ROME – For the first time, lay people, including women, will serve as full members of the Synod of Bishops with voting rights, the Vatican announced Wednesday, as part of a broader series of changes to the rules governing participation in these papally convened summits.
Speaking to journalists Wednesday during a press briefing on the changes, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg and General Relator of Pope Francis’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, said the decision is “no revolution” but constitutes “an important change.”
Under the previous norms, a synod was defined in canon law as a gathering of members, of which “the greater part are bishops” elected by their national bishops’ conference. Other members, usually bishops or male religious, were either appointed by the pope or were tapped by their religious institutes.
Membership for past synods also included officials in the office for the Synod of Bishops in Rome and the heads of Vatican departments who held at least the rank of archbishop, as well as 10 clerics belonging to Institutes of Consecrated Life who were either elected by their respective communities.
In addition, a selection of auditors has also traditionally been invited to attend the synod gatherings, meaning they were able to listen in and participate in group discussions, but were unable to vote on the final document.
While women have traditionally taken part in synods as observers, advisers, auditors and experts, none have ever been full members with the right to vote on the synod’s final document, which typically serves as the basis of a papal exhortation on the synod’s topic published some months later.
While the bulk of the norms remain the same, the Synod of Bishops announced Wednesday that they have modified the rules, among other things omitting the membership of the 10 clerics appointed by their communities.
A statement from the Synod of Bishops said these clerics have now been replaced “by five women religious and five men religious” belonging to various Institutes of Consecrated Life who were chosen to attend as members, all of whom “have the right to vote.”
The new norms also do away with the synod auditors and allow for an additional 70 non-bishop members to be appointed regardless of clerical status, meaning they can be priests, consecrated women or men, deacons, and laymen and laywomen.
These 70 members will be chosen by the pope from a list of 140 names put forward by seven International Reunions of Bishops’ Conferences and the Assembly of Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches. Some 20 of the 70 slots are reserved for members of eastern-rite Catholic churches.
The new norms request that half of these 70 people be women, and that they also include young people. As full members, these 70 people will also have the right to vote.
“In selecting them, account is taken not only of their general culture and prudence, but also of their knowledge, both theoretical and practical, as well as their participation in various capacities in the synod process,” a statement from the Synod of Bishops said.
In addition to these 70 people, the papally-appointed delegates are now no longer limited to bishops, and can also include laypeople, priests, or deacons.
A third modification to the rules states that synod members representing Vatican departments will now be appointed by the pope, rather than being limited to those holding the title of archbishop.
With the new rules, there will now be at least 40 women participating as active voting members during synod gatherings, plus any others the pope chooses to appoint himself.
Pope Francis approved the new rules on April 17.
According to Hollerich, the majority of members, usually numbering over 200, will still be bishops, with around 20-25 percent of members being non-bishops.
For years, a woman’s right to vote in synod gatherings has been a bone of contention for Catholics who long for a greater inclusion of women in meaningful, decision-making roles in the church.
Pressure to grant women voting rights in synods has been growing in recent years, including in the synod hall, with critics complaining that in previous synod gatherings, exceptions to the rules were made to allow non-ordained male religious Superiors General and non-bishop priests the right to vote, but not doing so for their female counterparts.
Ahead of the 2019 special Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, a progressive Catholic women’s activist group, Voices of Faith, organized a press conference attended by a group of Swiss nuns calling for women to be granted synod voting rights.
In 2018, the Women’s Ordination Conference organized a rally outside the Vatican insisting that women be given voting rights and launched a petition which drew nearly 10,000 signatures in just two weeks’ time.
Just three years later, Pope Francis signaled that progress on this front was being made when he named French Sister Nathalie Becquart undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, a position that traditionally comes with voting rights during synod gatherings.
Vatican officials in the past have defended the bishop-only rules for voting on grounds that the gatherings were synods of “bishops,” and that as such, it made sense for bishops to be the ones who voted.
Becquart’s appointment made her the first woman with a right to vote in synod gatherings. For the upcoming synod in October, she will now be joined by a slew of other women casting votes.
During a press conference last week on the conclusion of the continental phase of the Synod of Bishops on Syndodality, Becquart said the full list of synod members and participants will be released in May, along with the preparatory document, called the instrumentum laboris, for the October synod gathering.
Formally opened by Pope Francis in October 2021, the Synod of Bishops on Synodality is officially titled, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” and is a multi-stage process that will culminate in two Rome-based gatherings in October of this year and October 2024.
This year’s Rome-based gathering will last from Oct. 4-29, and will mark the first time that women, and laypeople generally, will have the right to vote.
In their statement, the Synod of Bishops said the pope’s decision to broaden membership to include more priests as well as deacons and laypeople “reinforces the solidity of the process as a whole.”
“It is therefore in the role/function of memory that the presence of non-bishops is included, and not in that of representation,” the statement said, insisting that because non-bishop members are appointed by the pope or other bodies “through which episcopal collegiality is realized,” the episcopal nature of synod gatherings “is not affected, but rather is confirmed.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen