By Grace Chigbu
Pope Francis has recently made a landmark decision to allow dozens of women to vote at an upcoming meeting of bishops. This move has been made with the aim of broadening female and laypeople voices in the male-exclusive 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 has published the modifications that the Pope has approved, which emphasise 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 have long criticised the Vatican for treating women as second-class citizens and have praised the move as historic in 2,000 years of the church. Kate McElwee of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for female priests, has said that “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. The Women’s Ordination Conference played a founding role in the collaborative “Votes for Catholic Women” campaign.
Over the years, Francis has upheld the Catholic Church’s ban on ordaining women as priests, but has done more than any pope in recent times to give women a greater say in decision-making roles in the church. He has appointed several women to high-ranking Vatican positions, though none leads any major Vatican office or department.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s’ meetings that modernized the church, popes have summoned the world’s 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, only men could vote.
Under the new changes, five religious sisters will join five priests as voting representatives for religious orders. In addition, Francis has 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 by regional blocs, with Francis making a final decision.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, a top organiser of the synod, has said, “It’s an important change, it’s not a revolution.” The next meeting, scheduled for October, is focused on the very topic of making the church more reflective of, and responsive to, the laity – a process known as “synodality” that Francis has championed for years.
So far, only one woman is known to be a voting member of that October meeting, Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French nun who is undersecretary in the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops office. When she was appointed to the position in 2021, she called Francis “brave” for having pushed the envelope on women’s participation.
Catholic Women’s Ordination, a UK-based group that says it is devoted to fighting misogyny in the church, welcomed the reform but asked for more. “CWO would want transparency and lay people elected from dioceses rather than chosen by the hierarchy, but it is a start!” said the CWO’s Pat Brown.
This decision by Pope Francis has been met with both praise and criticism. Some argue that it is a significant step forward in the fight for gender equality in the Catholic Church, while others say that it is not enough and that more needs to be done to address the underlying issues of misogyny and exclusion within the institution.