Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE), Canada welcomes Vatican decision to open Synod Assembly to 70 non-bishop voting delegates, including women

April 27, 2023

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality welcomes the announcement from the Vatican Secretariat for the Synod that 70 non-bishop members out of 370 delegates will be appointed by the Pope and able to vote at the Synod General Assembly in October 2023. Pope Francis has expressed a desire that half of the delegates proposed by bishops’ conferences be women. This is the first time that a Vatican Synod will be comprised of 21% non-bishop voting participants and the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that women and young people will have a vote at a Vatican Synod.  

This limited but significant structural shift toward justice and equality for women and all in the church reflects decades of advocacy by Catholics who have persistently and respectfully called for a ‘discipleship of equals’ in Church ministry and decision-making. As echoed in the North American Final Document for the Continental State of the 2021-2024 Synod, “There can be no true co-responsibility in the Church without fully honoring the inherent dignity of women.” 

The further evolution of such co-responsibility in the church will require synodal assemblies to have participants elected (not appointed) in transparent processes that welcome the engagement of a broad cross-section of Catholics, particularly those who, like women, have been largely disenfranchised. Such a rich diversity of participants would embody the varied lived faith experience of the whole church and could not help but renew its vitality, relevance and credibility. 

We invite all Catholics to let their parish priests and bishops know that they support this opening toward non-bishop participants and especially women at the 2023 Vatican Synod on Synodality. 


Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE), Canada responds to the March 30th, 2023 Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery”

April 3, 2023

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality, Canada welcomes the repudiation of the “Doctrine of Discovery (#7) in the Vatican Joint Statement. We credit the repeated requests of Indigenous peoples and those in solidarity with them that have led the Vatican to rescind this doctrine. Most recently, this request was made to Pope Francis during his pilgrimage to Canada in July 2022. 

In our assessment, the remainder of the Joint Statement however, lacks sufficient and whole-hearted institutional self-scrutiny. Rather than unequivocally acknowledging the systemic nature of centuries of colonialism and racism embedded in the Catholic Church, the statement only says “many Christianshave committed evil acts against indigenous peoples”. The same sentence then proceeds to justify the hierarchy by stating that “recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions”(#3). In our experience, a public admission of wrongdoing should be a sincere apology and little else. 

It would seem, however, that most of this statement has fallen prey to the temptation of ‘virtue signalling’, a contemporary expression defined as “the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue” (Oxford). It does this by:

  1. Highlighting at the outset the actions of individual Popes, clergy, religious and lay Catholics in defending Indigenous peoples, (#2) 
  2. Pointing to the hierarchy’s renewal of dialogue and greater awareness of the suffering of Indigenous peoples. (#4). The statement points to government-led policies but does not acknowledge the damaging role of the Catholic Church’s policies and practices designed to eliminate indigenous language and culture through ‘assimilation’. 
  3. By claiming that only “certain scholars” (#5) argue that the papal bulls are the foundation of the Doctrine of Discovery, and that the bulls were limited to historical and political circumstances (#6) the statement downplays the scope of the Church’s self-serving cooperation in centuries of colonialism and racism, rather than honestly acknowledging it. 
  4. Citing one papal bull from 1537 as evidence of the Church hierarchy upholding Indigenous rights (#8), neglects to mention that the bull was functionally rescinded a year later. 

While we agree with Pope Francis that learning of the suffering of Indigenous peoples should constitute “a powerful summons to abandon the colonizing mentality”, (#4) the full commitment of the Catholic Church to the work of reconciliation remains to be seen.  In the words of former chief of Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba Ernie Daniels, ‘There must be a fundamental change in attitudes, behaviour, laws and policies from that statement.’ We hope that the one penitential comment in the statement, (“It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.” #6) will spur the ‘Catholic entities’ in Canada to fulfill their financial commitment to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. 

Tangentially, we hope that all future Vatican documents will refrain from the use of the word ‘fraternity’ (#1) (from the Latin for ‘brother’ ) and use instead the more inclusive term, “kinship”. 

Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world are reclaiming their culture and language, and demanding the right to clean water, livable housing, food security, health care, environmentally sustainable communities, and an end to violence particularly against indigenous girls and women. With humility, may Catholic Church leaders and all the faithful live into truth-telling and the work of reconciliation in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

(For ease of reference, the link to the Joint Statement is:

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.