ROME (AP) — Pope Francis’ big meeting on the future of the Catholic Church headed into its final stretch Wednesday, with differences over the role of women still dividing the assembly even as it produced its first document after a month of debate.
The Vatican released a letter from the 364-member synod, or meeting, to rank-and-file faithful, updating them in general terms on where things stand in their deliberations. It was approved 336-12 by the voting members of the assembly, which for the first time has included 54 women voting alongside bishops.
The letter said the church going forward must be committed to listening to everyone, especially the poor and marginalized and victims of abuse by clergy. The church, it said, must commit itself “concretely and structurally to ensuring that this does not happen again.”
Francis called the meeting back in 2021 as part of his efforts to reform the church and make it more welcoming and responsive to the needs of the faithful today. During two years of preliminary consultations among Catholics around the world, there was a near-universal call for the church, which bars women from its highest ranks, to open up greater opportunities for women to take on decision-making roles and have their voices heard.
The whole process has generated tremendous hope for change among progressive Catholics and resistance from conservatives. In the letter released Wednesday, synod members made clear that those differences remain and will be outlined in more detail in a 40-page synthesis document that will be voted on Saturday night.
“There are multiple challenges and numerous questions: The synthesis report of the first session will specify the points of agreement we have reached, highlight the open questions, and indicate how our work will proceed,” the letter said.
Delegates will return to Rome in October of next year to continue the debate and present final proposals or conclusions to Francis.
Women have long complained they are treated as second-class citizens in the church, barred from the priesthood and highest positions of power yet responsible for the lion’s share of church work. They have long demanded a greater say in church governance, at the very least with voting rights at Vatican synods but also the right to preach at Mass and be ordained as priests and deacons.
While ordination of women priests is off the table, the question of women deacons was an official agenda item for the meeting. Many delegates, male and female, have spoken out in favor of conferring onto women a ministry that existed in the early church, or at the very least acknowledging the crucial role women play.
“I have become so convinced in these days that a synodal church must be willing to sit at the foot of women, especially lay women who are from the Global South, to learn how to renew the church’s imagination,” said Nora Kofognotera Nonterah, a Ghanian theologian participating in the meeting.
In the letter released Wednesday, there was no mention specifically of women’s roles. But in his remarks to the assembly Wednesday, Francis spoke at length about the feminine nature of the church and the crucial role women play in passing down the faith.
And he blasted those in the male hierarchy who have abused their authority over them with their “macho and dictatorial attitudes.” Ridiculing young priests who shop for fancy cassocks and lace in ecclesiastical tailor shops in Rome, he denounced clericalism, or the placing of priests on a pedestal.
“Clericalism is a whip, it is a scourge, it is a form of worldliness that defiles and damages” the church, Francis said.
Despite such admonishments, the men attending the Vatican’s official press conference Wednesday made clear that anyone hoping for radical change for women would come away disappointed.
Cardinal Robert Prevost, the American head of the Vatican’s bishops office, said women were increasingly being given high-ranking jobs at the Vatican and were even being consulted in the nomination of bishops. But he insisted there was no changing the 2,000-year tradition of the church, which confers priestly ordination only on men.
“It’s not a given just because in society … a woman can be president, or women can have many different kinds of roles of leadership in the world,” he said. “It’s not like there’s an immediate parallel to say ‘In the church, therefore.’”
Cardinal Dieudonn Nzapalainga, archbishop of Bangui, Central Africa Republic, said women cannot be left behind. But he said including them more in church authority roles was a “work in progress.”
“They do not have a formal role, but I listen. I listen to women. I invite women to participate,” he said.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio, president of the U.S. bishops conference, said religious sisters in particular were important because often they are the ones who inspire men to become priests.
“I think if you talk to most diocesan priests, they will trace their first inklings of a vocation to the work of the sisters in the schools. And that was a tremendous source of influence,” he said.