ROME — When Francis became pope a decade ago, his inclusive tone and openness to change fueled expectations among many Catholic women about a greater role for them in the Roman Catholic Church.
He said at a 2013 press conference on the papal plane that women’s contribution should not be limited to “altar girls or the president of a charity”. “There must be more.”
Francis remains adamant in his opposition to the ordination of women as priests and his caution about making women deacons. But on Wednesday he took his most significant step to give women a greater voice in the church. He approved changes that would for the first time allow women and lay people to vote in a great meeting of bishops. The pope has repeatedly made it clear that he will be a central deliberative body to help him determine the future of the Church.
This meeting, which is set to begin next October, will focus on better engaging believers as the church moves forward and is expected to deal with key issues such as the role of women in the church and LGBTQ relations. It will now include an additional 70 non-bishop voting members, half of whom the pope wants to be women.
“It’s an important change,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, one of the chief organizers of the bishops’ meeting, who called the synod. “It is not a revolution.”
The rule changes, though seemingly procedural, amount to a tangible shift towards democratization of the church, a central tenet of a Franciscan pontificate that sees the abuse of power in cloistered hierarchies as the cause of many of the church’s problems. Conservatives warned a decade ago that Francis’ efforts to open the church would weaken its traditions and expose it to secular ideology.
Conservatives saw the rules introduced on Wednesday as further evidence of this erosion. But those who support expanded roles for women said Francis has finally brought about real change after years of prodding.
“It’s an amazing development in church history and something we celebrate as a huge crack in the stained-glass ceiling,” said Kate McCloy, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, who said it was very encouraging to see “a growing trend toward gender parity in the synod hall.”
However, the change did not mean that Francis himself had turned to more substantive issues still important to advocates for women in the church.
He has at times spoken in popular terms about the contributions of women—he once called a group of women theologians “strawberries on the cake”—in ways that some found diminishing or insulting.
But it has also evolved, giving women a greater voice within both local parishes and the Vatican bureaucracy that governs the Church.
In 2022, he adds women to the committee that advises him to choose the bishops of the world. In 2021, Francis amended church statutes so that women could become Bible readers at Mass, serve at the altar and distribute Communion — practices already common in many countries.
But for years, some ordinary Catholics have wanted more — especially to include more women in synod meetings, which is vital under Francis, who believes in a collegial process before making big changes.
Some church analysts see the upcoming October 4-29 meeting of bishops, known as the Synodal Synod, as a major event, comparable to a scaled-down version of the Second Vatican Council, Dear Francis, which modernized the church in the 1960s.
Over the course of two years, the Church has surveyed lay members all over the world about what changes they would like to see in the Church to better fit their needs. The pope’s liberal supporters hope he will use the meetings and the votes of all participants on key issues to inform decisions to effect real change on issues ranging from allowing some married men in remote areas to become priests, to allowing divorce and remarriage for Catholics. to receive communion.
But the composition of the voting body has long been a source of contention.
In 2018, a petition calling for the nuns to be included as voting members of a Synod on Youth in the Church garnered nearly 10,000 signatures. Some liberal Catholic activists staged protests in the Vatican, demanding that participants in that meeting be given the right to vote “on an equal footing with their brothers in Christ”.
At the 2019 Special Synod for the Countries of the Amazon Region, which touched on the issue of allowing married men to become priests, women participated as observers, but could not vote.
The new criteria introduced by the Vatican on Wednesday stipulated that 10 representatives of the various Catholic religious denominations in the synod would be replaced by five clerics and five nuns with voting rights. One of the agents of the Synod, Nathalie Picquart, a nun, can now vote.
“All those who will participate in the Synod will vote,” Francis told the Argentine newspaper La Nacion in an interview last month. “Whether male or female. Everyone, everyone. That word for me is key.”
The pope can also add other participants, according to the new rules.
Key to the changes approved by Francis is the expansion of participants to include lay people as voting members, reflecting Francis’ vision of a greater role for lay believers in their churches, rather than leaving all decision-making in the hands of priests, bishops and cardinals.
“At the Synod, lay men and women will also have the right to vote,” read a headline in Vatican News, the Church’s official outlet.
“It’s the church that’s changing. It’s the church that’s changing. It’s the church that’s changing,” said Deborah Rose, co-director of Future Church, an organization that seeks greater participation for ordinary people.
“There will be times when we are disappointed that he will not follow through on the order he gave,” she added. “However, what he did was open a dam and open the door, and I think there is no going back.”
Conservative critics of Francis, some of whom despised the Synod as a bureaucratic circus that undermined the greatness of the Church, decried the New Rules as the Trojan horse of a liberal ideological invasion of the Church.
He read a post on the website of a conservative Catholic Celer non-possum. “They no longer find many bishops ready to trample the teachings of Christ, but now turn to ambitious laity.”
But even the generally liberal cardinals who spoke about the new rules on Wednesday insisted that the synod’s overwhelming influence remained in the hands of the bishops known as the “Synod Fathers.”
“The 70 new members represent 21 percent of the assembly, which still gathers bishops,” Cardinal Hollerich, the Luxembourg archbishop, told reporters, refusing to speak for the women when asked how they would refer to themselves.
Cardinal Mario Grech, another official of the Synod, doubled down.
“The Synod will remain a Synod of Bishops,” he said, although it was enriched by the participation of the lay members.
But Mrs. McElwee, still hopeful that women would one day be ordained as priests, believed that “involving women in this kind of important way would transform the church, create new conversations and new ways of making decisions within the church.”
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