Involving women at every level of Church decision-making, including the possibility of female deacons, will be on the agenda at what is set to be a ground-breaking meeting in October.
The synod Instrumentum Laboris or working document, published on 21 June, lays out the framework for discussions due to take place on 4-29 October, a key event for the most ambitious Catholic renewal project in 60 years.
Bishops, priests, religious and lay people will be asked to consider a series of questions as part of the global synod process, including the ordination of married men, greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ Catholics, reform of governance, the selection of bishops and lay leadership.
An overhaul of the seminary system to ensure that clergy are trained in a synodal manner is also mentioned repeatedly. This reflects a concern that some priests, particularly those ordained in recent years, have resisted or ignored the synod process. Speaking at a press conference to launch the synod document in the Vatican, Cardinal Mario Grech, the leader of the Holy See's synod office, said some people had claimed that the "People of God" cannot contribute to a synod process. The cardinal described this as an "insult."
A section of the document is devoted to the “promotion of the baptismal dignity of women”, a topic which emerged as an urgent priority during the initial synodal dialogues worldwide.
Pope Francis has ruled that, for the first time, women will take part in the October assembly as voting members.
Participants in the synod will be asked to address “women’s participation in governance, decision-making, mission and ministries at all levels of the Church” and how this can be supported through appropriate structures, including “new ministries”.
The document also explains that all synod reflections have called for “women’s inclusion in the diaconate” to be considered.
“Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?” the document asks.
The presence of women deacons in the early Church is not disputed, although those opposed to reinstating them argue they were not ordained and only carried out tasks related to women.
A commission addressing the question of women deacons has convened twice during the Francis pontificate. It has also been raised by a synod on the Amazon, and in synod processes in Australia and Germany.
The 60-page working document is very different from previous synod texts. In the past, these would set out a series of reflections and statements that bishops would discuss and edit.
By contrast, this document seeks to present the priorities that emerged during the synod listening and discernment process, which began in 2021 in dioceses worldwide.
Placed under the themes of the synod – communion, mission and participation – the priorities are not presented as “assertions or stances” but as questions for further discernment.
These questions are not just for the October meeting but “can be used for in-depth thematic meetings in a synodal style at all levels of Church life”.
All of this reflects the focus on the importance of the synod’s process and the desire to create a more “synodal Church”.
The first part of the working document sets out the characteristics of what such a Church looks like. They include humility, discernment, room for the participation of all baptised members, openness to dialogue, an ability to manage tensions and a sense of “incompleteness”.
Other characteristics include drawing strength from the liturgy, a deeper understanding between love and truth and starting at the local level.
The text also explains the discernment process used at the October assembly – “Conversation in the Spirit” – which includes speaking, listening and building consensus.
Already in use during the local phases of the synod, this process seeks to mitigate against polarisation and avoid a parliamentary-style debate. Fr Giacomo Costa, one of the synod organisers, told reporters that in October, assembly members would gather in the Paul VI hall at tables of about a dozen to encourage the “Conversation in the Spirit.” This is a new development.
Francis and the synod organisers are seeking to avoid the synod becoming a clash of ideas. The 2023 assembly will not be asked to answer the discernment questions but rather to outline new paths towards another assembly in October 2024. Cardinal Grech said the synod assembly would be asked to consider ways to proceed. After the assembly in 2024, concrete proposals will be put to the Pope.
The synod document points out that the context for the synod discussions is the sexual abuse scandals which it says have profoundly affected the churches. Abuses, the document explains, also concern power, money and conscience.
It asks: “How can an understanding of ordained ministry and the formation of candidates that is more rooted in the vision of the missionary synodal Church contribute to efforts to prevent the recurrence of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse?”
The document points out that the need to “reform structures, institutions and functioning mechanisms with a view to transparency is particularly strong in those contexts most marked by the abuse crisis”, and large sections of the working document focus on renewing governance and decision-making in the Church.
The document adds that the need for “adequate governance structures which respond to the demand for greater transparency and accountability” will affect how bishops carry out their ministry.
“Does authority arise as a form of power derived from the models offered by the world, or is it rooted in service?”
The document points out that the Church’s mission cannot be the “prerogative of a few specific vocations” and calls for greater discernment of different charisms within the body of believers.
It stresses that a synodal Church is outward looking, capable of making “prophetic decisions”, and offering a witness to an increasingly fragmented and polarised world.
It emphasises that the Church must serve those on the margins, denounce injustices, tackle inequality, welcome migrants and protect the environment.
While the synod process has attempted unprecedented listening and consultation, synods have deep biblical and theological roots.
The underlying vision of the synod is the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, which defined the Church first of all as the People of God and sought to both re-connect the Church with its roots (ressourcement) and update its mission (aggiornamento). The church, the working document states, is both “synodal and hierarchical.”
The document states that a synod is not like a “parliamentary structure” but is best understood as a liturgical assembly that seeks to listen to the Holy Spirit.