“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for all are one in the Messiah Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). It was probably this radical message that made the Christian communities in the Roman Empire so attractive and that sounds to us today like an early form of human rights. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, has its roots in philosophical and political concepts that historically often had to assert themselves against church claims to power.
Today, churches are among the civil society actors that defend and advance human rights in many of their fields of work worldwide. But similar to their attitude towards democracy, the churches have gone through a long and conflict-ridden learning process. The civil rights movements in the USA and South Africa in the 1960s/70s, as well as the liberation theology of Latin America, were responsible for the realisation that the commitment to and defence of human rights is also an ecclesial task.
At the opening of the Council on 10 October 1963, John XXIII said: “Today, more than ever, we are directed to defend the rights of people everywhere – not only those of Catholics and the Catholic Church.” His encyclical Pacem in terris (1963) can also be seen as a human rights and women's rights encyclical.
But to this day, human rights are persistently and gravely violated within the institution of our Church in two areas in particular: In the discrimination against women, who are denied ordination and thus access to leadership positions because of their gender, and in compulsory celibacy, because it excludes either the free choice of marital status or the free choice of profession.
The fact that John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of 22 May 1994 referred to “the divine constitution of the Church” will be regarded by later generations as just as scandalous as the ecclesiastical justification of slavery up to modern times and the condemnation of human rights by the popes of the 19th century and their questioning of it by the popes of the 20th century.
The Vatican State has not signed the Declaration of Human Rights to this day. The debate on human rights in the Church as a corrective to ecclesiastical law is still shied away from. But this debate is necessary, also for church reform, because the credibility of the Church in the world stands or falls with the granting or withholding of human rights.
The feedback on the world synod shows that there is a new beginning everywhere. The basic text, “Women in Ministries and Offices”, of the Synodal Way in Germany takes into account all the currently available biblical, dogmatic, historical and anthropological arguments as a basis for a discussion in the world church, which, by the way, has also been going on there for a long time. Now it is a matter of bringing the issue of the ordained ministries to women to the worldwide synod and to keep the debate open at all costs.
The list of participants in the Synod on Synodality in Rome, published on 7 July 2023, shows that there is still a large episcopal preponderance, a large part comes from the clergy and only one seventh are women entitled to vote. But it is no longer a pure synod of bishops. Francis has initiated a systemic change that must be followed by further steps.
What is often called a “women’s question” is actually a “men’s question”, namely how far they are prepared to make substantial changes. Where power is exercised, there must be control. Where decisions are made, the participation of mature Christians is necessary.
The working paper now presented, Instrumentum laboris, is openly formulated, but the ordination of women to the priesthood and the issue of "compulsory celibacy" are not included in the catalogue of questions. But it remains to be hoped that despite the still very strong male and clerical bias, a forward-looking dynamic will develop during the two four-week synods in Rome that does not leave out any burning issues.
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We are Church international is supporting the hybrid event “Human Rights in the Church” mid October 2023 in Rome, Bristol and online