The Extraordinary Synod for the Family that will be held in Rome next month has attracted more attention than any synod since their introduction following Vatican II. The media are focused on the possibility that changes may be made in such matters as birth control and reception of the Eucharist by Catholics who have divorced and remarried. The majority of Catholics who are aware of the synod are focused on those same concerns. In the meantime, five cardinals are among those who have authored a book that is clearly meant to head off any relaxing of discipline inspired by Pope Francis' pastoral approach. In fact, they go beyond trying to head off relaxation and actually attempt to refute the pope, though they use Cardinal Walter Kasper (whose views the pope has endorsed) as their ostensible target. Clearly, they are worried. However, low expectations are in order. There may in fact be some pastorally oriented moves at the synod, but it is unlikely that there will be immediate change. A call for "more reflection, study and prayerful consideration" is the likely outcome. As with just about everything in the Catholic Church, decisions about what is worth consideration and what should result from such reflection will be made by people representative of no one but themselves.
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Though celibate males are a statistically insignificant portion of the human race and even of the Church, the synod for the family will consist of post-middle-age celibate males who, in the phrase jokingly used by clerics, "have no children to speak of". Those men do not live in families, and probably have not done so since adolescence. They do not know of what they will speak nor the implications of what they will decide. Even worse, the larger portion of the Church and the group most intimately involved in the life of families -- women -- will only be present as a few decorative elements. Pope Francis has admitted that the Catholic Church has "not yet come up with a profound theology of womanhood", and has named five women to the International Theological Commission, bringing women members to 16 percent. So what? Until women are in a position to actually exercise authority, it is window-dressing. More significant is the fact that the commission the pope appointed to develop a more pastoral approach to annulments contains not one female member and only one male representative of the laity who will be affected by the work of the commission. As is invariably the case when there are calls for a more just order, whether in society or the Church, the response is that changes must not be made precipitously. "Slowly, slowly" is the motto. But hasn't a wait of some 15-18 centuries been slow enough? Those who actually read the New Testament and early Church history instead of reading into the New Testament and early Church history developments that came later know that Jesus was scandalously unconventional in his dealings with women and included them among his disciples. The early Church had women in leadership roles (Junia, Prisca, Lydia, et al). So, female-free leadership in the Church is not an evolution, but a deviation. Making changes is a restoration and there is no excuse to further postpone a return to the ancient tradition. This is not a call for the ordination of women. Ordination is not required for someone to exercise a role in leading the Church and setting directions. There have until fairly recently even been lay cardinals. I have a suggestion for how Pope Francis might fast-track the restoration of women to leadership in the Church. At present, cardinals retire at 75, but retain their voting rights in conclaves until age 80. As of today, 34 cardinals are in that category. How about lowering the age at which cardinals can be part of a conclave to what is already their retirement age and filling the immediate openings and the six current vacancies with women, thus making them one-third of the 120 electors? This will bring women into the leadership, and will incidentally enable Pope Francis to better shape the College of Cardinals who will elect his successor. Then, he could bring married men into the college as other openings appeared. One third of electors women, one third lay men and one third clergy would be a good way to show the world that we truly believe that the Church is the whole people of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit and each and all responsible for the evangelization of the world. That's not going to happen. But, unless and until some equally radical changes are made to the way the Church is led, from the smallest parish to the whole world, the women and men who are the overwhelming majority of Catholics will continue to watch with bemused indifference or frustrated anger as celibates pontificate and legislate about love, sex, family, child rearing and all the other elements of non-clerical life. Maryknoll Father William Grimm is the publisher of ucanews.com.