Western People 7.11.2023
Now that the first part of Synod 2023-24 in Rome has drawn to a close, a 40-plus page report from Synod 2023, provides a synthesis of progress to date. Two assessments by credible commentators – Joshua McElwee of the American publication, the National Catholic Reporter and Christopher Lamb from the English Tablet – provide similar though differing perspectives.
McElwee suggests that the synthesis document is much more cautious than previous documents – from dioceses, national churches and continental groupings – which were much more open and much less wary. Reading between the McElwee lines, the tone is disappointing as if (in the words of a friend of mine) ‘the rubber has suddenly hit the tar’ and the brakes are being applied.
Lamb on the other hand, takes a more optimistic, measured approach predicting ‘a profound shake-up’ as the Catholic Church begins to dream with ‘an expanded role for women and making lay involvement in decision-making mandatory’.
There was always a certain inevitability that a process that seemed to have the wind on its back in its previous dispensations, was going to fall short. Or it may suddenly have reasserted the inevitable truth that probabilities were running ahead of possibilities – possibly even just a necessary readjustment of expectations and time-tables.
That said, some of the signals were disappointing. For example, that a decision on ordaining women as deacons seems more unlikely than heretofore; and that a failure to actually name the LGBTQ+ issue after much debate over the last month might indicate a reticence that could develop into a gradual policy of reserve and restraint.
While media reports, such as they were, indicated that there was a lively and healthy debate on what are sometimes called ‘hot-button issues’ – though apparently in Francis-speak ‘the plates didn’t fly’– there was no real sense that issues like the role of women in church ministries and better inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics were being compromised. That said, it could be suggested that a lack of directness seemed to suggest a worrying development of cans being kicked down the road a bit when the document instanced over 80 proposals that seemed more open-ended or general, with regular calls for further theological or canonical study, as well as evaluation or consideration.
For example, it seems that the results of two earlier papal and theological commissions on women deacons will be presented for further consideration at the next assembly of the Synod of Bishops next October. This is particularly disappointing in view of the growing sense that of all issues facing the synod, the evidence of clear movement on the ordination of women deacons was compelling and the process seemed almost complete.
Returning to the drawing board for a third time seems suspiciously like a refusal to make what to most is at this point an inevitable decision. Otherwise the synod will become like the Grand Old Duke of York forever marching up the hill and forever marching down the hill again and when they were up, they were up/and when they were down, they were down/ and when they were only half-way up/ they were neither up nor down.
Of course, this may be unfair to the complexities of the synodal process – the need to listen attentively, to discuss issues fully, to decipher where God’s Spirit is leading and not to bounce the Catholic Church into schism – as strong critical voices from ultra right-wing Catholics indicate their intention almost at any cost to derail the synod and the Francis reform agenda.
Each paragraph of the final text was voted on separately by the synod participants with the threshold for the passage for each paragraph a two-thirds majority of the voting members. In his report, McElwee wrote: ‘The paragraphs that received the most No votes were two of the main paragraphs addressing the possibility of women deacons. One passed by a vote of 277-69; the other by a vote of 279-67. A paragraph addressing the question of clerical celibacy also received substantial No votes but passed 291-55’.
But while there seemed to be little interest in the ordination of women deacons, there was consistent interest on the importance of underlining women’s role in the Church. One of the synod’s lead organisers, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, at a press briefing on the text of the synthesis document, was quite taken with the numbers who voted in favour of women’s leadership in the church. He was, he said, ‘full of wonder’ at the extent of the support which he took to mean ‘that the resistance is not so great as people have thought’. It is instructive that of all the issues that stand out in the latest report, the focus on women’s role in the Church seems to have generated the most attention.
A probable cause of interest may be connected with the fact that it’s the first time in the history of bishops’ synods that women have voting rights. But more probable is that, as the issue of the role of women in the Catholic Church was up front in practically all of the diocesan, national and continental reports, it is unsurprising that it retains such support. Indeed it might be said that unless this issue receives the attention it deserves, then cardinals, like Hollerich and others, will continue to be surprised by the interest and support it continues to warrant.
It might be said too that cardinals, bishops and others may get a fuller grasp of how ordaining women deacons is not just an optional side-issue to keep under investigation if the synod struggles to make a decision but a test-case for taking women seriously in the Catholic Church.
The reforms of Vatican Two, side-lined for so long, are now back on track. Who would have believed it, even ten years ago? The long wait is over.
My latest book Holding Out for a Hero/The Long Wait for Pope Francis, is now available at €18 in the usual outlets and online from