As Synod on Synodality’s Continental Stage Concludes, Women’s Ordination Issue Remains in Play

NEWS ANALYSIS: While there was worldwide agreement on the need for a greater role for women in Church decision-making, calls for the ordination of female deacons and priests generated less consensus.

Women pray in St. Peter’s Square during Pope Francis’ April 12 general audience.
Women pray in St. Peter’s Square during Pope Francis’ April 12 general audience. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA/EWTN)

The reports of the recently concluded continental stage of the Synod on Synodality indicate that the controversial issue of women’s ordination continues to play a significant role in the ongoing global synodal process. 

Noting that women make many contributions to the Church but still lack opportunities to invest themselves fully, North American delegates participating in the Synod on Synodality called for examination of women’s involvement in Church life, including “decision-making roles, leadership and ordination” in their continental document, which was compiled following 12 virtual meetings held in February and March for parts of the United States and Canada.

The delegates of the six other international assemblies taking part in the Synod’s Continental Stage all echoed the North Americans’ call for continued discernment about women assuming greater decision-making roles, and some of their continental reports explicitly recommended new or reformed ministerial structures, including women’s ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood, according to the recently released documents synthesizing their discussions. 

This advocacy for continued debate about the ordination of women — including potentially as priests, despite authoritative recent papal instructions that have communicated that their ordination as priests is impermissible — has reinforced concerns that Synod on Synodality organizers want the matter to remain as an element of the debate this October when the world’s bishops gather in Rome. 

But while many women legitimately want to be assured of a way to contribute to the Church’s life, there are specific reasons why the Church does not give women access to the priesthood or diaconate, Sister Sara Butler, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity and professor emerita of dogmatic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, told the Register. 

“Women just want representation and a guaranteed ‘place at the table’ where decisions are made,” she said. “This does not require ordination, and in my opinion, it does not require the right to ‘vote’ — only the opportunity to contribute and collaborate.”


Church Teaching

Some view priestly ordination as a central way the baptized of both sexes could contribute their gifts and have a role in “decision-making.” But Pope St. John Paul II stated clearly that the Church does not have authority to ordain women and that any change in this would require changing the Church’s constitution, noted Sister Sara, citing his 1994 apostolic constitution on reserving priestly ordination to men alone, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which John Paul II specified “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”

The Church’s rejection of female deacons has not been so clearly articulated, but Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution, mentioned only men when it discussed the reestablishment of a permanent diaconate. Subsequently, an extensive study published by the International Theological Commission in 2002 concluded that the deaconesses who existed in the early Church were fundamentally different from the sacramental male diaconate and more closely resembled nuns in their way of life than ordained men. A pair of commissions appointed by Pope Francis to study the issue further has not provided additional guidance.

Sister Sara said she believes that women cannot become deacons through holy orders because this diaconate is a “grade” or “degree” of the same sacrament, for which only a baptized male is eligible. 

With respect to the desire expressed for enhanced representation and responsibilities for women, she said, “This can be achieved by the implementation of possibilities already provided for: parish councils, diocesan pastoral councils, national advisory boards, membership as lay consultants on working committees of various sorts and as ‘experts,’ e.g., at synods.”


What the Continental Documents Said

The Vatican formally proclaimed the conclusion of the continental stage via an April 20 press conference at the Holy See Press Office. 

Citing the synod’s focus that by virtue of their baptism all Catholics are “co-responsible” for carrying out the Church’s mission, documents from assemblies in North America, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Oceania, Africa and Europe compiled delegates’ discussions on ways they say women are excluded from ministries and governance structures, along with possible solutions. 

“What we heard overwhelmingly was that call for more responsibility,” said Alexandra Carroll, communications manager for social mission at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development and a member of the USCCB team that is working on the synod, discussing what North American delegates said about the role of women and about whether they should be eligible for ordained ministry.

“There is a desire at the same time for clarity: a lot of ways in which the people of North America see that a fully co-responsible Church that honors … the dignity of all people and the dignity of women can be lived out.” 

Of the 931 North American lay, clergy and religious delegates, just over half were women, and 164 bishops also participated, according to their continental document.

While women’s ordination was also not the central focus elsewhere, delegates from other continents agreed women experience feelings of exclusion and discrimination because their gifts are not fully utilized, and in this context two continental documents explicitly advocated for women’s ordination. 

Opening the diaconate to women is urgent, Latin American delegates said, because it is already being lived in some settings, such as communities where male deacons’ wives take an active role. 

Australian delegates concluded that “acting on the inequalities of women called for equal, just and full participation of women in Church governance, mission and ministry” and “recognizing their admissibility to any role, such as deacon, priest, or representative on decision-making councils.” 

