VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A global summit of Catholic bishops on Saturday (Oct. 27) issued a powerful call for the inclusion of women in decision-making roles in the church “at all levels” and sought to welcome gay people and commit the church to a historic shift on fighting clergy sexual abuse.
But in the wide-ranging final document, approved late Saturday after a series of votes by 249 cardinals and bishops, the synod on young people did not open the door to the ordination of women.
The document, based on deliberations over the past four weeks among bishops and young Catholics, used unusually strong language in advocating on behalf of women, saying integrating women fully into the Catholic Church was “a duty of justice.”
Women, the document said, play “an irreplaceable role in Christian communities” but are often shut out of “decision-making processes.” The church must become aware of the “urgency of an unavoidable change.”
It added that the church’s view of the inherent difference between men and women can give rise to “forms of domination, exclusion and discrimination from which society and the church alike must free themselves.”
The bishops said the language on women’s issues was due in part to the passionate advocacy of the more than 30 young adults invited to take part in the meeting — a dynamic that made this synod much different from others.
“I want to thank the young people for the music they brought into the synod,” Pope Francis said in off-the-cuff remarks closing the deliberations in a Vatican lecture hall.
“And music,” he joked, “is the diplomatic word for noise!”
On the clergy sex abuse crisis, bishops from English-speaking countries, in particular, fought to include strong language in the final document. Many bishops from the developing world were adamant that the issue not be emphasized too strongly. They feared it would come at the expense of life-and-death issues young people face in their countries.
According to a report by National Catholic Reporter, a call for “zero tolerance” for abusers in an earlier draft was stripped out in the final version as part of a compromise.
In the end, the bishops denounced abuses of all kinds but singled out “clericalism” as a chief culprit in the clergy scandals. Clericalism, the document said, is a phenomenon born from “an elitist and exclusionary” view of the priesthood that allows clergy to exercise power over the vulnerable rather than serving them.
The document pointed toward promised efforts from Pope Francis to use all necessary “actions and sanctions” against clergy abuse and said this effort “can truly be a reform of epochal significance.” The next major step in the Vatican’s anti-abuse campaign will be a February meeting of top bishops from around the world that the pope wants to use to promote policy objectives for them all to follow.
In another nod to the advocacy of the young participants, who were able to speak but not vote at the meeting, the final document also found a way to reach out to gay people, albeit in roundabout language that clearly was necessary to pass.
Even with the watered-down phrasing, the section on gays reached the threshold by just two votes, the narrowest margin of any ballot on the 167 proposals and reflections in the document.
Bishops from Africa and some of their conservative allies in North America, along with conservative Catholic media outlets, had lobbied hard to eliminate any language that could be seen as affirming homosexual identity — such as the acronym LGBT or the word “gay” — while church progressives and some American and European bishops wanted a more explicit opening to gays.
Conservatives were concerned that language which welcomed gay people might undermine Catholic teaching against homosexuality.
The final language seemed likely to please neither side while effectively giving bishops greater latitude in welcoming LGBT people if they wanted to, and using the wording they preferred.
However, the document does not use the terms LGBT or gay.
But it did reiterate “that God loves every person and so does the Church,” and it renewed the church’s stance against “any sexual discrimination and violence.”
The document above all appears to be a clear victory for Francis in that it endorses his sharply contested efforts to push the Catholic Church toward a more collaborative and inclusive form of governance that gives local bishops greater flexibility in running their dioceses and ministries.
“We recognize in this experience a fruit of the Holy Spirit that continually renews the church,” the document said. It called on the bishops to practice “synodality” — as this collective discernment is known — “as a way of being and acting, promoting the participation of all the baptized and of all people of good will.”
That’s a strikingly expansive mandate — and it was language that also faced a relatively high number of negative votes – that endorses Francis’ vision for a “listening” church, as he likes to put it.
But it may trigger conservatives who have worried that this signals a shift to “democratizing” or “Protestantizing” Catholicism.
Indeed, an obvious and immediate effect of this more inclusive style of synod was the presence of the young adults, along with some 40 other lay people, nuns and representatives of other churches.
The young people had a decisive impact on the meeting, addressing the closed-door assembly and cheering speeches they liked or reacting with polite applause to those they did not.
Formally known as “auditors,” the young people also took part in small group discussions, and most of the bishops at the synod were effusive in their praise of the contributions they made — contributions that were evident throughout the final document.
During the synod, which officially closes with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, the bishops regularly gushed over the almost revolutionary dynamism that the young people imparted to a process that under previous popes had been carefully controlled events that pleased few and excited no one.
The sense of goodwill, however, was overshadowed throughout the synod – as throughout Francis’ five-year pontificate — by conservative misgivings and criticisms.
In past synods, the hot-button issues had been the possibility of Communion for divorced and remarried couples, for example. In this synod, a chief concern was the synod process itself, or “synodality,” which was viewed as perilously close to turning the church into a “debating society” that would lead to constant change and an inevitable erosion of tradition and orthodoxy.
“The synod is not a parliament,” Francis said in his remarks Saturday evening, an effort to push back against the criticisms. “It is a protected space where the Holy Spirit can work.” And, he added, “It was the Holy Spirit working here.”
(David Gibson, a former national reporter for Religion News Service, is director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.)