenous peoples are threatened with multiple forms of cultural genocide. Catholics in the region are also affected by a severe shortage of priests, to the point that some are forced to go without access to the Eucharist for months, sometimes even years.
This particular Synod, which began on Oct. 6 and will conclude this Sunday, Oct. 27, has been anticipated for years, with speculation that the Synod Fathers, as they’re called, may open up the possibility of ordaining married men to the Roman Catholic priesthood, at the very least in struggling regions like the Amazon.
After three weeks of meetings here in Rome, with 10 of the 12 working groups discussing the ordination of married men, some Vatican watchers are speculating that the Synod may vote to recommend this major change in church law.
Experts in church doctrine say that the change would be relatively easy since mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests is a “church practice,” and not a “revealed dogma.”
This is in stark contrast to the ban on women’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood, a doctrine, Pope Francis has said more than once, that is unchangeable and not up for discussion.
Though many will see married priests as a groundbreaking moment of progress in a church that has been retrograde in its approach to all issues related to gender and sexuality, it may cause a serious setback for women.
Proof of this is evident in the workings of this Synod.
There are nearly 230 male bishops, priests, and one brother currently meeting in the Synod Hall, 180 of whom will have a vote in the group’s final decision. There are 35 women in the hall serving as auditors, 20 of whom are nuns. Not one of these women has a vote.
Last year, Catholic women activists made international headlines when they campaigned for women to have a vote in the Synod. (The New York Times dubbed them “modern day suffragists.”) That demonstration led the Synod Fathers to declare a greater inclusion of women’s voices in church structures a “duty of justice” that requires a “courageous cultural conversation.”
But they never managed to muster that courage. Women were denied a vote again this year. If married men are allowed to be priests, it won’t be because a woman had any say in the matter.
The treatment of women at this Synod is consistent with the way women have been treated by an all-male hierarchy for centuries: they are voiceless, deprived of any decision-making power, barred from developing church doctrine, and refused all opportunities to serve in sacramental roles. It is hard to imagine how the addition of more men into the current all-male clerical structure would do anything other than reinforce the second-class status of women in the church.
A married male clergy will simply give more power to more men. Women will be made subservient not only to celibate men but to married men, too.
The inner workings of this year’s Synod have been more secretive and opaque than usual. However, during the event’s opening press conference on Oct. 7, a striking revelation was made by Sister Teresa Cediel Castillo, who ministers with women in the Pan-Amazonian region.
She said that women “know that they are baptized, and therefore, prophets and priests. Women baptize children. If there is a marriage, women witness and celebrate the marriage. If someone has need of confession, we listen to the bottom of our hearts. We may not be able to absolve according to the Church, but we listen with humbleness.”
Pan-Amazonian women have empowered themselves and embraced the power of God that works through them for the sake of a people in desperate need.
What will happen to them and their ministries if married men are suddenly given sacramental power and authority over them? Will the people still turn to women in their most crucial moments when a married man will be able to offer them “the real thing”? What would stop married male priests from supplanting their roles?
The Synod Fathers have repeatedly lamented the degrading treatment of both the Amazon and of women in the region. Yet they fail to see that at the root of all of this suffering is the fundamental idea that men and women are not equal—the very ideology they perpetuate in their rigid insistence that women cannot be priests.
The disproportionate levels that women suffer from poverty, violence, abuse, and lack of education is a direct consequence of this sexist ideology. The ravaging of the life-giving resources provided by our earth is also a direct result of the patriarchal idea that men are entitled to total dominance over nature for their own gratification.
If the Catholic Church, with its global political influence and its charismatic pope, allowed women equal status to men in its priesthood, they could be a powerful force for economic, environmental, and social justice. Allowing married men into the priesthood while continuing to bar women’s ordination will only justify the patriarchal belief that men should rule over the family, the church and the Earth’s resources.
In the Orthodox churches and the Mormon Church a married male priesthood has done nothing to crack the sanctified belief that men are superior to women. Why should things play out any differently in the Roman Catholic tradition with its millennia of marginalizing women?
If indeed there is a victory for married Catholic men this weekend, before we celebrate, we should consider the ways in which a new moment of justice for married men will only exacerbate injustices already faced by women and our planet.