On 17 October, Francis received Sr Jeannine Gramick IBVM, the co-founder of New Ways Ministry, for a 50-minute audience in the Apostolic Palace.
“The meeting was very emotional for me,” Sr Jeannine said, praising Francis for his “humility, his love of the poor and for those shunned by society”.
Sr Jeannine co-founded New Ways Ministry – a Maryland-based LGBTQ Catholic ministry – in 1977 with the late Salvatorian Fr Robert Nugent.
Francis and Sr Jeannine have developed a friendly correspondence since 2021, when Francis wrote to New Ways Ministry Francis describing her as a “valiant woman.” He later sent a handwritten note congratulating her for 50 years of LGBTQ ministry.
“Meeting with Pope Francis is a great encouragement for Sr Jeannine and New Ways Ministry to continue our work in the Catholic Church,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said in a statement.
In 1999, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI who at the time directed the Vatican’s doctrinal office, ordered that Gramick and Nugent be prohibited from pastoral work with LGBTQ persons because of alleged “errors and ambiguities” in their ministry.
On 13 October, Francis also wrote a personal note to Stan “JR” Zerkowski, a gay Catholic man involved in national and local LGBTQ ministry in Kentucky.
Zerkowski told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he had written to Frances to tell him about his experiences and the challenges faced by many who work in LGBTQ ministry, and the Pope had replied two days later.
“For the Holy Father to say thank you for your ministry…it’s affirming the ministry,” said Zerkowski, who added that Francis’ approach to LGBTQ issues “opens the door, maybe, for discussions where discussions could not be had before”.
A Catholic nun has revealed that she secretly blessed a same-sex couple 15 years ago – long before the Pope Francis indicated that same-sex couples could receive blessings – and she’d do it again.
Roman Catholic Sister Anna Koop blessed the couple, one of whom was a personal friend, 15 years ago because they were in love and “Jesus did not say love was confined.”
The 85-year-old told CBS News that she was aware she might face consequences from the Church, but went ahead with with the private blessing anyway. In her own words, she “blessed the love they celebrate”.
Sister Koop, who became a nun in the late 1960s and has spent her career mainly in Denver, focussing on homelessness and poverty, said the Pope’s support of same-sex couple blessings made her feel that her blessing 15 years ago has been supported.
She said she never experienced consequences over the secret blessing and still keeps in touch with the couple. They are still together and have two children.
Sister Koop doesn’t regret her actions.
“I did it once and I would do it again,” she said.
In the Church of England, however, blessing services for same-sex couples may be a considerable way off.
The Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, has said it’s unlikely that such services will take place before 2025.
The delay comes amid what Mullally called a “time of uncertainty” for the Church due to division over the General Synod – the Church of England’s decision-making body – announcing in February it would continue to prevent priests ordaining same-sex marriages, but blessings would be offered instead.
In a move towards increased inclusivity, in January the Church of England formally apologised for its historically “hostile” treatment of LGBTQ+ people.
They make up more than half its membership, they have been denied a say for centuries in the way it is run: but, early next month, women will gather in Rome for a process that they hope can bring the Catholic church’s thinking on female equality into the 21st century.
The central event is a mass listening exercise announced by Pope Francis in 2021, the synod on synodality. Its delegates will meet in Rome throughout October to discern the future direction of key issues in the church; and at the forefront of soundings already taken across the 1.3 billion-strong Catholic church across the globe has been the role of women.
To underline this clamour for change, a consortium of 45 pro-reform Catholic organisations will run their own synod – entitled Spirit Unbounded – alongside the official event: and former Irish president Mary McAleese, who will be among its keynote speakers, says it is crunch time for Francis and his cardinals and bishops. “They have to do something more than a cynical exercise in kicking the can down the road,” she says. “If the cardinals and bishops can be humbled into listening to the people of God, maybe the Holy Spirit will have a chance to bring about change.”
If not, she says, it is hard to see a way forward in a church that has shedded members – certainly in Europe and the west – and been ravaged by abuse scandals, financial misconduct and a dearth of men signing up to become priests.
“The scandals show up the craven stupidity of so many of the members of the magisterium,” says McAleese, who was president of Ireland – a country that bore the brunt of Catholic abuse scandals – from 1997 to 2011. “And, of course, there have always been examples of appalling teaching: but we are in a different generation now, with a highly educated laity who are more than capable of critiquing church teaching,”
Women in particular, she says, are being “driven away”: “They’re seen as second class and they won’t put up with it any more.”
Also addressing the alternative synod will be Cherie Blair, who will tell participants that “the church’s track record on women is at best mixed”, but that it needs to change and should not be afraid to change. “There remains a strong sense that the church does not do enough for women, that its structures and teaching on matters such as birth control and its priorities do not always serve women well,” she says in a pre-recorded video message.
For many, top of the change agenda is female ordination: admitting women first as deacons, and in time as priests. Miriam Duignan of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, one of the organisations taking part in Spirit Unbounded, is expecting hundreds of pro-ordination supporters for a march in central Rome on 6 October, as the synod on synodality gets under way.
