As It Happens

Catholic women bring voting rights fight to the gates of key Vatican conference

While Vatican City plays host to the Synod of Bishops, an advisory body for the Pope, women are taking to the streets to advocate for the right to vote for women religious leaders.

The Pope 'has a lot to learn' about women's roles in the church, says Catholic women's group head

Women from a group belonging to the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC), sing in protest at the lack of representation for women in the church, during the opening of the Synod of Bishops on October 3. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen5:58

While Vatican City plays host to the Synod of Bishops, an advisory body for the Pope, women are taking to the streets to advocate for the right to vote for women religious leaders. 

Traditionally, only ordained men have been allowed to vote on any major decisions at the synod — decisions that could go on to be a part of Catholic teaching.

The vote takes place Saturday, and after a month of protesting, women hope their voices will be heard. 

Protester Kate McElwee, executive director of Women's Ordination Conference, spoke with As It Happens guest host Megan Williams from Rome. Here is some of their conversation.

Members of the Women's Ordination Conference group, stage a protest in front of St. Peter's basilica in Rome, Monday, Oct. 17, 2011. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

There are a huge number of women in the Catholic Church. How is it that in 2018 female leaders are still not allowed to vote at the Synod of Bishops? 

Until 2015, the Synod of Bishops was limited to bishops — ordained men. And in 2015, the Pope made an exception, and appointed a brother — a non-ordained man — as a voting member of the synod.

And this year that number doubled to allow two non-ordained men to vote. So this year, we saw an opening because there are women religious superiors who are part of the synod as well. And the only difference between a brother and a sister is their gender. And so we tried to raise that as discrimination. 

And what has been the response when you held that up as discrimination?

Surprisingly, the brothers have come out in support of what we've been doing. We know that the brothers superior and the women religious are working to develop a proposal for Pope Francis to consider for the next synod. 

Within just two weeks more than 9,000 people have signed our petition calling for voting rights for women in the church.

A group belonging to the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC) sing in protest at the lack of representation for women in the church, during the opening of the Synod of Bishops on October 3, 2018 outside an entrance to the Vatican. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Are you getting any support from the actual bishops?

The bishops have been asked about voting rights for women and the role of women in the church at basically every press conference. And some of them at first didn't even realize that non-ordained men were part of the meeting.

So once they realized that there were two brothers, I think that they were able to recognize the value that women bring to leadership positions. 

We were holding hands and praying the rosary, and the police came on horseback to intimidate us and to stop our witness. - Kate McElwee , executive director of Women's Ordination Conference

Can you tell us what this document is, and why it's important that it be reflected in this document?

First, they have listening sessions around the world, and they ask bishops to poll there. 

And the bishops were meant to bring those stories to Rome to discuss how to welcome youth back to the Church, and the questions young people are asking about their Church today. 

Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, right, makes space for Pope Francis under his umbrella as they leave at the end of a morning session of the Synod of bishops earlier this month. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

Is there anything binding about the document?

Well, it could be official Church teaching. But it depends on the local bishops and communities to implement [it].

As you voice your concerns and your protest outside the Vatican, what kinds of reaction are you getting there?

On the day the synod began, we had a witness outside the synod gates to call for women to vote within the synod hall, and to call the bishops out by name to say, "We see what you're doing. You're closing the door and making decisions without us." 

We were holding hands and praying the rosary, and the police came on horseback to intimidate us and to stop our witness

Was there any reaction from passersby or people observing?

Notably, two prelates from Ireland came and greeted us and took our materials, and said they were interested in what we were doing.

The fact that women cannot vote in a meeting in 2018 is pretty absurd to most people, so we got a lot of support from people walking by.

Attendees of a press conference of religious movements, which fight for the ordination of women in Roman Catholic Church, ahead of a protest near the border with the Vatican City last week. (Claudio Peri/EPA)

Pope Francis has promised to put more women in leadership roles, and after five years there are only six women in what can be defined as leadership roles at the Vatican. What more would you like from him? 

There are things that he could do immediately. He could point women to positions of leadership across the Vatican today, that don't require ordination. Many of us are not satisfied by the slow progress of his papacy to bring women into substantial leadership positions.

I do think that he has a lot to learn about what women are capable of, and the ways that we could truly serve the Church if we were empowered as equals. 

Written by Sarah Jackson and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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