Response of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality to the Working Document for the Continental Stage of the Synodal Process

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) in Canada welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Working Document for the Continental Stage of the Synod (DCS). Reflecting on the DCS, as well as diocesan reports from around the world, it is evident that the Spirit is calling the church to ‘enlarge the space of our tent’. 

We offer this reflection, not as a comprehensive review of the DCS, but to draw attention to the segments of the document that relate to our work for women in the church and in the world. 

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

As a preliminary comment, we regret to say that the website for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has very little information about the Synod, demonstrating to us a lack of engagement, transparency, and accountability. There may well be good things happening, but how would one know, especially if one is on the ‘periphery’ of the Church and would likely consult the CCCB website for information? Furthermore, there has been no transparency regarding who the bishop-appointed delegates to the North American Assemblies were. We have no way to know if the voices of those marginalized by the church have been included in the Continental Stage, as was intended (DCS, #108). Secondly, the Vatican Synod link for the Continental Stage for North America links to the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and contains nothing about Canada’s involvement in the North American Continental Stage process: (Website content up to Feb. 28, 2023)

DCS Introduction 

#11. (3,4). We agree that living the mission of the Church requires the “co-responsibility of all the baptized” and that this work is founded on “our common baptismal dignity”. We also agree that this statement needs to move beyond a lofty claim to “the construction of concrete possibilities” in the structures and lived reality of the church. Women as equal disciples must be an integral part of this transformation. 

Listening that becomes welcoming

#32. While we are encouraged that the voices of women are being mentioned in the DCS, some of us are skeptical. We have been here before. In 1985, the CCCB developed a ‘conversation kit’ for parishes titled “Women in the Church” that included ideas of ‘co-responsibility’. Nothing came of those conversations. Rather than seeing this synodal path as a “gradual process”, we sense a deep urgency for long overdue bold change, led by the Spirit.

Listening to those who feel neglected and excluded

#38. Again, while ‘being heard’ is a good first step (#32), we cannot emphasize enough that this cannot be the only outcome of the synodal process. Listeners must be compelled, by Jesus’ call to justice, to act. The hierarchy, together with the whole church, must dismantle the barriers that prevent women’s full participation in ministry (including ordained ministry) and decision-making. Once women are present around tables of decision-making, and are celebrants at Eucharistic tables, the clergy will not need to develop a ‘deeper theology of women’. We find such a suggestion patronizing. It suggests that women are ‘objects of curiosity’ to be studied rather than partners in building the kin-dom of God, 

The Church’s mission in today’s world

#44. The DCS rightfully lists gender inequality as a “wound” experienced in both the world. We encourage priests and bishops to decry the global wounds of sex trafficking, domestic violence, discrimination, lack of access to education/career opportunities and the resulting poverty and trauma for women and their children. Yet we also urge the clergy to recognize that at present, the Catholic Church offers a shameful model to the world in terms of gender inequality and this serves to tacitly condone gender inequality in other settings.  

Walking together with all Christians

#49. The Gospels are replete with examples of the hospitality of Jesus as he gathered to break bread. We yearn for a Catholic church that does likewise, offering a common table at Eucharist so that our inter-church and interfaith family members feel welcomed. In the gospel of Matthew, we hear Jesus ask: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matt 7:9). This teaching should impel us not to set limits around Christ’s boundless gift in the Eucharist.

Cultural contexts

#51. We have been horrified by the traumatic harm and profound betrayal of trust that the global clergy sexual abuse scandal and cover-up by bishops has caused. We cannot emphasize enough the need for thorough and impartial criminal and ecclesial investigations of every allegation of abuse by clergy, past and present. In the Canadian context, we stand in solidarity with those harmed by the ongoing legacy of Catholic Indian residential schools and call the CCCB to lead in meeting the terms of the Catholic Settlement Agreement. 

Rethinking women’s participation

#60/61/62. We echo the call from all over the world “for Catholic women to be valued first and foremost as baptised and equal members of the People of God.” For this to become a reality, the ‘roles’ for women in the Church cannot be delineated by male priests and bishops alone. A synodal church cannot continue to have sexism embedded in ministry and governance structures that prevent qualified women from answering the call of the Holy Spirit. How can a ‘Synod on Synodality’ have only one woman, Sr. Nathalie Becquart, eligible to vote in the global Synod assembly? We agree with the New Zealand report: “This lack of equality for women within the Church is seen as a stumbling block for the Church in the modern world.” 

We suggest that the Synodal process adopt the principle of “nothing about us, without us” regarding all who have been relegated to the periphery of full engagement in the church. This is the only principle that is respectful of women (especially regarding issues of women’s reproductive health), persons who are LGBTQIA2S+, Indigenous persons, racialized minorities, couples who are divorced and remarried, those experiencing poverty, migrants, and refugees.  

Pope Francis rightly warns against the dangers of “ideologies” taking precedent over relational concern for others. Yet we see concerning ideologies also preceding respect for the inherent dignity of all persons in the teaching of the magisterium. For example, the ideology of ‘complementarity’ imposes inflexible, idealized stereotypes of what it is to be “woman” or “man” and limits opportunities for women to fully share their gifts. As church, we must not be afraid to learn about new understandings of gender that are rooted in sound science and to weave this together with Jesus’ call to loving inclusion. We feel called to move from a diminished understanding of gender as a dualistic polarity, toward an affirmation of humanity’s God-given gender diversity. 

