Women have been granted the right to vote in the Vatican's annual meeting, as the church attempts to take strides towards progressive reform.
Pope Francis approved the modifications to the system in the Synod of Bishops, a body that gathers the world’s bishops together for periodic meetings, back in April.
Under the changes women will hold 54 of the 365 votes as the church, following decades of calls for greater representation in the church.
“It’s a watershed moment,” said JoAnn Lopez, a lay minister who helped organise two years of consultations prior to the Rome meeting which opened on Wednesday.
“This is the first time that women have a very qualitatively different voice at the table, and the opportunity to vote in decision-making is huge,” she said.
On the agenda for the three-week, closed-door synod, are calls to take concrete steps to elevate more women to decision-making roles in the church, give them the right to preach at Mass and be ordained as priests or deacons.
Typically the clergy meeting prioritises one issue but this year it will hold discussions on extensive ways it can improve inclusivity.
This includes the blessing of LGBTQ+ Catholics and others who have been marginalised by the church, and for new accountability measures to check how bishops exercise their authority to prevent abuses.
Once the meeting has ended, a vote will be held on the recommendations and then put to Pope Francis for his consideration.
The potential that this synod process could lead to real change on previously taboo topics has given hope to many women and progressive Catholics but has sparked alarm from conservatives who have warned it could lead to schism.
They have written books, held conferences and taken to social media claiming that Francis’ reforms are sowing confusion, undermining the true nature of the church and all it has taught over two millennia.
On the eve of the meeting, one of the synod’s most outspoken critics, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, delivered a stinging rebuke of Francis’ vision of “synodality” as well as his overall reform project for the church.
“It’s unfortunately very clear that the invocation of the Holy Spirit by some has the aim of bringing forward an agenda that is more political and human than ecclesial and divine,” Burke told a conference entitled “The Synodal Babel.”
He blasted even the term “synodal” as having no clearly defined meaning and said its underlying attempt to shift authority away from the hierarchy “risks the very identity of the church.”
In response, Francis said cardinals shouldn’t be afraid of questions that are posed by a changing world.
Asked specifically about church blessings for same-sex unions on Monday, Francis suggested they could be allowed as long as such benedictions aren’t confused with sacramental marriage.
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