· Vatican City ·


Myriam Wijlens, on the Synod Coordinating Committee

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30 September 2023

Myriam Wijlens, Dutch, is a full professor of Canon Law at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

How did you react when you were appointed on the Coordinating Committee of the Synod?

It seems to be the first time in history that a woman is on the Coordinating Committee. The appointment came shortly after sister Natalie Becquart had been appointed as undersecretary. I was surprised because I'm a canon lawyer and we are usually not asked to sit at the table at and from the beginning. But I guess my appointment is linked to my expertise. In 1984, studying theology I discovered how Vatican II rediscovered baptism, inserted consciously a chapter on the people of God before the hierarchy in Lumen gentium and developed the doctrine of episcopal collegiality. I asked myself: but how do such doctrines become a lived reality? The Code of Canon Law had just been promulgated and I wondered: how does law play a role in this? I decided to study canon law and the question has remained with me ever since.

The question of women’s recognition and responsibility came up in all the continental summaries that helped to draw up the Instrumentum Laboris… How do you analyze it?

It is remarkable that not just women are asking for a reflection about the role of women, but also men, in particular young ones. They find it really difficult to belong to a Church in which their female friends are not equally valued and in which they do not have the same possibilities to participate. The reports express that many more women than men engage actively in the life of the Church, but they don’t feel recognized. Furthermore, women religious don’t feel sufficiently acknowledged: they ask that the Church provides for possibilities of living the potentials that God has given to them. All reports emphasize that the Church needs to attend to this not for sociological reasons, but because of the dignity that flows from baptism. Furthermore, the reports reveal that women in difficult situations - poverty, single moms, those in polygamous relationships - want the Church to stand at their side and be an advocate.

It is often said that the question of "the place of women" in the Church actually overlaps with that of the baptismal vocation and co-responsibility of the laity as a whole, whether men or women: do you share this point of view? Or are there specific issues for women?

In general, I would share this point of view. But there is something else that I would like to share with your readers. Until 1971, only priests were judges in marriage tribunals, then it was opened up to laymen, but the requirement was that a lay judge could only act together with two clerics. A cleric is a deacon, priest or bishops. The 1983 Code of Canon law allowed also laywomen to be judges In 2010. Pope Benedict made a very important change in the law: he clarified that a priest is ordained in persona Christi capitis, but a deacon is ordained for ministry. This implies that within the notion of cleric there are clearly different types. The requirement in marriage courts was still that one layperson would serve with two clerics, who could be a priest and a deacon, or two priests, or two deacons. In 2015 Pope Francis decided that the court could be two lay persons and one cleric. So imagine the visualization of the change in a group picture of the judges declaring a marriage to be null: up till 1971 they were three priests, but this changed to now being maybe two women and one married deacon. We have a whole different group picture and the question is: what happened here theologically? Canon lawyers agree: each one of them exercises jurisdiction. My question is: what are the theological and canonical implications of that change for many other domains in the Church?

Which means?

That brings us to the question of ministry in the Church. Since recent times, women can also be a given the ministry of catechist, lector and acolyte. These are functions in the domain of the teaching and sanctifying task of the Church and with the judges we also see that they can engage in the governance. Not all possible ministries are actually lived out in all local churches and some existed in the past but do not exist today (we can think of the so-called minor orders). Currently some have permanent deacons, others not. I learned that the ministry of catechist is strongly developed in Africa and Latin America, but not in Europe. It all shows: local churches have different needs and possibilities at different times. With the 1972 document ‘Ministeriam quaedam’ Pope Paul VI already encouraged bishops to develop ministries in their local churches. So we may ask: what needs do dioceses have and what ministries can be developed also locally? Some ministries can be developed for one context because they are good there, but maybe not necessarily in another context.

The current synod invites to reflect on these and other questions in a synodal way: the bishop discerning with the people of God in his diocese on what is needed and possible theologically and practically.

Speaking of ministries, the question of female deacons emerges also. How can the synod address this?

It is not for me, but for the Synod to discern how to respond to the question of female deacons. The request comes not just from the women, but from the whole community. Yet, we must realise that the Synod is not about women and the diaconate but on how the Church engages in questions like this one - as well as others. Who participates in the reflection and in light of what kind of responsibility? Who will make the decision and to whom is this binding? What is the appropriate level to make decisions? Which topic needs to be decided by the universal Church, but which ones can be left to a diocese or e.g. an episcopal conference? This is also a topic of the synod.

How can synodality help on the issue of abuse in the Church?

Since 2002 I have been mandated by bishops and major superiors to conduct preliminary penal investigations. I served on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors from 2018 till 2022. One of the most important things with regard to the abuse is the question of accountability. The issue does not only concern bishops, but also superiors of religious institutes. How and after consultation with whom do they decide when allegations are brought to their attention? How do they decide to admit young men to be ordained or admitted to an institute? In my work I very seldom saw cases in which there had not already been signals of problems before the ordination. Bishops had been warned not to ordain the man or not to accept a person from another diocese. These warnings were ignored. So not only do we need procedures in place to protect all: the victims, the community, the priest concerned and the bishop himself, but also ways to make sure that they are implemented. Accountability requires to act synodal and a synodal church requires to be accountable, because listening alone is insufficient. Hence, we need a change of culture. It is not only a matter of procedures, it is a matter of conversion.

by Marie-Lucile Kubacki
A Journalist. Marie-Lucile Kubacki is the permanent special correspondent for ‘La Vie’ in Rome