#65. We agree that the church could learn from the models of synodality evident in many women’s religious communities and feminist movements for reform. As members of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality, we too are “church”. From our place on the margins, we continue to evolve non-hierarchical, collaborative forms of working together. 

#67. We very much resonate with the Italian report that envisions the Church as “all-ministerial” and “a communion of charisms and ministries”. This inclusive model of intersecting ministries, rather than a hierarchical church “built around ordained ministry”, must become the central organizing principle of our church. This principle is not an innovation of modernity but rather a “ressourcement” – a return to the models of the early Church. 

Managing tensions: renewal and reconciliation

#91. We concur that a spirit of synodality must encourage the “full, conscious, and active participation” of all in liturgical celebrations (SC,14). To dismantle the culture of clericalism, we need to stop placing clergy on a lonely pedestal, removed from the rest of the people of God and encourage them to live among us as collaborative pilgrims on the journey.  


The members of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality in Canada sincerely hope that the voices of women, so cogently expressed in the initial stages of the synodal process, will not be lost as the synodal process becomes more hierarchical. We have been ‘exiled’ and excluded for too long in the Catholic Church. We want to be welcomed home and take our rightful place, serving in a discipleship of equals. (#24). Our challenging times call for the courageous renewal of the Catholic church. Led by the Holy Spirit, may it be so. 

Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries Event Recording

Below is a recording of the panel discussion event “Doing Theology from the Essential Peripheries” held at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto on November 10, 2022. The aim of the Vatican global research project was to listen to the voices of those ‘on the margins’ of Catholic Church centres of ministry and decision-making. Toronto CNWE members participated in this project as a focus group, at the invitation of Dr. Darren Dias, OP. The panel presentation by CNWE member, Mary Ellen Chown can be found at minute 45:00 of the YouTube video below and is 14 minutes in length.

CNWE Reflects on the Legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality recognizes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s life of service in the Roman Catholic Church. We pause to reflect upon aspects of his legacy. 

Pope Benedict will be remembered for his decision, due to failing stamina, to resign in 2013, thus breaking with a 600-year precedent of previous Popes who served until death. This marks a beneficial shift away from a more monarchical style of governance in the Catholic church. 

In his tenure as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (1981-2005), the then Cardinal Ratzinger developed protocols to address the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and he defrocked perpetrator priests. (These sanctions were not as immediate and far-reaching as they needed to be, particularly regarding bishops and cardinals who covered up clergy sexual abuse.) As Pope Benedict XVI, he began reform to curb systemic financial corruption at the Vatican – work that continues under Pope Francis. 

However, for Catholics working for a gender-inclusive, renewing, and less clerically controlled Catholic church, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict leaves a contested legacy. As Cardinal, he was concerned with what he saw as a “dictatorship of relativism” in society and Church. As such, he moved the focus of the hierarchy’s work away from a Vatican II vision of a listening, collegial church toward a more narrow, rigid and centralized Catholic orthodoxy. This emphasis has further delayed the full participation of women, and the welcoming of LGBTQ2S+ Catholics in the church. 

Regarding women’s ordination, Pope Benedict ‘doubled down’ on his predecessors’ ban on women’s ordination. In 2010, he declared that any such ordinations were a criminal offense under Church law, subject to automatic excommunication and equal in gravity to sexual abuse by clergy. Unfortunately, Pope Francis recently codified this penalty into Canon law (#1379).

As Prefect of the CDF in 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger penned a letter to bishops that described the “tendency” to homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil”. His writing has contributed to discrimination against LGBTQ2S+ persons. 

Vatican sanctions against Catholic theologians during Pope Benedict’s tenure restricted academic freedom and hampered the necessary evolution of Church teaching. Similarly, the six-year intrusive ‘assessment’/investigation and oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States was a misguided overreach of Vatican power during Pope Benedict’s term of office. Pope Francis ended Vatican interference with the prophetic work of the LCWR in 2015.

Pope Benedict’s papacy also approved revisions to the English language mass. The intent was to restore a more rarified liturgical experience of the Eucharist. The result, however, has been an amplification of patriarchal language for God and humanity, prayers that are less accessible to new English speakers and young people, and has less common ground for liturgical ecumenism. 

CNWE respectfully hopes that the legacy of Pope Benedict will be the recognition that a more centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal model of church governance does not work. As Catholics who have worked for women’s equality in the Catholic Church for over 40 years, we take heart that global voices for change are rising via the Vatican’s synodal process. We hope that the Catholic Church will chart a bold path to share Christ’s gospel of love, justice, hospitality, and care for creation more fully – with a world and planet in urgent need.  

CNWE’s Summary Report to the Vatican Synod on Synodality

Clicking on the link above will connect you to CNWE’s Summary Report to the Vatican Synod on Synodality. It is based on conversations that CNWE members engaged in during the the spring 2022. It was gratefully received by the Vatican Synod Office and the office of Synod Undersecretary Sr. Nathalie Becquart.