Vatican Deems Bigger Role for Women ‘Urgent’ but Punts on Major Issues


A monthlong meeting convened by Pope Francis to determine the future of the Roman Catholic Church ended Saturday night with a document that said it was “urgent” that women have a larger role but postponed discussion of major issues such as ordaining women as deacons and failed to address outreach to L.G.B.T.Q.+ Catholics.

Vatican officials instead sought to emphasize common ground during the meeting, which was characterized by liberals and conservatives alike as a potential culmination of Francis’ 10-year pontificate and the vehicle through which he might make changes.

Instead, it echoed another characteristic of Francis’ tenure: kicking the can on major issues as he sought to build deeper support through the global church.

After the conclusion of the meeting, called the Synod on Synodality, which Francis attended and had about 450 participants (of which 365 could vote), Vatican officials said they had decided to cut sources of tension — “divergences,” as the meeting called them.

The participants then voted on a document that represented “a church on the move,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, one of the top officials at the meeting. “And that’s the important thing, we move.”

But progressives who had high hopes that the meeting would create real momentum for change said the final document had failed to move the institution at all. Before the meeting, a variety of sensitive topics were on the table, including the blessing of same-sex unions, reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q.+ Catholics and the possibility of allowing married men to become priests. Those basically vanished.

Instead, the document said that it was urgent for women to have more responsibilities and more say in the workings of the church. When it came to female deacons, though, it said more “theological and pastoral” study was necessary. It suggested that the work of two commissions created by Francis to study the female diaconate be re-examined and the results be presented when the assembly reconvenes next year — “if possible.”

Even that mild language drew the most opposition of any paragraph voted on in the document. One passage on women deacons passed by a vote of 277 to 69, and another by 279 to 67.

“I am full of wonder that so many people voted in favor,” said Cardinal Hollerich, who is considered a liberal. “It means that the resistance is not so great as people had thought before.”

A paragraph addressing clerical celibacy — a theme that requires further study, the document said — also received substantial no votes, but passed 291 to 55.

But some topics, such as reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q.+ Catholics — something Francis has spoken often about in his 10 years as pope — were almost entirely expunged from the final summary.

“I am disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” said the Rev. James Martin, an advocate for such outreach and a meeting participant. “Given the wide divergence of opinions that were expressed, I wish that some of the discussions, which were open and honest and extensive, would have been included in the final synthesis.”

According to synod attendees, one church leader refused to sit next to Father Martin after he made positive remarks about L.G.B.T.Q.+ Catholics. The church leader then took his Synod-branded water bottle and left the hall, according to one participant.

Father Martin declined to comment.

The church sees its future in Africa, and many bishops there tend to strongly oppose any opening to L.G.B.T.Q.+ Catholics. That was in part why fuller discussions of those issues did not take place, according to some disappointed critics. The document called on the African bishop’s assembly to further study “how to accompany people in polygamous unions who are approaching the faith.”

Vatican officials who led the meeting nevertheless sought to portray it as a major leap forward.

“We earned space,” said Cardinal Mario Grech of Malta, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, who emphasized that the meeting, while “a learning curve for all of us,” had been a first step toward becoming a church in which clerics and lay people worked more closely together. He said he believed that participants would return to their local churches and continue the conversations.

The assembly will reconvene next October. At its conclusion, the participants will vote on another, final document that will include recommendations to Pope Francis. He is expected to then issue a major papal letter — possibly making concrete changes to church policy.

In recent years, the pope’s allies have billed the meeting as a major event in the papacy of Francis, who has allowed many previously taboo debates and has opened many doors for potential change. But as the meeting drew closer, Vatican officials sought to manage expectations, trying to balance the hopes of liberals and the fears of conservatives.

On the day the document was released, the conservative National Catholic Register published an interview with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, a participant in the meeting and the Vatican’s former top official on church teaching, whom Francis fired in 2017. He complained that the meeting was not a real Synod of Bishops because lay people took “away opportunities” from bishops to speak and was, instead, a theological amateur hour meant to dismantle church teaching.

“All is being turned around so that now we must be open to homosexuality and the ordination of women,” he said in the interview. “If you analyze it, all is about converting us to these two themes.”

But late Saturday night, it was the advocates for a church more open to L.G.B.T.Q.+ people who felt let down.

The Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, whom Francis had asked to provide spiritual reflections during the meeting, told reporters on Friday that Catholics in different parts of the world had different priorities. He suggested that looking at the assembly with “massive expectations of changes” was “perhaps not always looking for the right thing.”

But others noted that very few Catholics had actually weighed in on the topics to begin with.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, president of the United States bishops’ conference, noted earlier in the week that less than 1 percent of the 1.375 billion Catholics in the world had participated in the survey that led up to this month’s meeting.

“We have to find ways to draw more people in the participation,” he told reporters in the Vatican.

Francis and his allies have argued that the most important part of the meeting was the process of working together, with high-ranking clerics required to listen to lay people on issues that bubbled up from the Catholic grass roots.

The pope closed the meeting by thanking its participants and reminding them that daylight saving time would go into effect overnight. “Don’t forget to turn your watches back,” he said.


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