Pope Approves 'Significant Crack in Stained-Glass Ceiling'

Women will have the right to vote at an upcoming meeting of bishops
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 26, 2023 10:15 AM CDT
Pope Francis Gives Women the Vote
Pope Francis leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, on Wednesday.   (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis has decided to give women the right to vote at an upcoming meeting of bishops, and the AP reports that's a historic reform that reflects his hopes to give women greater decision-making responsibilities and laypeople more say in the life of the Catholic Church. Francis approved changes to the norms governing the Synod of Bishops, a Vatican body that gathers the world's bishops together for periodic meetings, following years of demands by women to have the right to vote. The Vatican on Wednesday published the modifications he approved, which emphasize his vision for the lay faithful taking on a greater role in church affairs that have long been left to clerics, bishops, and cardinals.

Catholic women's groups, which have long criticized the Vatican for treating women as second-class citizens, immediately praised the move as historic. "This is a significant crack in the stained-glass ceiling, and the result of sustained advocacy, activism, and the witness" of a campaign of Catholic women's groups demanding the right to vote, said Kate McElwee of the Women's Ordination Conference. Ever since the 1960s' Second Vatican Council that modernized the church, popes have summoned bishops to Rome for a few weeks at a time to debate particular topics. At the end of the meetings, the bishops vote on specific proposals and put them to the pope, who then produces a document taking their views into account. Until now, the only people who could vote were men. But under the new changes, five religious sisters will join five priests as voting representatives for religious orders.

In addition, Francis decided to appoint 70 non-bishop members of the synod and has asked that half of them be women. They, too, will have a vote. The aim is also to include young people among these 70 non-bishop members, who will be proposed to the pope by regional blocs, with Francis making a final decision. "It's an important change; it's not a revolution," said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, a top organizer of the synod. The next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 4-29, is focused on the very topic of making the church more reflective of, and responsive to, the laity. The October meeting has been preceded by an unprecedented two-year canvasing of the lay Catholic faithful about their vision for the church and how it can better respond to the needs of Catholics today. A look at what Francis' decision means:

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  • So far, only one women is known to be a voting member of that October meeting: Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French nun who's undersecretary in the Vatican's Synod of Bishops office. When she was appointed in 2021, she called Francis "brave" for having championed women's participation.
  • By the end of May, seven regional blocs will propose 20 names apiece of non-bishop members to Francis, who will select 10 names apiece.
  • Cardinal Mario Grech, who's in charge of the synod, stressed that with the changes, some 21% of the gathered representatives at the October meeting will be non-bishops, with half of that group women. Acknowledging the unease within the hierarchy of Francis' vision of inclusivity, he stressed that the synod itself would still have a majority of bishops calling the shots.
  • Hollerich declined to say how the female members of the meeting would be known, given that members have long been known as "synodal fathers." Asked if they would be known as "synodal mothers," he responded that it would be up to the women to decide.
(More Pope Francis stories.)

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