Votes for Catholic Women - why are women left out of voting at the Synod on Youth?

By Petra Dankova, Voices of Faith. Originally published by (

On October 3rd 2018, I found myself standing at the gates of the Vatican together with women from four different continents, calling over and over again “Knock, knock! Who´s there? More than half of the world!” I have never done anything of this sort before, yet, it felt like the best place to be on that day. Passing by were cardinals, bishops and a few lay participants of the Synod on Youth. Only about 10% of these passers-by would be women. None of them will be allowed to vote at the synod.

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This global gathering of the Catholic Church has been planned for over a year. The topic of youth was chosen because of its crucial importance for the future of the Church in the midst of an ever-worsening crisis. Ahead of the synod, Pope Francis has asked young people to share their hopes and challenges honestly. The pre-synod meeting of youth (in March 2018) had over 300 young women and men from around the world attending. At this meeting, it was clearly identified that the standing of young women in the Catholic Church is out of sync with the standing and aspirations of young women in many societies around the world today. Young people wrote: “Common perception [is] that many young people are unclear about the role of women in the Church. If it is difficult for young people to feel a sense of belonging and leadership in the Church, it is much more so for young women.“

In this context, it was a huge blow to find out in mid-September, when the names of participants were released for the upcoming Synod, that once again, only men will be allowed to vote. Right up to the last days before the Synod, many Vatican observers were still hopeful that a woman would be appointed as a voting member. They had concrete reasons for this hope, being that, aside from the traditionally voting cardinals, bishops and priests, the Pope had accepted two lay men, non-ordained religious brothers, as voting representatives of men’s religious congregations. This set a precedent. Ordination to priesthood was no longer a requirement for voting. Then surely at least some religious sisters would get the right to vote – just like the religious brothers?

These hopes were dashed on October 1st when the undersecretary of the synod, Bishop Fabio Fabene responded to a question of a journalist: “As for women, they are already present as observers and participate in the synodal assembly and the small groups and have a right to speak.“

I was stunned when I read this. My organisation, Voices of Faith, works for the equality of women in the decision-making of the Church and here was a concrete opportunity with no doctrinal questions standing in the way and we were told that we should be glad to be able to speak?

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Many other faithful women who care about the Catholic Church felt like me. A protest campaign started developing. The Women’s Ordination Conference started a facebook action with a simple sign that read “Votes for Catholic Women.” Voices of Faith joined and soon there were several organizations and many individual women and men in different countries joining together using the hashtag #votesforcatholicwomen.

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And on October 3rd, a group of us stood on St. Peter’s square in Rome. I was in good company. There were women from Poland, South Africa, India, the USA and many other countries; there were those who are passionate about extending the roles of laity and those who struggle for women’s ordination; there were theologians, writers, women active in social ministries; women in their 20s and 30s as well as others in their 60s and 70s. What many of us had in common was that we have never done anything of this sort before.

We prayed two Hail Mary’s for the Church as Pope Francis invited recently all the faithful to do and then we chanted: “Pope Francis, let women vote.”

Tourists stopped as our voices clearly resonated across the square. Two Irish bishops recongnised one of us and came to shake our hands. After 15 minutes of chanting peacefully, plain-clothes police officers stepped into our circle. I will never forget the sight of one of them shouting at close range into the face of a young woman: “Silence! Silence!”

No, we had enough silence. There is silence about the second-class status of women, silence about sexual abuse in the Church, silence about exclusion of people who do not fit the narrow horizon of the official Church teaching on who counts as a family.

It took only a split of a second and we were chanting again, despite the orders to be silent: “Knock, knock! Who’s there? More than half of the world!”

We cannot be silent – not because we have come to hate the Church but because we continue to love it. The Church can only spread the good news of the Christian faith when it lives what it preaches – equality, inclusiveness, dignity. As a convert who grew up atheist, I care passionately about this Church and want it to thrive and fulfill its prophetic mission.

Votes for Catholic Women at the Synod will not solve all the urgent problems of the Church. But it would be an important sign in troubled times that real changes are following the promising words of Pope Francis about the need for more women in the decision-making processes of the Church. If we are to renew the Catholic Church, women are central, not optional. Our silence can no longer be taken for granted.

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