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World Synod: Catholic Church identifies areas for reform

October 30, 2023

After four weeks, an assembly of the world’s bishops has come to an end at the Vatican. In a final paper, the direction of reform of the Catholic Church is becoming clear, but so are its limits.

Pope Francis during the final mass at the synod in St Peter's Basilica
Pope Francis described himself as a quiet listener at the SynodImage: Alessandra Tarantino/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Pope Francis said he saw a sign of new beginnings in the four-week debate. At the end of the synod, he had words of admonition. "This is the church we are called to 'dream': a church that is the servant of all, servant of the least of our brothers and sisters," Francis said in his homily in St. Peter's Basilica. "A church that never demands an attestation of 'good behavior,' but welcomes, serves and loves, forgives," he said, "a church with open doors that is a haven of mercy."

With his wishes at the conclusion of the first part of the Synod of Bishops, a periodic assembly of the world's bishops to issues vital to the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis brought the deliberations of the 350-odd delegates in line with his approach since taking office in March 2013 — namely, to bring the church closer to the people again. The final report of the four-week assembly makes one thing clear: In the coming year, this approach is to become more concrete.

This latest assembly at the Vatican is only the first stage of a much larger process. In October 2024, the second part of the assembly, which will also take place at the Vatican, may see a formal agreement on concrete steps for change. What these steps will look like ultimately depends on the pope.

A nun watches from a balcony as Pope Francis holds a Mass
Expanded roles fo women in the Catholic Church is one of the most controversial issuesImage: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo/picture alliance

Most lively synod ever

Never in the history of the Synods of Bishops in the Vatican have there been such lively and controversial debates. That is because, for the first time ever, lay people without ecclesiastical ordination, women and men, were allowed to participate and vote. Although the bishops made up the largest part of the assembly. But now one in seven of those entitled to vote is female.

The 40-page final report is a summary of the deliberations and looks toward the future.

One focus is the current image of the church as being embodied primarily by ordained men, priests and bishops. "Clericalism, machismo and the abuse of power continue to shape the face of the Church and harm the community." This single sentence in the document sums up the image of the Catholic Church. The report discusses the role of laypeople, and women especially. It urges more commitment to people on the margins of society, the poor and the migrants, and also addresses the major issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

The report was formally voted on during the plenary of the World Synod, and it was approved by 336 members of the assembly and rejected by 10. The largest number of "no" votes came for the passages that deal with the issue of women and their exclusion from church office and responsibility.

US Jesuit James Martin, a prominent advocate for a more open approach by the Catholic Church to lesbian, gay and transgender people, said he was "disappointed but not surprised" that the final text of this synod did not mention the issue of LGBTQ+ Catholics.

Catholic Church and reform

Outlook on reforms

Francis wants a more open church. He shaped this world synod, where he has described himself as one of many listeners. 

Though several participants, mainly from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, hope that the men's church will also open up to women in questions of ecclesiastical office, the pope is pursuing other agendas. In a new book with his interviews published this year, Francis reaffirms Church teaching that women cannot become priests and remains reserved on whether they should be admitted to the ordained ministry of the diaconate.

In Germany, the Catholic Church has been criticized by the Vatican and conservative circles worldwide for its dialogue in a "Synodal Path" from 2019 to 2023, which began in light of the scandal involving thousands of sex crimes committed by clerics. After the four-week discussions at the Vatican, the feeling prevails that the church in all countries should reflect in a similar way.

"The Catholic Church has understood worldwide that it will not get anywhere with this insistence on this very firm episcopal authority, but that this is part of the problem and not part of the solution," said Catholic theologian Thomas Söding vice president of the Central Committee of German Catholics and attended the synod as an expert, urging not to lose the momentum of the debate.

The chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, expressed disappointment with the outcome. "It was not yet courageous, this synod," he wrote.

Are more courageous steps ahead? The Synod of Bishops will continue in October 2024. Then, at the latest, decisions will have to be made.

This article was originally written in German.

Faith Matters - Women in the Church - Can the Catholic Church Reform?

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C