The Challenge of Women’s Consent
Mary Jo Iozzio
On the eighth day of Christmas the liturgy focuses our attention on Mary’s formal and material cooperation in the Nativity of God. The Theotokos, God-bearer of nine months, is celebrated. Parturition complete, she suckles the newborn, bathes and swaddles him, wondering, what child is this? Like so many mothers before and after, Mary cherished the babe in her care.
The liturgy collects: “O God … grant we pray, that we may experience the intercession of [Blessed Mary], through whom we were found worthy to receive the author of life, our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I wonder, what mother is this? Theotokos. This answer is not unlike the Paschal mystery: for some it is a stumbling block and for others folly. For us, Theotokos confirms the angel’s greeting to Mary that she would be the mother of God … if she would but say yes. I wonder, how many women before her had been similarly visited but said no? Among women, she was blessed, surely, with a confidence and self-determination that many women lack (then and now) in their homes, their families, and other relationships, and, if there is an opening for them, in their workplaces as well. After inquiring how this was to be done and without seeking permission from either her father or her betrothed, Mary gave consent.
The consent of every woman before and since is a thing of beauty. Her consent, her affirmation of the possibilities for being –like the fiat of Mary—can herald the good news of liberation from structures of de rigueur authority and domination that infect and thwart the power of life and of love. In the best of times, every woman’s consent has the potential to incarnate relationality with an intimacy faithful to the woman herself and to those she loves and for whom she cares.
The solemnity commemorates the Divine Incarnation by honoring Mary’s consent. What if we consider the solemnity a celebration too of all women’s empowerment and recognition of their full participation through their consent in the plan of salvation that continues the work of evangelization? The liturgy continues: “For by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit she conceived … and brought forth into the world the eternal Light, Jesus Christ.” Aren’t we all, women and men alike, worthy to receive and called to bring forth this same Light into the world?
In preparation for the next Synod, we have “one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas [in the Relatio] and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront” (Pope Francis, Address for the Conclusion of the Third Extraordinary General Assembly). Among those challenges and perhaps chief among them concerns women’s agency in the family and in social, political, and ecclesial communities worldwide. My hope is that this discernment will attend and be devoted to women’s agency in the family beyond the role of mother/grandmother, especially since the family remains the essential agent in the work of evangelization (cf, Relatio Synodii #2).
The Lineamenta asks: “Are people aware that the rapid evolution in society requires a constant attention to language in pastoral communication?” (q.24). In this question I find a challenge to the Church’s own choice of language exclusivity as well as its exclusion of women in so many of its own offices, teachings, and communications. And yet, “Proclamation needs to create an experience where the Gospel of the Family responds to the deepest expectations of the human person: a response to each one’s dignity and complete fulfillment in reciprocity, communion and fruitfulness” (32).
One way to break through failures in reciprocity, communion, and fruitfulness maintained in the edifice of the Church’s male voice and evangelization efforts is to involve many women –as many in actual number as men—in the consultations instructed by the Lineamenta with “particular churches, academic institutions, organizations, lay movements and other ecclesial associations” (Preface). Accountability to women in the Church can be fostered with attention to the actual number of women present as well as verification of their participation as the consultations proceed. In this way women’s experiences of hope and joy as well as of sorrow and pain will inform the discussions and dialogue on the evangelizing vocation and mission of the family and, thereby, hopefully affect the ways in which the Church responds to women’s dignity and complete fulfillment as women themselves so deem. In this way only, women can be able, then, to affirm their fiat for what follows.
Clearly, accountability to and the consent of women challenge both the Synod and the Church. I suspect many may hope that among the innumerable challenges to which Francis referred will be the hope that this “true spiritual discernment” will include, as a matter of procedure and protocol, accountability that: 1) listens to women, 2) looks thoroughly with them at their lived experiences, and 3) confronts honestly the burdens that patriarchy, sexism, and heterosexism have imposed on them—as well as their joys and successes in spite of the odds against most of them. If these Synod Assemblies are to achieve their purpose, which is to gain insight into the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and contemporary world, then women must have an equal voice in the consultations that respond to the Lineamenta, the subsequent development of the Instrumentum laboris for and the proceedings during the XIV Ordinary General Assembly.
