Synod seeks greater role for women, laity; draws attention to ‘new poor’
Pope Francis and other delegates attend the final session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Paul VI Hall in the Vatican on Oct. 28, 2023. ROY LAGARDE
By Felipe F. Salvosa II
October 29, 2023
VATICAN— Synod fathers and mothers sought a greater role for women and the laity at the conclusion of a month-long meeting on the future of the Church, but deferred action on contentious issues such as the admission of female deacons and the lifting of mandatory celibacy for priests.
The “Synod on Synodality” also reiterated the need to listen to the poor and the vulnerable as well as victims of clergy sexual abuse and those who feel marginalized in and out of the Church.
Two-thirds of the delegates to the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, including lay women and men given voting rights for the first time, approved a 41-page synthesis report, Cardinal Mario Grech of Malta, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, told reporters on Saturday, Oct. 28.
The work of the synod is not yet over as the document will be sent to local churches for feedback in preparation for a second general assembly next year, he said.
“What emerges is that the Church is also a Church that is reaching out … nobody feels excluded or not accepted in his or her home,” Grech said in a press briefing after the synod’s final session.
The document called on the Church to avoid “simplistic judgements” on “controversial” matters such as sexuality and “complicated marital situations” but bucked earlier expectations of an endorsement of Church blessings for same-sex couples.
“Church teaching already provides a sense of direction on many of these matters, but this teaching evidently still requires translation into pastoral practice,” the original Italian document was quoted as saying by an English-language summary provided by the Vatican News service.
The synod, convoked in 2021 by Pope Francis to find ways to make the Church more “synodal” or participative and discerning, had conducted consultations at various levels — parish, vicariate, diocesan, national, and continental — and was supposed to culminate with this month’s assembly. But the pope called for a second session in October 2024 to allow for more “discernment.”
The synod acknowledged that its assembly took place amid wars and recognized the poor as not just the “materially impoverished,” but also “migrants; indigenous peoples; victims of violence and abuse (especially women), or racism and trafficking; people with addictions; minorities; abandoned elderly people; and exploited workers.”
“The Assembly hears the cry of the ‘new poor,’ produced by wars and terrorism that plague many countries on several continents, and the assembly condemns the corrupt political and economic systems that cause such strife.”
The synthesis report called for more “theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate” using inputs from earlier studies by papal commissions as well as earlier theological, historical, and biblical research.
“If possible … the results of this research should be presented at the next Session of the Assembly,” it said.
A commission set up by Pope Francis had failed to come up with a consensus on women in the diaconate, which was opened to married men by the Second Vatican Council.
The report nonetheless pointed to an urgency in ensuring “that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry,” and called for changes to canon law to allow such.
It called for women’s expanded access to theological education and training programs and the use of “inclusive language” in liturgical texts and Church documents.
The document also called for more involved laity and clergy to lighten the administrative and legal commitments of diocesan bishops, who need human and spiritual support and among whom “a certain sense of loneliness is not uncommon.”
On priestly celibacy, some delegates asked “whether its appropriateness, theologically, for priestly ministry should necessarily translate into a disciplinary obligation in the Latin Church, above all in ecclesial and cultural contexts that make it more difficult.”
“This discussion is not new but requires further consideration,” the document said.
It stressed the importance of deepening “the dialogue between the human sciences” to enable “careful consideration of matters that are controversial within the Church.”
These include “identity and sexuality, the end of life, complicated marital situations, and ethical issues related to artificial intelligence.”
“It is important to take the time required for this reflection and to invest our best energies in it, without giving in to simplistic judgments that hurt individuals and the Body of the Church,” it said.
The report cited the need to extend missionary work to the digital world, saying the internet “can also cause harm and injury, such as through intimidation, disinformation, sexual exploitation, and addiction.”
“There is an urgent need to consider how the Christian community can support families in ensuring that the online space is not only safe but also spiritually life-giving.”
The report was the product or “conversations in the Spirit” characterized by small discussion groups that prioritized listening and periods of silence.
Synod organizers eschewed the regular synod hall that had amphitheater-like seating in favor of roundtables at the Vatican’s Paul VI hall to allow “communal discernment” over a working document prepared by the synod secretariat.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, the synod’s relator general, said the report did away with an earlier plan to vote on issues of “divergence” apart from “convergences,” questions, and proposals.
“We need common ground to let the Holy Spirit build the Church,” he said.
“The synod is about synodality. We have always repeated it even if people did not believe us,” Hollerich said.
Jesuit priest Fr. Giacomo Costa, the synod secretary, noted that delegates proposed some 1,200 amendments and that the initial text of the synthesis was “very much changed.”
The synod tallied “yes” and “no” votes on all paragraphs comprising a total 20 chapters apart from an introduction and conclusion, from a pool of 365 voters including the pope.
The highest number of “no” votes were in the paragraph calling for more study on women deacons, 277 versus 69.
Hollerich, who had headed the council of European bishops, said it was “clear that some topics would meet greater opposition” but added he was “full of wonder so many people voted in favor” of the synthesis proposals.
“The resistance was not so great … I am happy with that result,” he said.
Grech stressed that while all paragraphs were approved by majority vote, “we must respect everybody’s pace.”
“We cannot hasten this pace or go back. It doesn’t mean that if your voice is stronger it will prevail over the others,” he said.
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