ROME — When Francis became pope a decade ago, his inclusive tone and openness to change fueled expectations among many Catholic women about a greater role for them in the Roman Catholic Church.
The contribution of women should not be limited “to altar girls or the president of a charity,” he said in a 2013 news conference aboard the papal plane. “There must be more.”
Francis remains adamant in his opposition to ordaining women as priests and cautious about making women deacons. But on Wednesday he took what may be his most important step to give women a greater voice in the church. He approved changes that will for the first time allow women and lay people to vote at a major meeting of bishops that the pope has repeatedly made clear will be a central deliberative body to help him determine the future of the church.
That meeting, set to begin next October, will focus on better engaging the faithful as the church moves forward and is expected to take on major issues such as the role of women in the church and L.G.B.T.Q. relationships. It will now include an additional 70 non-bishop voting members, half of whom the pope wants to be women. The proportion of women voters overall would be just over 10 percent.
“It’s an important change,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, a top organizer of the meeting of bishops, called a synod. “It’s not a revolution.”
The rules change, while seemingly procedural, amounts to a concrete shift toward the democratization of the church, a central tenet of the Francis papacy that views the abuse of power in an aloof hierarchy as the cause of many of the church’s problems. Conservatives have for a decade now warned that Francis’ efforts to open up the church would dilute its traditions and expose it to secular ideology.
Conservatives saw the rules presented Wednesday as further evidence of that erosion. But those who support expanded roles for women said Francis had finally delivered real change after years of being urged.
“It’s an incredible development in the church’s history and something that we’re celebrating as a significant crack in the stained-glass ceiling,” said Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, who said it was very encouraging to see a “growing trend toward gender parity in the synod hall.”
The change, however, does not mean that Francis himself has had a conversion on the more fundamental issues that remain important to women’s advocates in the church.
He has spoken in sometimes folksy terms about women’s contributions — once calling a group of female theologians the “strawberry on the cake” — in ways that some have found diminishing or demeaning.
But he has also evolved, steadily giving women more of a voice inside both local parishes and the Vatican bureaucracy that governs the church.
In 2022, he added women to the committee that advises him on picking the world’s bishops. In 2021, Francis amended the church’s laws so that women could be Bible readers at Mass, serve at the altar and distribute communion — practices already common in many countries.
But for years, some lay Catholics have wanted more — especially for more women to be included in its synodal meetings, which are vital under Francis, who believes in a collegial process before making big changes.
Some church analysts see the upcoming bishops’ meeting from Oct. 4 to 29, known as the “Synod on Synodality,” as a major event, comparable to a mini version of the Second Vatican Council, dear to Francis, that modernized the church in the 1960s.
For two years the church has surveyed lay members around the globe about changes they would like to see in the church to better fit their needs. The pope’s liberal supporters are hoping that he will use the meetings and the votes of all participants on major issues to inform decisions to bring about real change on issues ranging from allowing some married men in remote areas to become priests, to permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.
But the composition of the voting body has long been a source of conflict.
In 2018, a petition that called for the inclusion of nuns as voting members in a synod on youth in the church gained nearly 10,000 signatures. Some liberal Catholic activists staged protests at the Vatican demanding that the female participants at that meeting be given the right to vote “as equals alongside their brothers in Christ.”
In the 2019 special synod for countries in the Amazon region, which broached the issue of allowing married men to become priests, women took part as observers, but could not vote.
The new norms presented by the Vatican Wednesday also stipulated that 10 male representatives of various Catholic religious orders voting in the synod would be replaced by five male clerics and five nuns with voting rights. One of the synod’s two undersecretaries, Nathalie Becquart, a nun, can now also vote.
“All those who participate in the synod will vote,” Francis told the Argentine newspaper La Nacion in an interview last month. “Whether male or female. Everyone, everyone. That word everyone for me is key.”
The pope can also add other participants, according to the new rules.
Key to the changes approved by Francis is an expansion of the participants to include lay people as voting members, reflecting Francis’ vision for a greater role for the rank-and-file faithful in their churches, rather than leaving all decision-making in the hands of the hierarchy of priests, bishops and cardinals.
“In the synod, lay men and women will also have the right to vote” read a headline on Vatican News, the church’s official outlet.
“It’s church changing. It is paradigm changing, it is literally restructuring one of the most important ways that the church makes decisions and looks at pastoral issues within the church,” said Deborah Rose, co-director of Future Church, an organization seeking greater involvement of laypeople.
“There will be times we are disappointed because he won’t follow through as he has decreed,” she added. “Nonetheless, what he has done is open a dam and opened a door, and I think there’s no going back.”
Conservative critics of Francis, some of whom disdain the synod on synodality as a bureaucratic circus that undercuts the majesty of the church, excoriated the new rules as a Trojan Horse for a liberal ideological invasion of the church.
“It is clear that Pope Francis” and the cardinals leading the synod “are trying, in every way, to bring into this institution all those people who have an interest in disrupting the church for their own personal ambitions,” read a post on the conservative Catholic site Silere non possum. “No longer finding many bishops willing to trample on Christ’s teaching, they are now turning to ambitious lay people.”
But even the generally liberal Cardinals who spoke about the new rules on Wednesday insisted that the overwhelming influence of the synod remained in the hands of the bishops known as “synodal fathers.”
“The 70 new members are 21 percent of the assembly, which remains an assembly of bishops,” Cardinal Hollerich, archbishop of Luxembourg, told reporters, declining to speak for the women when asked how they would refer to themselves.
Cardinal Mario Grech, another top synod official, doubled down.
“The Synod will remain a Synod of Bishops,” he said, though one enriched by the participation of lay members.
But Ms. McElwee, who still hopes women will one day be ordained as priests, believed the “inclusion of women in this sort of significant way will change the church, will create new conversations and new ways of making decisions within the church.”