VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Discussions about women’s ordination to the priesthood have become livelier in the waning days of the synod on synodality, Pope Francis’ month-long summit to discuss pressing issues facing the church. While there’s a consensus that women’s roles need to be promoted, participants remain divided on how to achieve that goal.
The Vatican’s synod, which started on Oct. 4 and goes until Oct. 29, is the result of a two-year-long process engaging Catholics at every level, from faithful at the local parish to continental leaders. Now, the 364 lay and religious participants present at the synod are poised to address questions ranging from sexual abuse to LGBTQ welcoming to hierarchal structures. Few topics have captured the attention of attendants more than the question of women’s roles in the church.
Participants were encouraged to maintain the confidentiality of the small working group discussions taking place at the synod. But speaking to Religion News Service, attendants said the question of the ordination of women remains fairly evenly split, with some bishops leaning against and religious sisters leading the charge in favor.
In many ways, this synod has seen many firsts for women. For the first time a woman, Sr. Nathalie Becquart, is undersecretary of the synod office at the Vatican. Sister Maria de los Dolores Valencia Gomez, a sister of St. Joseph of Lyon, is the first woman to preside over a synod. In the months leading up to the summit, the resources of the Women’s Ordination Worldwide advocacy group were made available for the first time on the synod website.
A record 54 women are participating, and voting, during the synod. In the past, synod events were exclusively attended by bishops and a few priests who acted as secretaries and writers.
Synod discussions so far have addressed the topics of women’s ordination to the priesthood, the female diaconate and the creation of alternative ministries that would allow women to have an equal representation in the traditionally male dominated institution.
Whereas the pope has shut the door to the female priesthood in the past, Francis recently opened an unprecedented opportunity for debate on the topic. Answering a series of questions, or dubia, sent by conservative prelates regarding the synodal discussions, Francis said there is no “clear and authoritative doctrine” on the question of ordination, and it can be “a subject of study.”
Pope Francis created two commissions to study the possibility of the female diaconate, which would allow women to preach at Mass and perform marriages and baptisms but not celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions. Opponents fear allowing women to the diaconate would open the door to women being ordained as priests.
Some participants at the synod, and Catholics looking in from the outside, have voiced the possibility of finding alternative roles and ministries for women in the church. They argue that if the church is going to defeat clericalism, a term used to describe the special status held by Catholic clergy, then the solution is not to ordain more people. While synod officers, and the pope, have encouraged synod participants to be creative in the search for solutions to the church’s woes, there have so far been few inspired solutions to the much-needed promotion of women’s roles.
For some synod participants, the solution is already there: allowing women to become priests or deacons. A significant push toward this solution came from the religious sisters within the synod. A “cohort” of nuns favoring female ordination, and especially women deacons, has formed at the synod, said participants. The women, mainly from Latin America and some from Europe, are said to have initially bonded because they could all speak Spanish.
Nuns from Italy to India have come forward in recent years to denounce unfair treatment by male clergy who, they claim, often regard them as nothing more than free labor. Cases of nuns being sexually abused by priests or bishops have also emerged in recent books and reports.
Liberal-minded nuns at the synod have embraced the cause for a women’s diaconate with gusto, participants said, with some pushing the envelope further by asking for the elimination of titles reserved for clergy, such as “your eminence” or “your excellency,” which promote clericalism.
But to some, the idea of women being allowed to become priests remains beyond the pale. One synod participant said he felt “violated” by the idea of women priests, while another Eastern Orthodox attendant voiced surprise at the Western “obsession” with female clergy. The argument that the ordination of women would fill the emptying seminaries of Europe was shot down by representatives from Africa and Asia who take pride in their growing number of priests.
At the tail end of the synod, the question of whether female ordination will make it in the final document remains uncertain, participants said. The goal of this synod is not to come up with solutions, afterall, but to pose questions and foster a feeling of communion. Attendants will likely vote on an amorphous or scaled-down version of the vibrant debates on women’s ordinations that have filled the Vatican halls this month.
For advocates for female ordination who have looked at this event with hope, the result of this first consultation might be disappointing. For conservatives, the final document might be the latest sign of how this pontificate has exposed the church to an unbridled liberal shift. Debates are likely to evolve ahead of the second part of the synod, when participants will meet again in October of 2024.
In the end, it will be Pope Francis who will make the final decision on the matter when he publishes the apostolic exhortation born from the synodal discussions. Francis has so far avoided tackling the complexities of dogma directly, opting for his signature pastoral approach instead.
If gestures speak louder than words under Francis, then his meeting with Sr. Jeannine Gramick on Oct. 17 at the Vatican made a clear statement. The Philadelphia-born nun has called for women to become cardinals and is the founder of New Ways Ministries, a Catholic network promoting the welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics. In 1999, she was banned from pastoral work by the Vatican’s doctrinal office.
The meeting signaled that the pope is welcoming “not just LGBT people but those who have been shunned by society and the church,” Gramick said in an interview with National Catholic Reporter shortly after the audience.
“I think Pope Francis is trying to get us to move forward, to open our eyes and look to the future and to the changes in the world,” she added.