Middle Eastern delegates asked the Church to consider women’s vocation, role and contribution to administration and governance. 

“However,” the document stated, “before addressing this issue, it is necessary to provide theological, ecclesial and technical training to committed women, before some of them … assume an active role in the administration or receive an ecclesial ministry such as that of deaconess in works of charity.” 

While not naming specific roles for women, who already constitute a majority of engaged Church members in the region, making significant contributions, African delegates called for more structures to encourage and enhance women’s participation, especially in decision-making and Church platforms.

Regarding women’s roles, Asian delegates similarly said, “The synodal conversations have called for a rethinking of women’s participation in the life of the Church given that women played an important role in the Bible.” They also called for a renewal of governance structures to allow women to participate meaningfully in all aspects of the Church.

In Europe, divisions on the issue were apparent when continental delegates gathered in Prague in February. German participants, with the support of some other delegates, pushed for an endorsement of ordaining women, but many other delegates strongly opposed that position. Speaking on the final day of public presentations, Auxiliary Bishop Aliaksandr Yasheuskiy of Minsk, Belarus, said the text should be clarified to note that comments supporting the ordination of women and of married men did not reflect the assembly’s common opinion.

In their final document, the European delegates agreed that women’s roles and participation need to be strengthened at all levels, taking into account their charisms and talents, their voice and specific leadership/community-building qualities. Women’s access to ordained ministry, however, must be studied in depth, and if priesthood is not where they should exercise authority, other appropriate places should be identified, they said.


Reasons for Concern

The Synod on Synodality process is not the first time in recent years that the issue of women’s ordination has surfaced in the synodal context. The ordination of female deacons was broached by Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher during the 2015 Synod on the Family, and the participants at the 2019 Pan-Amazon Synod indicated support for a female deaconate in their final report.

The belief that a continued effort is again underway at the level of the Synod of Bishops to reframe Church teaching regarding women’s ordination was heightened last October, when the Synod on Synodality secretariat released its working document for the continental stage, titled “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent.” 

According to that document, which drew on submissions made during the preceding national stage of the process, “many reports” asked “that the Church continue its discernment regarding a female diaconate.” The working document added that a “much greater diversity of opinion was expressed on the subject of priestly ordination for women, which some reports call for, while others consider a closed issue.”

Notably, in its reference to the discussion of ordaining women as priests, the working document declined to cite John Paul II’s authoritative 1994 statement that the Church is permanently precluded from ordaining women as priests.

Subsequent comments by Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, in an interview last January with America magazine, accentuated the concerns generated by the working document. Cardinal McElroy expressed concrete support for ordaining women as deacons, and while he was more ambiguous about priestly ordination, he said “the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood will be one of the most difficult questions confronting the international synods of 2023 and 2024.”

Recent remarks by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator general of the Synod of Synodality, have also indicated a measure of support for the priestly ordination of women. Although he said in a March 27 interview that he would be “obedient” to Pope Francis’ opposition to the ordination of women as priests, he also said that Pope St. John II’s 1994 statement precluding their ordination was not an infallible statement and therefore could be overturned by a future pope.

Additionally, the German Church formally endorsed female deacons and called for a “reexamination” of their eligibility to be ordained as priests at the conclusion of its controversial Synodal Path process in March. Church leaders in that country have expressed hope that the Synod on Synodality process will help to pave the way to eventual Vatican approval of their stances regarding women’s ordination and several other controversial changes to Church teachings and practices that were also endorsed by the Synodal Path.


The Next Stage

Two days after the publication of Cardinal McElroy’s article — which prompted widespread speculation that the synod organizers support the push for revision of Church teachings on issues like women’s ordination and homosexuality — Cardinals Hollerich and Mario Grech, the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, released a joint letter stating that the themes contained in the continental stage’s working document “do not constitute the agenda of the next Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.”

However, the seven continental stage documents are now formally a central part of the drafting process of the working document for the first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place Oct. 4-29 at the Vatican. So it seems probable that the requests by several continents to continue the discussion the ordination of women, in the context of women’s leadership roles in the Church, will be incorporated into that working document too.

As they consider the continental stage delegates’ conclusions and recommendations when they gather in Rome in October, Sister Sara Butler said she expects the world’s bishops will reiterate the need to find practical ways to implement what the Church allows regarding the role of women. She added that discussing how to reverse the decline in women’s religious life could help correct the experience of imbalance in women’s roles.

The USCCB’s Carroll said she hopes the bishops at the October synod will take up for discernment “how we can be a fully co-responsible Church and in service of the Gospel — I think in a way that acknowledges the inherent baptismal dignity of women, the work that women have been doing in the Church already, the monumental work they’re doing.”

Register staff contributed to this report. It was updated after posting.