Above, I reflected upon the fiat of Mary and the importance of her consent. Here, I explore the often under-recognized denial of women’s consent and the implications of ignoring that denial for women, families, and their communities inclusive of the Church. Neither the denial of women’s consent nor the complicit and/or complacent ignorance without consequence can be tolerated in our Church and our communities any longer. Both denials must be named sins of commission or omission: the Church and its members must confess their fault, repair the damages they have blithely allowed, and vow to offend no more. From there, perhaps, other institutions may begin to examine their own complicity and complacence, then follow in repair, and institutionalize zero tolerance toward repeat offense.
Wouldn’t it be nice! Why? Because it is right and just that the powers of this world realize their wrongdoing toward women and girls. And because, as the Church, we believe that God has imprinted every human being with God’s own image and likeness, that imprint is the origin of human dignity, and that God has, thereby, bestowed dignity equally upon women and men. We human beings and institutions of power are in no position to deign/dignify some over others when God’s fiat dignifies all.
The Lineamenta suggests the difficulties and dangers that many women face as a result of their being considered by some as less than others, when it recognizes that “The dignity of women still needs to be defended and promoted. In fact, in many places today, simply being a woman is a source of discrimination and the gift of motherhood is often penalized rather than esteemed. Not to be overlooked is the increasing violence against women, where they become victims, unfortunately, often within families and as a result of the serious and widespread practice of genital mutilation in some cultures” (#7). That said, little more in the way of detail is provided that would motivate sustained examination of and discernment over these hidden, shadowed, and silenced yet undeniable realities. My concern is that this lack of detail may result in a lack of urgency for the Synod to attend to the critical, often dangerous, conditions in which many, if not most, women face every day—the sad prospect of yet more complicity and/or complacence toward women, their experiences, and the undeniable ignorance regarding the complex and multifaceted implications for their families and the social, political, and ecclesial communities to which they belong.
Truly recognizing that “simply being a woman is a source of discrimination,” the Synod must examine the Church’s complicity and complacence as one of the supports for this injustice. The Church has endorsed implicitly this state of affairs through its failure to bring women to the tables where decisions are made and authority exercised. This failure amounts to discrimination through a denial of their consent to suffer the places to which they are assigned rather than their consent to assume those places they would prefer and in which, no doubt, they would thrive.
Consider in the United States for example, an estimated 22 million women—one in eight—have been raped (if you do not know which among your women friends has been assaulted sexually, it isn't that none of them has been, rather, it is more likely that she has/they have not revealed that brutality to you). This US estimate, however, reflects a paltry 35% reporting rate to law enforcement or health centers. Worldwide statistics are more alarming, and the routine violence women face overwhelmingly dire. The 2010 WHO report, Preventing Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Against Women, indicates that as many as 71% of women experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives –that’s approximately half of the world’s population, some 2.4 billion women (even using the 35% US reporting rate, the number of women so violated nears 850 million)!
In addition to assault, prostitution and sex trafficking is pandemic. With as many as 650,000 women, girls, and sexual minorities trafficked annually, regardless of the reasons offered for why they are so worked, their so-called consent is coerced and, as such, neither consent nor binding. These women and girls are enslaved under the oppressions of poverty and a systematic patriarchy of institutionalized underdeveloped support for their basic human functioning capabilities. Slavery of any kind is wrong, plain and simple, and sex slavery/rape along with other gender-based violence, is equivalent to, and often ends in, the egregious wrong that is murder, a criminal offense, and contrary to the dignity God has bestowed upon them.
A woman’s consent, like that of a man’s, is a thing of beauty. Why? Because consent is the principal expression of the human act, conforming to the moral agent’s desires about the kind of person she can be, her fundamental option—her fiat—for love in response to God’s blessings upon her. It is only by this expression that subsequent acts can be attributed to her freely willed intentions and choices.
The challenge before the Synod and those with whom the bishops consult—may there be an equal number of women among and with them—will be to face these difficult realties with ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to break through the edifice of denials that continue to ignore women and reduce their prospects for themselves, their children and families, and our Church.
Theotokos defied the odds in her time by daring her consent. And isn’t still remarkable to recall the wonders that her (defiant and confident) fiat realized, then until now? May our Church defy the odds by striving beyond the status quo and to discern the signs of the times in families by giving a hearing to the consent of those at “life’s periphery,” more often than not, as witnessed in the lives of women worldwide. May our Church confront the structures of de rigueur authority and domination that enslave, and pledge accountability to women and their families. And may all the members of our Church participate in the work of pondering, “with renewed freshness and enthusiasm, what revelation, transmitted in the Church’s faith, tells us about the beauty, the role, and the dignity of the family” (Lineamenta, Introduction, Relatio, 3).