Pope's meeting on church future says it's 'urgent' to guarantee governance roles for women

Pope Francis’ gathering of Catholic bishops and laypeople this weekend said it was “urgent” to guarantee fuller participation of women in church governance positions and called for research on allowing women to be deacons to be released within a year.

The meeting itself didn't take decisive action on that issue, though, instead backing off any specific calls for welcoming LGBTQ+ Catholics despite Francis' repeated outreach to the gay community and willingness to consider blessing same-sex couples.

After a month of closed-door debate, Francis’ meeting on the future of the Catholic Church ended late on Saturday with the approval of a 42-page text on a host of issues that will now be considered at a second session next year. None of the proposals is binding, and they are merely offered for Francis to consider.

Each paragraph passed with the necessary two-thirds majority, but the ones involving women and questioning the need for priestly celibacy obtained the most “no” votes.

Francis called the synod over two years ago as part of his overall reform efforts to make the church a more welcoming place, where lay people have a greater say in the life of the church. The process, and the two-year canvassing of rank-and-file Catholics that preceded it, sparked both hopes and fears that real change was afoot.

Progressives had hoped the gathering would send a message that the church would be more welcoming of LGBTQ+ people and offer women more leadership roles in a hierarchy where they are barred from ordination. Conservatives emphasised the need to stay true to the 2,000-year tradition of the church and warned that opening debate on such issues was a “Pandora’s Box” that risked schism.

Francis has allowed women and laypeople to vote alongside bishops, putting into practice his belief that the “People of God” in the pews are more important than the preachers. His call for “co-responsibility” inspired in particular women seeking the restoration of female deacons, a ministry that existed in the early church.

In the end, the gathering made its strongest proposals concerning women but none were definitive. The final text said it was “urgent to guarantee that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral and ministry."

It noted Francis had significantly increased the number of women in high-ranking positions in the Vatican and said the same should occur in local churches.

A follow-on proposal received the most “no” votes of all: 279-67.

Cardinals Mario Grech, right, and Jean-Claude Hollerich talk to reporters during a press conference for the closing of the 16th general assembly of the synod of bishops
Cardinals Mario Grech, right, and Jean-Claude Hollerich talk to reporters during a press conference for the closing of the 16th general assembly of the synod of bishops - Andrew Medichini/The AP

In it, the delegates called for theological and pastoral research to continue about allowing women to be deacons, and called for the results of the two study groups that Francis has commissioned to be released before the second session of the synod opens in October 2024.

Delegates concurred that there remain questions about gender identity and sexual orientation in the church, listing them as “problems”. The ethics of artificial intelligence and end-of-life care are also being debated in the church as well as in society at large.

The absence of even a mention of homosexuality was disappointing but not surprising, given the level of opposition during the debate, said the Reverend James Martin, a Jesuit who runs an outreach program to LGBTQ+ Catholics and was named by Francis as a delegate to the synod.

“Whether or not you want to use the term, LGBTQ people are part of the church and they deserve to be seen, valued and, above all, loved,” Martin said in an email to The AP.

On other issues, the delegates also tackled the question of clergy sexual abuse and how abuses of bishops' unchecked authority had harmed children, nuns and laypeople.

The delegates agreed that cases of abuse of adults require “decisive and appropriate intervention.” It also said further deliberations are needed to determine if bishops should even be in the business of investigating and rendering judgement against accused priests, given the inherent conflict of interest.

“Many bishops have a difficult time reconciling their role as father and judge in the delicate question of handling abuse cases,” the text read, suggesting the possibility of revising canon law to outsource the job.

The mere inclusion of lay people as voting members in the meeting had prompted some to question the legitimacy of the gathering itself. They noted that the “Synod of Bishops” was created to provide the pontiff with the reflection of bishops, the successors of the apostles, not laypeople.

The Reverend Timothy Radcliffe, a British Dominican whom Francis asked to provide spiritual reflections periodically during the meeting, praised the inclusion of lay people as truly reflecting the spirit of a synod. But even Radcliffe cautioned that the meeting was never considering radical change.

“It’s a synod that gathers to see how we can be church in a new way, rather than what decisions need to be taken,” he told reporters. “And that’s why there will be bumps. There will be mistakes. And that’s fine, because we are on the way.”