When Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler, an advocate for the ordination of women, joined a major Vatican meeting this month, she was skeptical that an institution dominated by men for 2,000 years was ready to listen to women like her.
The gathering of some 300 bishops from around the world also included for the first time 70 lay people, women among them, who have voting rights. It was called by Pope Francis to discuss the future of the Roman Catholic Church, including sensitive topics — married priests, the blessing of gay couples, sacraments for the divorced and remarried, as well as the role of women.
As the confidential meeting approaches its end on Oct. 29, Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler said she has been pleasantly surprised. Some clerics — priests, bishops and cardinals — openly supported the advancement of women, she said. Some even backed the ordaining of women as deacons.
There had been “really good discussions,” Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler said, adding, “It hasn’t been the women against the bishops and cardinals. It’s not that.”
Catholic women have been clamoring for more equal footing and greater say in the workings of the church for years, and while consensus is building for different forms of advancement, there remains deep opposition to the ordination of women as deacons, let alone priests. Deacons are ordained ministers who can preach, perform weddings, funerals and baptisms, but only priests can celebrate Mass.
A decision that momentous rests ultimately with Pope Francis, who is not expected to make any big changes after this month’s meeting, formally called the Synod on Synodality, which will reconvene for a final phase next October.
Critics have said that making women deacons is a slippery slope to making them priests, which would violate 2,000 years of church doctrine and undermine the church’s authority.
“The ordination through sacraments of women as deacons, presbyters, priests and bishops is not possible,” Cardinal Gerhard Müller said in an interview on the eve of the synod, in which he is participating. No pope “can decide something different without undermining the authority of the teachings,” he added.
Still, Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler, who works for a Swiss Catholic relief agency, said the discussions at the synod reflected what seemed to be a growing support for the idea that women should play a larger and better acknowledged role in the life of local churches.
Women already work in the Church’s hospitals, schools and charities, and in many countries fill ministerial gaps — running parishes and carrying out pastoral responsibilities — where there is a shortage of priests. Yet they are, in the end, subordinate to a male hierarchy.
In canvassing Catholics around world — a two-year process beginning in 2021 that led to this month’s meeting — the role of women emerged as a pressing issue.
Survey respondents cited as priorities “questions of women’s participation and recognition,” and said that “the desire for a greater presence of women in positions of responsibility and governance emerged as crucial elements.”
The working document for the meeting — a paper that participants have been using as an agenda for discussions — says that the church must reject “all forms of discrimination and exclusion faced by women in the Church.”
Many of the global surveys, as well as those of some countries, also called for women’s deaconship to be considered. “Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?” the working document asked.
Whether the deliberations in the synod hall will actually emerge as hard recommendations for change remains to be seen.
In his 10-year papacy, Pope Francis has opened some doors to women. He issued a papal letter in 2020 that said women should have more formal roles in the church; in 2021 he changed the laws to formally allow women to give readings from the Bible during Mass, act as altar servers and distribute communion.
He has also placed women in various Vatican offices, and in a move welcomed by women’s groups, he appointed Sister Nathalie Becquart, of France, as one of the synod’s top officials.
But some critics have dismissed the appointments and participation of women in the synod as window dressing. “The inclusion of a small cohort of women, much trumpeted, merely highlights the gender imbalance at the core of the Church,” Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland, said last week at a meeting of progressive Catholics in Rome. “Equality is a right, not a favor. The women attending the Synod on Synodality are there as a favor, not as a right.”
Advocates of women’s empowerment acknowledge that resistance to major changes in the role of women run deep in the church’s leadership, and not just among conservatives. But, they argue, societal changes are already being reflected among rank-and-file Catholics and will only build, making more formal changes necessary for the church’s survival.
“Clearly, the church is changing from the ground up, even while it reasserts its changelessness,” said Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American nun, feminist and scholar, who has long called on the Church to empower women and laypeople. Her keynote speech last week at a progressive event, billed as an alternative synod, ended with a rallying crying, “If the people of God will lead, eventually leaders will follow.”
Catherine Clifford, a theologian who teaches systematic and historical theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, and a participant in this month’s synod, said that inside the hall, it had been “a challenge, at times, to impress upon some of the bishops the urgent need for substantial change concerning women’s inclusion in leadership, ministries, and instances of decision-making.”
“While there is a surprising openness to consider these matters,” she wrote in an email, “there is also a weight of inertia to be overcome.”
There remain deep divisions even among women over the ordination of women as deacons.
Renée Köhler-Ryan, the dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, who is skeptical about the ordination of women deacons, told reporters that “too much emphasis” had been put on the issue. It “detracts from all of the other things that we could be doing,” she said.
Still, others, like Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler, said she was optimistic about the future of the church and about the role of women in it.
“I have the impression that everything really is on the table,” Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler said. “The question is how far will we go, will we really come to more concrete steps? That’s the interesting thing, but I have a very positive feeling.”