The General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops announced that in the next Synod assembly, which will take place in Rome from 4 to 29 October, in addition to the bishops, 80 non-bishop members, at least half of whom will be women, will have the right to vote. So, let's make room for women! There are those who welcome the novelty as a “revolution”, those who call it an ecclesiastical "pink quota", and those who cry "coup d'état".
The October assembly will be - after the diocesan and continental steps - the third stage of the Synod on synodality and the future of the Church. It will gather 370 members, 80 of whom (21% of the total) will be priests, consecrated persons, deacons, lay faithful, men and women, and they will have the same voting rights as the bishops.
Of these 80 members, 70 will be chosen by Pope Francis from a list of 140 people drawn up before the end of May by the seven continental bodies that organised the continental phase. Each continental assembly will propose 20 names, of which the Pope will choose 10 from each continent and from the Middle East Patriarchs' Conference.
These people will have to have "attended the synodal process, at national or continental level, so that there will be continuity," explained Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, general rapporteur of the synodal assembly. Their "general culture" and "prudence" will also be taken into account, as they must put first not "their own interest" but "the concern of the Church". At least half of the 70 participants will be women and young people, "so that the Church will be well represented", declared cardinal Hollerich, because "it cannot be said that the baptism of men is more important than the baptism of women".
This decision does not change the nature of the "Synod of Bishops", as any synod is basically always a "synod of the Church". However, according to a Vatican source, it is a "small revolution", an "important moment" of Pope Francis' pontificate.
In fact, the place of women in the Synod is also enlarged by another novelty: the institutes of consecrated life will be represented, no longer by ten clerics as before, but by five religious men and five religious women elected by the General Superiors’ organisations. These 10 consecrated persons are to be added to the 70 non-bishop members, all with the right to vote. Thus, the assembly will no longer have the "auditors", i.e. the non-bishops invited who did not have the right to vote.
Is this a “small revolution”?
This assembly remains "a Synod of Bishops". It is "an important change" but "not a revolution", insisted cardinal Hollerich. But, can we speak of a significant turning point in Francis' pontificate, and even in the life of the Church, can it be the forerunner of more important changes in the Church?
According to Sister Nathalie Becquart, the under-secretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod, this decision was already foreseen in the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio on the Synod of Bishops (2018) and follows "all the previous stages" of this Synod, which was open in October 2021, and which is intended "for all the People of God and not only for some". "For" all or "by" all the People of God?
Sister Nathalie is the first woman to have the right to vote because she is the under-secretary of the Synod. The "by" is also underlined by another novelty in the composition of the next synodal assembly. Even Churches from small countries without bishops' conferences, which were previously not represented, will be able to send a member to the Synod. "The Church will be more complete at this Synod," underlined cardinal Hollerich, adding that this new feature includes Luxembourg, Monaco, Estonia, Moldova and Nepal.
In his presentation, however, cardinal Hollerich also hoped that the October assembly would be "a response to the challenges of this world" and not "a partisan war in the Church".
Why this concern?
Actually, the summaries from the different continents highlighted strong differences in expectations between countries. Not only that. These latest steps by Pope Francis in view of the next synod on synodality had already become a battleground and show that the Church is divided, tormented by a thousand doubts. On the one hand, there are the North episcopates who call for democratic structural revisions; on the other hand, many bishops stress an opposite vision: by its very nature, the Church cannot be compared to an international body, with the same dynamics and the same representative signs.
The exclusion of women had been the subject of strong reactions from nuns, theologians and academics, particularly on the occasion of the two previous synods on the family and on Amazonia. Pope Francis had then admitted some women observers, but without giving them the opportunity to vote.
Then he appointed the aforementioned Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French nun with voting rights, to the synod secretariat, and now he has approved what someone has dubbed the ecclesiastical "pink quotas": of the 10 representatives of religious institutes, five must be nuns. Of the 70-lay faithful, 35 will be women. An earthquake for someone.
Changes have been enthusiastically welcomed by Kate McElwee, de la Women's Ordination Conference. By contrast, the conservative world, whose mouthpiece is the popular blog Messa in latino, has expressed strong disapproval: "Tailored political correctness is a dangerous precedent for the Church. The final document may even become deliberative, no more consultative. The devil is always in the details.” In reality everyone knows, for example, that the Women's Ordination Conference is fighting for women priests.
To put water on the fire, the two cardinals - Mario Grech and Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg - who are organising this next assembly of the Synod on Synodality kept repeating: "This is not a revolution: the 80 new members represent only 21% of the assembly, which remains fully an assembly of bishops, with some participation of non-bishops.”
However, for a careful observer, this gesture of the Pope adds to the numerous studies that demonstrate the theological and historical inconsistency of the arguments against the ordination of women. Is it not therefore a forerunner sign of much greater openness?