67 members voted against the proposal that “theological and pastoral research on women’s access to the diaconate should be continued,” taking into account the results of two commissions Pope Francis established to study the topic. “If possible, the results should be presented at the next Session of the Assembly,” the report proposed.
61 members opposed a proposal that said a “deeper reflection” on the diaconate’s status as “a proper and permanent degree of the hierarchy” would “also illuminate the issue of women’s access to the diaconate.”
Notably, the final text did not include the term “LGBTQ+ people,” after the phrase was included in the working document that guided assembly discussions. The summary report did, however, emphasize the assembly’s “closeness and support to all those who experience a condition of loneliness” as result of “fidelity to the Church’s tradition and magisterium in marriage and sexual ethics” and called upon Christian communities to listen and accompany those in these situations.
Regarding resistance to certain proposals, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator general of the Synod of Synodality, said that if the results were considered in the context of parliamentary voting in a democratic state, “we would be very happy indeed” with the outcome.
Synodal Structures and Decision-Making
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Perhaps the synod’s most significant concrete proposals came in the form of calls for changes in ecclesial decision-making and the expansion of synodal assemblies and bodies in the life of the Church.
The report called for continental assemblies to be canonically recognized, and for the implementation of “the exercise of synodality” at regional, national, and continental levels.
One “issue to be addressed” was the revision of local Church councils to “realize through them a greater participation of the People of God.” The recent plenary council in Australia, which include bishop and non-bishop participation, was highlighted as an example to follow.
The synod assembly also proposed formally reconsidering the composition of the Synod of Bishops itself.
In the section on “The Synod of Bishops and Ecclesial Assemblies,” the document said that changes to this year’s synod — most notably, the full participation of non-bishop members, including laymen and women — “were generally welcomed” by the assembly. While “preserving its eminently episcopal character,” the 2023 synod also reportedly “made tangible” the link between the participation of all the faithful, episcopal collegiality, and the primacy of the Pope.
“The synodal process was and is a time of grace through which God is offering us the opportunity to experience a new culture of synodality, capable of guiding the life and mission of the Church.”
The text did note, however, that some members raised concerns that the equal participation of non-bishops in an episcopal body could lead to the “specific task of the bishops” not being “adequately understood.”
“The question remains open about the impact of [non-bishops’] presence as full members on the episcopal character of the Assembly,” the synod document noted.
The report suggested three options for the arrangement of future global synods: bishops-only, both bishops and non-bishops, or an assembly of non-bishops followed by an episcopal assembly.
The “urgent need to ensure that women can participate in decision making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry,” was also cited. The document referenced Pope Francis’s recent appointment of several women to positions of responsibility in the Roman Curia and stressed that “the same should happen at other levels” of the Church, and that canon law be adapted accordingly.
The document called for bishops to exercise their mandate to teach, govern, and sanctify through greater engagement with members of their local community. Concrete proposals included establishing “structures and processes for the verification of the bishop’s work” and making diocesan pastoral councils canonically mandatory.
The assembly also called for a review of the criteria used to pick new bishops, incorporating broader consultation in the process, including greater input from laymen and women. And the importance of forming seminarians in a more synodal strain of pastoral engagement was also emphasized.
Ecclesial Discernment and “Open Questions”
The assembly also proposed reconsidering the way the Church discerns “controversial” issues and “open questions,” a loaded subject that may raise concerns about the diminishment of the episcopacy’s charism for authoritatively teaching.
“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 in the Church because they raise new questions,” the document stated.
The report went on to suggest that the Church’s anthropological categories are sometimes “not sufficient to grasp” complexities that emerge through personal experience and scientific inquiry.
As a response, the document called for the promotion of “initiatives that allow for shared discernment on doctrinal, pastoral and ethical issues that are controversial” in “light of the Word of God, Church teaching, theological reflection, and valuing the synod experience.” The text proposed that a confidential meeting of experts on these controversial issues, possibly with the inclusion of those who directly experience them, should be initiated, with an eye toward next October’s assembly.
Relatedly, the document also said that “synodal processes” can verify when the faithful are in consensus (the consensus fidelium) on a given issue, which “is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the Apostolic faith.”
While Catholic teaching affirms that the faithful cannot error in matters of belief when they manifest universal consent, many theologians and bishops warn about the inadequacy of attempting to gauge this through formalized consultation.
In a move signaling openness to decentralizing the Church’s teaching authority, the document proposed further exploration of “the doctrinal and juridical nature” of bishops’ conferences, recognizing the possibility of doctrinal decision making “in the local sphere.” The synod also proposed giving episcopal conferences more authority over liturgy.
Synodality Across the Board
The assembly’s other proposals applied the concept of synodality across a host of Church issues and activities.
For instance, on the topic of the Church’s engagement with the poor, the document proposed that “the experience of encounter, sharing a common life and serving those living in poverty and the marginalized” should be “integral” in Christian formation.
“It is a requirement of faith, not an optional extra,” the text read, also recommending that diaconal ministry be “more evidently oriented” toward serving the poor.
Regarding Christian unity, the text included proposals to establish a common date for the celebration of Easter for all Christians and to “compile an ecumenical martyrology.”
Enhancing the formation and support of “digital missionaries” was also highlighted as a way of reaching young people distant from the Church. The assembly also recommended implementing the “conversation in the Spirit” method, which involves intentional, prayerful group listening and was used at the synod, into other areas of Church life.
The synod report included the recommendation to establish new Church ministries, or the expansion of existing ones. The ministry of lector, the document says, could become “a true ministry of the Word of God,” which, “in appropriate contexts, could also include preaching.” The document also proposed a ministry “assigned to married couples,” that would assist family life and those preparing for marriage.
A “baptismal ministry of listening and accompanying” is also suggested at the end of a section emphasizing the importance of listening to groups that have been harmed by or excluded from the Church, including victims and survivors clerical sex abuse.
“Authentic listening is a fundamental element of the journey toward healing, repentance, justice and reconciliation.”
Setting the Stage
According to its introduction, the 2023 assembly’s summary report “is in no way a final document,” but will be used as the basis of the Synod on Synodality’s final stage—another Vatican assembly in October 2024. That assembly is expected to produce a final text that will be presented to the pope for his consideration.
“This is an experience that does not finish today, but will continue,” said Grech.
Hollerich noted that he hopes next year’s document makes more concrete proposals, but said that “even that document will be a step of a Church on the move.
“And that’s the important things, I think. That we move.”
In the meantime, Synod members will return to their respective dioceses, where they have been tasked to get feedback on the summary report and to foster a synodal culture.
“I think people will leave tomorrow or the day after tomorrow going home with a heart full of hope, with a lot of ideas, and I'm looking forward to seeing them back next year,” said Cardinal Hollerich.