Pope Francis allows women to be voting members in Synod of Bishops

Pope Francis leads the Synod of Bishops in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican on Oct. 6, 2014. | Reuters/Claudio Peri/Pool

Pope Francis will allow women to be voting members of the Roman Catholic Church's Synod of Bishops, a first since the pontifical advisory body was created more than 50 years ago.

The Secretariat for the Synod of Bishop announced Wednesay that 70 members of the synod, which is scheduled to meet in two sessions slated to take place in October 2023 and October 2024, will be non-bishop members of the Church, with half of them being women.

The 70 individuals will be appointed by the pontiff from a list of 140 people compiled by the International Reunions of Bishops' Conferences and the Assembly of Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches, according to Vatican News.

Pope Francis introduced the change, according to Vatican News, with Church leaders insisting that this was "not a revolution" but rather "an important change."

Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, expressed support for the change, believing that the gathering will be "enriched" by the new representation.

"As you can see, the space in the tent is being enlarged," said Grech, as quoted by Catholic News Service, nevertheless clarifying that "The Synod of Bishops will remain a synod of bishops."

The 70 women participants in the upcoming Synod of Bishops constitute a small share of the 370 voting members and the more than 400 total participants. 

The Synod of Bishops was created by Pope Paul VI in 1965 as part of the Second Vatican Council, which instituted many reforms to the Catholic Church.

Paul VI defined a Synod of Bishops as "an ecclesiastic institution, which, on interrogating the signs of the times and as well as trying to provide a deeper interpretation of divine designs and the constitution of the Catholic Church, we set up after Vatican Council II to foster the unity and cooperation of bishops around the world with the Holy See."

The First Synod of Bishops was held in 1967. More than two dozen additional synods have been held since then, including 16 General Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops and several Special Assemblies.  

Membership has been previously restricted to cardinals and bishops in addition to 10 priests elected by the men's Union of Superiors General, according to CNS.

While synods in previous years have included women, they served as non-voting auditors rather than voting members. This year, Pope Francis has also eliminated the auditor position.

During his reign as head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has made concerted efforts to include women in more leadership roles than his predecessors.

Pope Francis appointed three female theologians to the Catholic Church's prominent Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2018, marking the first time women and laity served in that body.

In January of last year, the pontiff installed six women to the ministry of lector and three women to the ministry of catechist, both of which were positions previously reserved for men.

While women had previously served as lectors and catechists in many countries, the pontiff's installation was the first time the ministry positions had been formalized as a specific vocation.

Nevertheless, in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America last November, the pontiff said he had no intentions of ending the Church's ban on female clergy.

"It is a theological problem," Pope Francis responded. "And why can a woman not enter ordained ministry? It is because the Petrine principle has no place for that."  

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