Pope Francis made history on April 26 when he announced that, for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, women will be allowed to vote during the upcoming Synod on Synodality. But why does that matter? And what is a synod, anyway?
The Role of a Synod and How Women Now Fit In
A synod is a gathering of bishops from all over the world who come to Rome to discuss a particular topic in the life of the Church and to make recommendations to the pope. Typically, at the end of the synod, the bishops will vote on specific proposals that will then be included in the document released by the pope following the synod. Recent synods have included the Synod on the Family, the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, and the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region.
It is important to note that synods do not directly change Church teaching or policy, but the documents that follow do contribute to the body of Catholic social thought that influences activities in the Church moving forward. For example, in the document that followed the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis encouraged leaders in the Church to be more pastoral toward divorced and remarried Catholics.
While lay people (including women) have been able to participate in synods previously as auditors who do not have a vote on the proposals that result from the discussion, this is the first time that women will have a direct voice in what should be included in the resulting synod documents.
Pope Francis requested that 70 lay people be appointed to the synod, with half of them being women. In addition, he specified that 5 out of the 10 consecrated religious allowed to vote should be religious sisters. In the past, all 10 have been men. Since the synod will involve about 370 people, the vast majority of voting members will remain bishops, but this is still a historic moment for Catholic women.
This action reflects the spirit of this synod, which has the goal of engaging a diversity of people from around the world – Catholic and not – in discussion and prayer about the life of the Church and its role in the world. The process began with local listening sessions (perhaps your parish had one), where participants were asked to share their concerns with and hopes for the Church. It then moved onto a continental phase where lay and ordained people from each continent gathered virtually to discuss the findings from those sessions. The next phase will take place in Rome in October 2023 and 2024, and this is the one that will include all of the voting members.
The Role of Women in the Church
Anyone who has spent time at a Catholic parish knows that women are everywhere in the Church: they often lead Bible studies, keep the altar linens clean, arrange the beautiful flowers at the entrances, and teach religious education classes. Religious sisters also engage in vital ministry for the Church, especially through prayer, education, and social justice advocacy. But the farther up the leadership ladder of the Church we go, the fewer women we see. Thankfully, that has been changing.
One of the main themes emerging from the recent synod’s initial listening sessions was the need to increase the role of women in the Church. The final document from the North American continental gathering included several quotes from delegates on this topic, including a statement that “more space needs to be opened for [women], especially at decision-making tables.”
Opinions on what exactly this should look like are varied. There is an ongoing discussion about whether it is possible to ordain women as deacons in the Church. And while many women would like to see female priests, the Church stands firm in saying that the priesthood can only be all-male. For women who accept this restriction on ordination but who desire more female representation in the life of the Church, the question becomes: Which roles in the Church are necessarily reserved for people who are ordained, and which roles can be done by lay people?
There has been some creativity here in recent decades. Women are sometimes appointed as pastoral leaders of parishes in place of an ordained pastor. They perform all of the administrative tasks of running a parish and are the main pastoral presence for the members, but priests still come to the parish to perform sacraments like celebrating Mass and Reconciliation. At the diocesan level, women can be appointed to high-ranking roles such as General Counsel or Director of Communications, though the ultimate leader and decision maker is a bishop, who by definition is a man.
At the Vatican level, Pope Francis has been consistently taking steps to increase women’s participation, including by announcing a reform that would allow any baptized Catholic to lead a Vatican department. He has also appointed women to significant leadership roles, including to serve on a committee that helps him to select bishops around the world, to be one of the two undersecretaries of the upcoming Synod, and to hold the second-ranking position in the governance of Vatican City.
This latest announcement of allowing women to vote at synods opens up another door for women to have a voice where there had previously only been ordained men. We will wait to see what impact that voice has on the outcome of the synod, the resulting document, and the life of the Church moving forward.