What does the Synod on Synodality document say about ‘controversial’ issues?

synod conclusion Pope Francis and delegates at the Synod on Synodality at the conclusion of the assembly on Oct. 28, 2023. | Credit: Vatican Media

The Synod on Synodality, the monthlong assembly convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican, released its final document containing the discussion of several hot-button issues that it calls “controversial”: the idea of women deacons, optional priestly celibacy, and the accompaniment of people struggling with their gender or sexual identity.

The 42-page report, published in Italian Oct. 28, divides topics into “convergences,” “matters for consideration,” and “proposals.”

Among the proposals made by the synod, held Oct. 4–29 at the Vatican, was the request for continued theological study of the possibility of women deacons and for the results of such a study to be shared at the next session of the Synod on Synodality, to be held in October 2024.

For the first time in a Synod of Bishops, laypeople, including women, took part in the vote on the final document.

The document also acknowledged that there were differing views among synod members about the possibility of a female diaconate.

It said people who feel excluded because of their sexuality or gender identity want accompaniment and for the Church to defend their dignity.

During the meeting of the 16th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, hundreds of delegates and other participants met to discuss issues and personal experiences in the Church, all with the goal of becoming a more synodal Church. The “synthesis” document was released at the conclusion of the monthlong meeting.

The report was voted on paragraph by paragraph by synod delegates in the early evening on Oct. 28. While all sections received some votes of opposition, the two-thirds majority needed to include the portion in the final text was met by a wide margin in every vote.

The section of the report about the need to further study women deacons received the most opposition — 69 people voted against its inclusion in the document, while votes in favor numbered 277.

Women’s participation

In addition to asking for further theological study of the permanent diaconate and the possibility of access to the ministry by women, the synod report proposed incorporating language more inclusive of women and women’s experiences in liturgical and other Church texts. 

It asked if new ministries are needed for women, or if it is adequate to create more space for women in existing ministries. It also proposed that women with proper training be allowed to be judges in Church trials.

Gender identity

The report said a point of “convergence” in the assembly was that “some issues, such as those related to gender identity and sexual orientation, the end of life, difficult marital situations, and ethical issues related to artificial intelligence, are controversial not only in society but also in the Church because they raise new questions.”

It said anthropological categories are not always sufficient to cover the complexity of elements “emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences” and the Church should reflect and work on this “without giving in to simplifying judgments that hurt people and the body of the Church.”

Church teaching can be “translated into appropriate pastoral initiatives,” it continued, noting that even where “further clarification is needed,” we should follow the example of Jesus.

People who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their “marital situation, identity, and sexuality,” the document said, “ask to be heard and accompanied and that their dignity be defended.”

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Those who feel hurt or neglected by the Church long for a place where they feel listened to and respected without fear of judgment, it said, adding that “listening is a prerequisite for walking together in search of God’s will.”

The document also said the synodal assembly is close to those who feel lonely because they have chosen to stay faithful to the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics, and Christians should listen to and accompany those who have made that commitment.

Sex abuse

On the topic of sex abuse, the report said the Church should listen with special attention to victims of sexual, spiritual, economic, institutional, power, and conscience abuse by clergy members or people in the Church.

“Authentic listening,” it said, “is a fundamental element of the journey toward healing, repentance, justice, and reconciliation.” 

In an apparent reference to the case of the accused abuser and former Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik, the report said “cases of abuse of various kinds against consecrated persons and members of lay associations, particularly women, signal a problem in the exercise of authority and require decisive and appropriate actions.”

The document also called for “structures and processes” to oversee the comportment of bishops on a variety of issues, including safeguarding against different forms of abuse.

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Priestly celibacy

The report asked whether it is necessary to maintain the discipline of priestly celibacy in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church and asked that the question be taken up again while noting that “different assessments were expressed” on the topic.

Another proposal about the priestly ministry was to “consider, on a case-by-case and context-by-context basis, the appropriateness of including priests who have left the ministry [been laicized] in a pastoral service that values their formation and experience.”

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