Editor’s Note: Celia Wexler is a journalist and the author of “Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope.” She writes frequently on Catholicism, feminism and politics. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that for the first time it would give women a few votes in its Synod on Synodality, its upcoming meeting in October in Rome exploring the broad question of how the church governs itself in the future.
It’s the mother of all synods because Pope Francis wanted bishops across the world to ask their flocks for their views on everything from LGBTQ Catholics, to their priorities on social justice, to the role of women in the church.
The synod will be dominated by hundreds of bishops and cardinals, so the fact that this modest recognition of women’s rights is getting so much attention demonstrates how low our expectations are.
The New York Times deemed it an “important step” by Pope Francis “as he strives for greater inclusiveness.” And the Associated Press called it “an historic reform,” citing a Catholic feminist who praised the Vatican’s decision as a “significant crack in the stained glass ceiling.”
Synods are big deals in the life of the Catholic Church. For more than 50 years, they have been held periodically to give prelates all over the world a chance to meet and discuss the major challenges facing the church.
At the conclusion of the multi-day confabs, bishops present proposals to the pope. The pope then digests the proposals and produces a document that may incorporate some of their views if he agrees with them.
Women have been present at these meetings, serving as non-voting auditors. But the limited participation of women in synods has rankled female Catholics for many years. At the same time, since the gatherings had been called a Synod of Bishops, with voting limited to ordained men, they largely tolerated their diminished voice.
But in 2018, Francis decided to give the vote to two male members of the Franciscan order who were not ordained. The reason for the exception to the ordained-only rule? That the Franciscans were an important and historic order – an explanation that did not appease Catholic sisters, who took to social media to change the church’s mind. It was obvious that women were not given the right to vote specifically because of their gender.
The gender barrier came down gradually. In 2021, Francis named one woman, Sister Nathalie Becquart, to a post overseeing the synod. Her appointment gave her the right to vote. Now, it seems, the Vatican got the point that maybe one vote wasn’t enough.
Asked why the church was giving the right to vote to more women, Synod boss Cardinal Mario Grech replied, “because that is the way our world is.”
Being voting members, even if outnumbered, means women’s voices will be heard and will count for something. It will make a difference not only at this synod, but at future synods, when the church will continue to grapple with major issues such as the future of the family, care for the planet and social justice, as well as the church’s struggles with the ongoing crisis of child abuse.
And while Francis has absolutely closed the door on the ordination of women to the priesthood, a future synod could reconsider that.
The morality of artificial birth control and the church’s views on abortion would be enriched if women played a significant role in future synods and had a sizable vote.
The Women’s Ordination Conference, which lobbied for voting rights, has hailed the pope’s decision as a step towards “greater co-responsibility and equity between women and men at the synod.”
At the current Synod, having the votes of women might make the most impact on the issue of ordaining women to the diaconate, as is now offered to married men. Deacons can preach at Mass, baptize people and witness and bless marriages, though they can’t say Mass or hear confessions as priests can.
Given the shortage of priests in many parts of the world, and the evidence of women deacons in the early church, a decision to ordain women deacons could make a huge difference to Catholic women, writes historian Phyllis Zagano.
But when you do the math, the results suggest that these women’s votes will have little sway – and that it would be wise to resist any temptation to see this as a watershed that will give faithful Catholic women the role in the church that they deserve.
The Vatican’s decision calls for half of the 70 “non-bishops” – out of about 370 voting Synod participants – to be women. So, 35 women voting in this group. And then throw in another five votes from women who represent female religious congregations who previously didn’t have the right to vote. Forty female votes is a little under 11%!
Even Cardinal Grech made clear that the revised rules constituted “an important change” but were “not a revolution.”
And keep in mind that clerics will run the show when it comes to choosing these female voters. Conferences of bishops throughout the world will do the nominating of 140 potential women voters.
That means in the United States, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, that bastion of conservatism, will do the choosing. Not very encouraging for us Americans. In nations where bishops are more progressive, things may be better. Of those nominated, the pope will choose the 35 sent to speak for the fairer sex.
The only other requirement the pope has made is that these groups include young people. I’m all for millennials. But what does that mean for the women who have dedicated their lives to the cause of greater inclusion of women in the life of the church?
Will Zagano, who has written extensively about the role of women deacons in the early church, be given a vote? How about British theologian Tina Beattie, who has worked tirelessly to amplify women’s voices in the church?
In 2014, Beattie founded Catholic Women Speak, an international group of women focused on one goal: increasing women’s participation in the life and governance of the church.
Four years later, at the same time bishops were meeting to discuss the role of young people in the church, Beattie brought together Catholic women – including me – from all over the world to air their views in a day-long symposium.
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The next day, many of us joined her in a lady-like protest outside the gates of the Vatican. “Knock, knock who’s there? More than half the church,” we chanted. Hardly a call to arms, particularly since we also sang hymns. Nevertheless, the Roman police were called.
It was frightening and intimidating as the cops initially asked for passports. One officer was on horseback, and was particularly hostile. Another tightly grabbed the arm of one of the protest leaders, a petite young woman who was visibly shaken by the incident.
Representation is a lot better than getting arrested, and it’s unlikely women will be accosted by police when the Synod on Synodality meets this October.
But it’s difficult to believe that the presence of a few women, chosen by the hierarchy, will really make a difference. Women will need a lot more votes to wield real power in the church.