Pope Francis waves as he celebrates the noon prayer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, 23 April. Alamy Stock Photo
Synod of Bishops

Women given right to vote at upcoming meeting of Catholic Bishops

For years, women within the Catholic Church have been fighting for the right to vote at the periodic meetings.

WOMEN WILL BE given the right to vote at the upcoming meeting of bishops within the Catholic Church.

It’s part of a move to “emphasise” the role of women and young people within the Church and to give them greater decision-making responsibilities.

The Synod of Bishops is a group of Catholic bishops from all over the world who meet periodically and are seen as an advisory body to the Pope.

The Canon Law of the Catholic Church, which sets out how the Church is governed and organised, describes the Synod of Bishops as a body that assists the Pope with their counsel and “consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world”.

The upcoming Synod will be the 16th “Ordinary General Assembly” of the Synod of Bishops.

For ordinary general assemblies, a universal and contemporary theme is discussed which aims to energise the Church.

For example, the last ordinary general assembly in 2018 was commonly referred to as the “Synod on Young People” and sought to increase active participation among young people in the Church. 

Prior to that, the 2015 Synod on the Family focused on family life in the modern world and was seen as an attempt to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to participate more fully in the Church. 

At the end of ordinary general assemblies, bishops vote on proposals and pass them to the Pope, who then produces a document, called an apostolic exhortation, which takes their views into account.

The upcoming Synod has been referred to as a “Synod on Synodality”, in that it aims to alter the synodal process by which bishops pass on proposals to the Pope.

This will be done by allowing women and laypeople a vote and a greater role in this assembly.

The Synod will meet at the Vatican this year between 4-29 October, before concluding in October of next year. 


Up to now, voting members of synods have been all men.

The voting members consisted of bishops and 10 elected priests.

However, in changes published by the Vatican yesterday and approved by Pope Francis, only five priests will be elected to the synod, and they will be joined by five nuns or sisters.

And while women held roles as non-voting “auditors” in past synods, the role of auditor has been done away with.

Instead, there will be a group of 70 non-bishop members chosen who can vote at the synod.

This 70-strong group will include women, priests, and laypeople from all over the world and will be chosen from a list of 140 people that will be put to bishops.

However, the Vatican has “requested that 50% of them be women and that the presence of young people also be emphasised”.

Cardinal Mario Grech is the secretary-general for the synod and speaking yesterday, he said that while the “Synod of Bishops will remain a synod of bishops”, it will now be “enriched” by broader representation of the whole church.

“As you can see, the space in the tent is being enlarged,” he added.

Catholic women’s groups that have long criticised the Vatican for treating women as “second-class citizens” immediately praised the move as historic.

Kate McElwee of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for women’s ordination, described the move as a “significant crack in the stained-glass ceiling”.

She added that it is the “result of sustained advocacy, activism and the witness” of a campaign of Catholic women’s groups demanding the right to vote.


As part of the upcoming synod, laypeople in congregations all around the world were consulted on the Church and were able to offer their opinions on it.

In Ireland, it was said in the national synthesis document that “special care was taken to involve those persons who may risk being excluded, such as women, members of the LGBTQI+ community, members of the Travelling community, and refugees”.

A “listening process” was also held with abuse survivors.

The report from the Irish Bishops’ Conference found an “overwhelming call for the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in the Church, expressed by all ages”.

While Pope Francis’ “compassionate approach” was described as “transformative and appreciated”, there were calls for an apology from the Church.

A submission from an LGBTQI+ focus group noted: “Even though the Church rarely condemns gay people these days, it indirectly creates an atmosphere where physical, psychological and emotional abuse of gay people is tolerated and even encouraged”.

And while some called for a change in Church teaching, others expressed “concern” that this would lead to the Church “conforming to secular standards”.

Meanwhile, the report noted that “the role of women in the Church was mentioned in almost every submission received”.

Some submissions also called for women to be able to enter the priesthood, a ban upheld by Pope Francis.

A call was also issued for the Church to “reflect on the injustice brought upon women by Church and State, and cultural norms in society”.

The report also described as an “open wound” the “physical, sexual and emotional abuse and its concealment by the Church in Ireland”.

The Irish Bishops’ Conference commended the report to the next phase of the upcoming synod and said it hopes the report will result in “more inclusive outreach, reaching out to those who have left the Church behind and in some cases feel excluded, forgotten or ignored”.

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