Vatican will prepare a document on the role of women in leadership in Catholic Church

The Vatican’s doctrine office will prepare a document on women in leadership roles in the Catholic Church, in a new initiative to respond to longstanding demands by women to have a greater say in the church’s life.

The document will be written by Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith as its contribution to Pope Francis’ big church reform process, the Vatican said Tuesday. The process is entering its second main phase with a meeting of bishops in October, known as a synod.

The Vatican announced the details of the doctrinal document shortly after its news conference on the preparatory work for the October meeting, leaving journalists no chance to ask for more details about it.

Cardinal Mario Grech, who is organising the synod, did not mention the document when asked about the question of female deacons, saying only that the issue had been referred to the doctrine office.

The forthcoming document was instead announced in a list of the members of 10 “study groups” that are looking into some of the thorniest and legally complicated issues that have arisen in the reform process to date, including the role of women and LGBTQ+ Catholics in the life of the church.

Pope Francis called the synod over three years ago as part of his overall efforts to make the church a more welcoming place for marginalised groups, and one where ordinary people would have a greater say. The process, and the two-year canvassing of rank-and-file Catholics that preceded it, sparked both hopes and fears that real change was afoot.

Catholic women do the lion’s share of the church’s work in schools and hospitals, and tend to take the lead in passing down the faith to future generations. But they have long complained of second-class status in an institution that reserves the priesthood for men.

Francis has reaffirmed the ban on women priests, but has named several women to high-ranking jobs in the Vatican and encouraged debate on other ways women’s voices can be heard. That has included the synod process in which women have had the right to vote on specific proposals — a right previously given only to men.

Additionally, during his 11-year pontificate, he responded to demands for ministerial jobs for women by appointing two commissions to study whether women could be ordained deacons. Deacons are ordained ministers but are not priests, though they can perform many of the same functions as priests: preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals, and preach. They cannot, however, celebrate Mass.

The results of the two commissions have never been released and in a recent interview with CBS “60 Minutes,” Francis said “no” when asked if women could one day be ordained deacons.

The doctrine office, headed by Francis’ close theological adviser Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, will be preparing an “appropriate document” on “theological and canonistic questions around specific ministerial forms” that were raised during the first phase of the synod process last year, the announcement said.

“The in-depth examination of the issues at hand - in particular the question of the necessary participation of women in the life and leadership of the church - has been entrusted to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith,” in dialogue with the synod organisers, it said.

Another “study group” is looking at particularly controversial issues, including the welcome of LGBTQ+ people in the church.

These study groups are working with Vatican offices and will continue their analyses beyond the October meeting, suggesting outcomes this year won’t necessarily be complete.

After the 2023 session, synod delegates made no mention whatsoever of homosexuality in their final summarising text, even though the working document going into it had specifically noted the calls for a greater welcome for “LGBTQ+ Catholics” and others who have long felt excluded by the church.

The final text merely said people who feel marginalised by the church, because of their marital situation, “identity and sexuality, ask to be listened to and accompanied, and their dignity defended”.

A few weeks after the synod ended, Francis unilaterally approved letting priests offer blessings to same-sex couples, essentially responding to one of the key demands by LBGTQ+ Catholics going into the process. 

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