Catholics from around the world are meeting in Rome, Looking to the future of the church. But this synod has some folks not usually seen at these kinds of official gatherings, now participating in the voting.
It's a first for a church with 2,000 years of history. On Wednesday, Pope Francis opens the Synod of Bishops, only this time, lay people — including women — are being allowed to vote on recommendations to the pope.
"There are 700 million Catholic women around the world. And so it's time that the church actually listened to them," says Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference.
The synod in Rome has been described as a kind of workshop. Some 365 Roman Catholics from around the world are gathering, though about three-quarters will still be bishops.
Among the topics expected to be discussed: A greater role for women in the church, and better inclusion of LGBTQ+ Catholics.
"So that is why, you know, to change the church — and the synod is focusing on that — you need both a change of culture, of mindset. It is about attitude, education and it is not easy," said Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary for the Synod on Synodality.
Americans are playing an outsized role, both from the left and the right.
The delegation includes three Americans Pope Francis appointed: Archbishops Blase Cupich of Chicago and Wilton Gregory of Washington DC as well as Bishop Robert McElroy from San Diego. Ahead of the synod, McElroy angered some conservative Catholics with his comments in the Jesuit magazine "America" urging more inclusion of gay people and more power for women.
"My article was an effort to say, 'Alright, the people of God have spoken,' and while often they're highly polarized on these issues, the clear majority of people are in favor of changes on each of these," said McElroy. "My article is an effort to explore that: how the church might move to lessen exclusion within the life of the church."
From the conservative side, Cardinal Raymond Burke calls the synod a "Pandora's box," part of a revolution to radically change the time-tested teachings of the church.
Bishop Robert Barron of Rochester, Minnesota, whose "Word on Fire" video series has a large American audience, argues making people feel welcome is important but not at the expense of theological tradition and moral law.
At a time of dwindling numbers of priests, some activists with an eye on allowing women to become priests say permitting them to become deacons would help with the shortage of pastoral leaders. "Women want to be equal. And so I hope that the diaconate is one step for us. It's an incomplete step. Surely we are working for gender equality, opening all ordained ministries to women," said McElwee. "But the diaconate would certainly help with the pastoral crisis that's happening and also as a matter of justice."
The synod runs through Oct. 29. A second session is scheduled for next October, to vote on a final document to present to Pope Francis.
"I'm hopeful that those conversations can take place freely and that clericalism and misogyny and fear don't get in the way," said McElwee.
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