Though change may still be gradual, several women attending a seminar on delicate church problems expressed hope from the conversations that are occurring.

Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler, a proponent of women being ordained, expressed doubts that the Vatican, which has been run by males for two millennia, would be receptive to her perspective when she attended a significant gathering this month.

Approximately 300 bishops from throughout the globe convened, and nuns and seventy laypersons—many of them women—were granted voting privileges for the first time. Pope Francis summoned it to address a number of delicate issues, such as married priests, the blessing of homosexual couples, sacraments for divorced and remarried people, and the place of women in the Roman Catholic Church.

As the private meeting draws to a close on October 29, Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler expressed her joyful surprise. She added that several religious leaders, including cardinals, bishops, and priests, publicly backed the rise of women. Some even supported ordaining women to the position of deacon.

Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler reported that there had been “really good discussions” and that “it hasn’t been the women against the bishops and cardinals.” That isn’t it.

For years, Catholic women have been demanding more equality and influence over church operations. Although support is growing for various sorts of advancement, the ordination of women as deacons, let alone priests, continues to face strong opposition. Although only priests are authorised to conduct Mass, deacons are ordained ministers who can preach and officiate marriages, funerals, and christenings.

Pope Francis has the last say over such a significant decision, and it is unlikely that he will alter anything following this month’s gathering, officially known as the Synod on Synodality, which will meet again in October for a final phase.

Making women deacons, according to critics, is a step towards making them priests, which would go against two millennia of church teaching and threaten the authority of the church.

In an interview conducted on the eve of the synod in which he is participating, Cardinal Gerhard Müller stated that women cannot be ordained via the sacraments as deacons, presbyters, priests, or bishops. He went on, saying that no pope “can decide something different without undermining the authority of the teachings.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler, who works for a Swiss Catholic charity organisation, claimed that the synod’s debates demonstrated an apparent increase in support for the notion that women had to be given more recognition and a bigger role in local churches.

In many nations where there is a scarcity of priests, women fill ministerial vacancies by managing parishes and performing pastoral duties. They also serve in the Church’s hospitals, schools, and charitable organisations. However, they ultimately serve a masculine hierarchy.

The role of women became apparent as a critical problem throughout the two-year process of canvassing Catholics worldwide, which started in 2021 and culminated in this month’s gathering.

“Questions of women’s participation and recognition” were listed as priority by survey respondents, who also stated that “the desire for a greater presence of women in positions of responsibility and governance emerged as crucial elements.”

The church must reject “all forms of discrimination and exclusion faced by women in the Church,” according to the working draught for the summit, which participants have been using as an agenda for talks.

In addition, a number of national and international polls recommended that women’s deaconship be taken into account. “Can this be envisioned, and if so, how?” the working paper inquired.

It remains to be seen if the discussions held in the synod hall will result in concrete suggestions for reform.

Throughout his ten years as pope, Pope Francis has let some women in. In 2020, Francis sent out a papal letter advocating for increased formal positions for women in the church. A year later, in 2021, he amended the legislation to officially let women to serve as altar servers, deliver communion, and read passages from the Bible during Mass.

In a move applauded by women’s organisations, Francis also nominated Sister Nathalie Becquart of France as one of the synod’s senior officials. Francis has also put women in a number of Vatican ministries.

However, some detractors have written off women’s positions and participation in the synod as just decorative elements. “The gender imbalance at the core of the Church is highlighted by the inclusion of a small cohort of women, which has received a lot of attention,” stated Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, during a progressive Catholic summit held in Rome last week. “Equality is not a favour; it is a right. The ladies present in the Synod on Synodality are not there by right; they are there as a favour.

Proponents of women’s empowerment recognise that the church’s leadership, not merely conservative members, is deeply resistant to significant changes in the position of women. However, others counter that more formal adjustments are required for the church to survive since societal changes are already being felt by Catholics on the periphery and will only intensify.

Well-known American feminist, scholar, and nun Sister Joan Chittister observed, “Clearly, the church is changing from the ground up, even while it reasserts its changelessness.” Sister Chittister has long called on the Church to empower women and laypeople. Last week, during her keynote address at a progressive gathering dubbed an alternative synod, she cried out, “If the people of God will lead, eventually leaders will follow.”

During this month’s synod, theologian Catherine Clifford, who teaches systematic and historical theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, reported that it had been “a challenge, at times, to impress upon some of the bishops the urgent need for substantial change concerning women’s inclusion in leadership, ministries, and instances of decision-making” inside the hall.

She stated in an email that “there is a weight of inertia to be overcome, even though there is a surprising openness to consider these matters.”

Even among women, there are still significant differences regarding the ordination of women as deacons.

The dean of the University of Notre Dame Australia’s School of Philosophy and Theology, Renée Köhler-Ryan, expressed her scepticism regarding the ordination of women deacons to reporters, saying that the topic had received “too much emphasis.” She claimed that it “detracts from all of the other things that we could be doing.”

Others, such as Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler, expressed optimism over the church’s future and the place of women within it.

Ms. Jeppesen-Spuhler remarked, “I feel like everything is really on the table.” How far will we go and if we will actually take more tangible action is the question. The intriguing part is that, yet I feel very good.