On June 20, 2023, the Vatican released the Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod on Synodality. Described by Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the General Secretariat of the Synod as “the fruit of a Church experience, of a journey in which we all have learnt more by walking together and questioning ourselves on the meaning of this experience,” the document will guide the first of two synod meetings in October 2023. What does the Instrumentum Laboris, and the entire Synod process so far, say about women in the Church and the possibility of women’s ordination to the diaconate?
Diaconal Ministry and Synodality
During the high Middle Ages, the diaconate became increasingly ceremonial, and by the twelfth century the order was primarily a step on the way to priesthood. Coincidentally, the charitable works of the Church faded, even as the need for them increased.
With varying degrees of formality, women and men met these needs, as monks, nuns, hermits, beguines, tertiaries, and anchorites. Ensuing centuries enjoyed more responses, but calls for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent vocation did not garner support at the Council of Trent. Meanwhile, the innovation of apostolic (as opposed to monastic or cloistered) religious life began and grew. Men and women religious took up works to provide diaconal ministries of the liturgy, the word, and charity, especially to the people on the margins.
Today, precious few of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics know what “synodality” means. Yet the creation of orders and institutes of apostolic religious life may present the clearest explanation of “synodality.” Responding to the ministerial needs of the Church, a founder met with a small group of men or women to consider the local needs of the area’s Catholics, such as education, catechesis, social needs, or all of these. They prayed, discussed, and discerned how best to concretize the Gospel message in their own time and place.
That is precisely the process Pope Francis invited the entire Church to begin on October 17, 2021. By August 2022, 112 (of 114) national episcopal conferences sent the results of their synodal discussions to Rome. In late September, a twenty-six-member multilingual writing group considered these along with reports from curial offices, the USG and UISG (organizations of major superiors of men’s and women’s religious orders and institutes), consultations of lay associations assembled by the Dicastery for the Laity, and the “Digital Synod” to create the Document for the Continental Stage. Published in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish in late October 2022, the Document for the Continental Stage asked for the responses of seven continental assemblies. The Instrumentum Laboris synthesizes these responses.
What did this monumental project present? From the outset, it became obvious that the people of God find clericalism a major obstacle to communion, mission, and participation in the life and works of the Church. Diocesan, regional, national, and continental reports mention clericalism in one form or another, often citing the scourge of sexual abuse by clergy and inadequate ecclesial responses at all levels as a reason for general discouragement and disbelief in the synodal process and in the Church itself.