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Conscience Magazine

The Church and Women: Mixed Messages from Vatican on Future of Women in the Church

May 6, 2021
Xaviere Missionary Sister Nathalie
Becquart, one of two undersecretaries
to the Synod of Bishops,
attends a news conference at the
Vatican Oct. 9, 2018. Sister Becquart
was one of the speakers invited by
the Australian Embassy to the Holy
See to mark International Women’s
Day March 8 with a webinar.

EARLY 2021 WITNESSED A flurry of contradictory statements and actions by the Vatican on the future of women’s leadership in the church. Announcing that he would permanently replace the words “lay men” with “lay persons” in Canon 230, Pope Francis officially recognized the right of women to assist at Mass and with the sacraments, as well to distribute Communion and read at Mass. While many have supported the change as a step forward, in light of the fact that women have been performing these duties for decades in many countries, some critics view it as the dodging of larger issues. In 2016, Pope Francis initiated a commission to study the history of women serving as deacons in the early church. Though the commission submitted its report to Francis in 2019, the contents have not been released to the public, and women are still barred from deaconship.

In early February, the pontiff installed Sister Nathalie Becquart as co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops. A member of the Congregation of Xavières, Becquart will play an active role in organizing worldwide Synods of bishops. Many expect that this will allow Becquart to be the first woman with the right to vote in a synod, fulfilling a long-held dream for Catholic women throughout the world. As with changes to Canon 230, observers of the church are split along the same lines for virtually the same reasons. Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, said she was “moderately pleased” with the result. Though some members of the church hierarchy, were more positive, in a terse and vague statement, Cardinal Mario Grech suggested that Becquart’s voting rights are still only a “possibility.”

Regarding the eminent issue for women’s role within Church hierarchy, however, potentially troubling signs emerged from the Vatican. Close on the heels of the announcement about Becquart, on Feb. 8 the Vatican accepted the resignation of Bishop Denis Theurillat of Basel, Switzerland. While the bishop claims to have stepped down five years before the customary retirement age, citing an injury the previous year, recent events have led some to question this as the sole cause of departure. In September 2020, Theurillat shocked much of the hierarchy by publicly announcing that a council should be held to decide upon the issue of the ordination of women. “The facts are on the table,” Theurillat said, “the time is ripe. All the bishops in the world should come together and decide: yes or no.” While Theurillat claims that his resignation was exclusively due to personal concerns, the close timing and loss of such a high-profile advocate for women’s ordination has many worried.