Why is The Pope’s Monthlong October Meeting Making Headlines?

The inclusion of women and laity signal Pope Francis’ openness to diverse voices as the Church discusses how to journey forward together.

The Pope has convened a gathering of more than 400 bishops and lay people from around the world in Rome this month, a move that is garnering headlines due to some of the invitees and potential topics of discussion; however, experts say the significance of this meeting is not the issues, but the people actually involved.

"If you really pay attention to what it [the meaning of the title, 'The Synod on Synodality'] says, that’s where we should look for the results to expect at the end," said Rev. William Clark, S.J., professor of religious studies. "This is about how the church can be governed in a more cooperative and multifaceted way. There is room specifically made for Catholics’ voices across the board."

The synodal process harkens back to an older form of governance within early Christianity and the Eastern RITE Catholic Churches, according to Mathew Schmalz, professor of religious studies. The current synod began in 2021, when Pope Francis asked each diocese throughout the world to complete an internal reflection and consider what the Church needs in order to fulfill its work. The current session, which opened on Oct. 4 and concludes Oct. 29, is a natural progression of that process.

Mathew Schmalz, professor of religious studies. Photo by Avanell Brock
Mathew Schmalz, professor of religious studies

"Those initial reflections [in 2021] focused on a microcosmic level of individual dioceses. What is happening today is on a macrocosmic level and consideration of how you translate that into broader reflection on part of the Church," Schmalz said.

The inclusion of laity and women in the synod represents a new kind of openness and consideration to reflecting on different views, Schmalz said.

"With Francis’ new openness to try to make the church more inclusive, lay people’s voices are being considered more seriously as resources for how the church should move forward in the future when confronting a number of difficult issues," he said.

According to Fr. Clark, the Pope’s decision to proceed in this manner is a return to an ancient idea of shared responsibility, a principle that needs to be taken more seriously in the Church. Through this, Pope Francis, the leader of more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide, is also showing that he intends to make the synodal process a primary means of governance during his pontificate, Clark said. 

Fr. William Clark, S.J., professor of religious studies, headshot.
Rev. William Clark, S.J., professor of religious studies

"Francis is hoping to demonstrate that a process like this can work for the church and that future specific decisions can be based on the workings of a synod by bringing together many different voices. It’s bringing us closer to the breadth and openness that was initially explored during Vatican II," Clark said.

Not everyone agrees, however. Prior to the start of the October assembly, five cardinals made public a series of dubia, or questions that express doubts about issues to be considered including “interpretation of Divine Revelation, the blessing of same-sex unions, synodality as a constitutive dimension of the Church, the priestly ordination of women, and repentance as a necessary condition for sacramental absolution,” according to the Vatican News.

"The much more conservative bishops and cardinals have been objecting vociferously to what Francis is doing. I think they’re afraid that what’s happening in the synod will be taken as a model for actual legislation in the church," Fr. Clark said. "I’m not sure that the Pope is pointing in that direction, yet. I think he’s hoping that this synod and the way that topics are being discussed, lives out as a cooperative process that could show the way to further developments in the future."

Schmalz agreed, noting he doesn’t think any major changes will come from the current assembly. "But you will see the inauguration of a new approach to church governance that might have deep, long-lasting impacts," he said. "It is fine to talk about all these issues in abstraction, but it is much more meaningful to talk about how they impact the lives of individual Catholics," Schmalz said.