Pope Francis picks three sisters to audit family synod

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

The United States sister chosen by Pope Francis to participate in next month’s synod on the family says the issues bishops and cardinals will wrestle with are the same she deals with everyday.

Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Maureen Kelleher is an attorney running the Legal Aid Service office in Collier County, Florida, where most of her clients are farmers and immigrants.

“It’s a small, high-volume legal office for people who are desperate,” Kelleher said.

On Tuesday, the Vatican announced that Kelleher was one of three women religious named as auditors to the synod. Auditors are allowed to attend and participate in the discussions but not to vote on any final document or issues. Among those auditors are 17 individuals and 17 married couples. Thirteen of the individual auditors are women, including the three religious sisters.

The other sisters who will be auditors are Sr. Carmen Sammut, the head of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) and a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa; and Costa Rican Capuchin Sr. Berta Maria Porras Fallas.

Kelleher, who was a founding member of the Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK, said the issue facing the synod is how to properly balance mercy with the need for rules and order. That is exactly the space Kelleher finds herself in with many of her clients, she said.

For example, she understands the need for the nation to have and enforce immigration laws. But she also knows that the desperate people who come to the United States illegally in search of a better life also deserve respect and dignity.

She also understands the church’s stance on divorce and remarriage.

“But it’s hard to look at an abused woman and say, ‘Try to make your marriage work,’” Kelleher said. “It’s one thing to have a goal for keeping a marriage together, but we have to be realistic.”

She said the church in this case should look to legal practices for how to handle divorce.

“If a contract is broken by one person, in the law it says it should not be held on the head of the other to fulfill the contract,” Kelleher said. “If a marriage is broken, if one partner is an abuser or unfaithful, that marriage is broken. Broken is broken, and we have to allow people to start a new life.”

Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, said Kelleher’s appointment is “really good news.”

“Talk about someone who has been active all her religious life in making a difference for people at the margins,” Campbell said.

Campbell said the inclusion of three women religious — there was only one at last year’s synod — is especially important because sisters are so close to the people who have to live with what church leaders decide. She also said Kelleher will not be cowed by the circumstances she finds herself in.

“Maureen is an extremely articulate lawyer, and she’s not intimidated by pomp and circumstance,” Campbell said. “Having someone of her caliber in there is as significant as having three folks there.”

Campbell hesitated to call the appointment of three sisters a step forward for women in decision-making roles within the church, however, noting that Vatican II, which called for more inclusion and equality, had more sisters involved than the synod will.

Francis X. Clooney, a Jesuit priest and professor of divinity and comparative theology at Harvard Divinity School, where he is also director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, also said it is a very small step.

“Surely it is his effort to be more inclusive, but three sisters are not likely to make much of a difference, as auditors,” Clooney said. “In any case, we've seen these small steps before, and one might hope for more, 50 years after the [Vatican] Council.”

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said the increased number of women auditors is a step forward, if a small one.

“Women have a place at the table,” Cummings said. “It’s not a vote, it’s not much power, but they’re there, and they’re there in a greater presence.”

She also mentioned Vatican II, noting how women were left out of the first two sessions, but played important roles in shaping policy in the second two sessions.

“Their presence was felt as auditors at Vatican II, and their presence will be felt here, too,” Cummings said.

While Cummings and many others have praised Pope Francis’ warnings against clericalism, where all the decisions are made by those who are ordained, she said there needs to be more action in actually changing it.

“We’re not talking about changing doctrine, we’re talking about changing attitudes,” she said.

Whatever the historical import, Kelleher said she was surprised and excited about her participation.

“I was bowled over,” she said. “I just got the documents over the weekend. The juices are beginning to run.”

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.] https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/catholic-women-sharply-call-synod-open-womens-participation-voices-31126

Related: Catholic women sharply call for Synod to open to women's participation, voices on National Catholic Reporter