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Pope Francis says women can now vote on a Vatican panel that was exclusively male


Pope Francis is inviting women to add their voices to the Synod of Bishops. That does not mean he is allowing women to be bishops or priests, but it is still a move that groups like the Women's Ordination Conference have been calling for. Kate McElwee is the conference's director, and she joins us now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

KATE MCELWEE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The Synod of Bishops, of course, advises the pontiff on various issues. How many women will now be included, and who are they?

MCELWEE: Pope Francis has restructured how the church makes decisions, and he has called for 70 non-bishop members to participate in an upcoming meeting in Rome this October. So he suggested that half of those 70 be women and that they be able to vote alongside men in the room.

SIMON: And any idea who those women will be?

MCELWEE: Not yet. I think out of - each of the seven continents is advised to suggest 10 candidates to - who will join the meeting in Rome. So we'll see. I think that process is underway now.

SIMON: How do you think the presence of women in the room might change deliberations?

MCELWEE: You know, I think it's extremely important that women are not just in their room, but have a vote and a voice, and particularly at this meeting. This synod in October is a time when the church will be confronting some of the most urgent issues, such as women in ministry, LGBTQ rights, climate change. And so having women and people who have experienced marginalization or just have a diverse perspective - I think having them in the room as equals is incredibly important for the church to consider.

SIMON: Yeah. Less than a year ago, you and some of your members were detained at the Vatican for protesting a meeting of cardinals.

MCELWEE: Yes. In - just in August, I was actually detained at the Vatican for protesting against a meeting of cardinals, which is, of course, only men. And again, this was a meeting where men were discussing the future of the church without any women present. And so seven of us held red paper parasols with messages like it's raining men or ordain women, and then we were detained for four hours by Vatican police.

SIMON: Do you think you had an impact?

MCELWEE: I think so. I think the overreach of the Vatican police and the media coverage that followed really got our call out there. I think it's really an injustice and something that people recognize as wrong, that only men are meeting behind closed doors to talk about the future of the church, which, of course, includes women. And so I think we do make an impact. I believe in public witness and advocacy. And we see the success of that, particularly with the voting rights for Catholic women.

In 2018, we organized a witness outside of the Vatican calling for voting rights for women. We were harassed by police. I was manhandled and nearly arrested, and that really changed the agenda. We launched a petition quickly after, but the media and soon bishops and members of the synod were talking about this issue. It became so mainstream that just a few years later, and really just a few years in Catholic years, women are able to vote at these meetings. So something that was so taboo and kind of controversial just a few years ago is now - we see that change, that paradigm shift in the Catholic Church.

SIMON: Well, may I ask, why are you still a Catholic?

MCELWEE: The Catholic Church is my spiritual home. It's where I've - you know, I've experienced a lot of joy and community. And, you know, I think it's where I can have an impact. I - it's my place. And, you know, I'm just getting started and working for gender equality in the Catholic Church. And so I think this is a - it's an important place to be, and it's where I find my spiritual strength and support.

SIMON: Pope Francis says that there are important positions that women can play in the church that don't require ordination. I wonder how you feel about that.

MCELWEE: Yeah. Pope Francis has made significant moves to separate management from ministry in the Catholic Church. And so he has appointed women to positions that women have never held before in the Catholic Church. And through an updated constitution for the Vatican, he has opened almost all positions that were formerly reserved for cardinals, for instance. Now any layperson can serve in those positions. So it's extremely important that women, you know, start to rise through the ranks of the Vatican in managerial positions. But there's still a gap for women in ministry. And so while that door is closed, we know - so far, we know that it's on the hearts and minds of Catholics around the world.

SIMON: Kate McElwee of the Women's Ordination Conference.

Thank you so much for being with us.

MCELWEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.