Her organisation is also planning some “surprise” events, she says. “In almost every parish in the world where synod discussions took place, from Lesotho to the Philippines to Peru, women were talked about as an area where change is needed,” she says. “The Catholic church doesn’t have enough priests, and yet everyone knows nuns and laywomen who are already doing 90% of the work in the parishes – then they have to stand aside when a priest is needed to say mass.”
She adds. “Right now we’re at a tipping point: it’s clear that women are doing the work of priesthood, and they want to be recognised as priests.”
Despite what’s seemed a hard line against women priests from the Vatican, Duignan says there’s “below the radar” support from many priests and bishops. On demonstrations, she says: “We’ve had priests smiling at us, putting their thumbs up, clapping. One cardinal said ‘brava’ to me.”
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has convened two commissions to look into the question of female deacons. It is widely acknowledged that women served in leadership roles in the early years of the church and, says Duignan, as late as the 15th century women abbesses were hearing confessions and presiding at eucharistic services. But so far, Francis has failed to act. “He has a blind spot where he doesn’t see that the discrimination he speaks out against in wider society also happens in the Catholic Church.”
The official Synod Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, asks synod delegates to consider how women can be better included in the governance, decision-making, mission and ministries at all levels of the church, and asks whether women deacons could be envisaged. Although it doesn’t mention the possibility of female priests, many believe this would follow a decision to admit women to the diaconate, as happened in the Church of England – women were first ordained as deacons in 1987, and as priests in 1994.
Penelope Middleboe of the UK Catholic reform group Root and Branch, one of the lead organisations behind Spirit Unbounded, says the alternative event reflects suspicions about whether the official synod is properly taking laypeople’s views into account.
“In England and Wales, we researched what happened to points raised in the parish discussions, where there were calls for more action on abuse, for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, and for women to be admitted to the priesthood and to leadership roles – but we found these had been watered down by the bishops who filtered them for the report document,” she says.
Freedom to speak, and an ability to listen, are essential ingredients in what happens next, says McAleese: “I believe change is possible, which is why I stay – because many argue that by staying you’re collaborating or colluding with inequality. I feel that myself: but I feel I must stay to nudge the internal debate, and to press for change.”
The Catholic Church is not new to controversy. The institution’s actions prompted The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning spotlight investigation detailing the pedophilic transgressions of Catholic priests and enabling evasive maneuvers of their bishops. However, there are many other scandals involving the church, including more instances of sexual abuse, privacy violations and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
1 Child sex abuse in Pennsylvania
In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a 900-page report detailing 70 years of child sex abuse by the Catholic Church in the state. The report found 300 priests involved in the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 identifiable victims and likely many more that went unreported. The grand jury said the church followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” The New York Times reported.
“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.” The investigation was led by then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is now Pennsylvania’s governor. He said the cover-up “stretched in some cases all the way up to the Vatican,” adding that the church “protected their institution at all costs” and “showed a complete disdain for victims.” The report also prompted investigations in other states, many of which uncovered similar findings.
2 Sex, drugs and nun control
The Bishop of Fort Worth and 10 cloistered nuns in Arlington, Texas, have been at odds in a convoluted scandal, Slate reported. The head of a local convent, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, had a seizure in 2022 requiring medical intervention. While medicated, Gerlach admitted to committing online “sexual sin” with a priest, a violation of her vow of chastity. The information was reported to Bishop Michael Olson, who began a crusade against the nuns, interrogating them and confiscating their devices. Soon, the nuns refused to cooperate, claiming Olson was “traumatizing” them.
Things escalated further, with Olson threatening to dismiss the nuns from their Carmelite order, and the nuns then suing Olson for violating their privacy and defamation. The nuns’ lawyer also called in the police to investigate Olson, prompting Olson’s office to release photos by a “confidential informant” taken in the nuns’ monastery showing “marijuana edibles, a bong and other drug paraphernalia.” The nuns claimed that the photo was staged and that Olson was trying to shut the monastery down to seize their property.
The conflict is still ongoing and the nuns have rejected Olson’s authority over them, despite Vatican intervention. “Every action he has taken with regard to us has proven to be devious and deceptive, marked by falsehood and an intent to persecute us,” the nuns wrote.
3 Art, abuse and Marko Rupnik
Slovenian priest Marko Rupnik was expelled from the Jesuits in June 2023 for “sexually, spiritually and psychologically abusing women” for decades, The Associated Press reported. However, Rupnik is also a famous Catholic mosaic artist whose work is in chapels all over the world, including the U.S. This has sparked debate as to whether his art should be removed or whether people should separate the art from the artist.
“The good of art is in the work of art itself,” argued the Rev. Patrick Briscoe in Our Sunday Visitor. “If we say anything else, we concede that art is, of itself and in fact, ideological.” On the other side, the victims of Rupnik’s abuse and other abuse survivors are calling for the art to be removed. “His artwork should be removed, as a testimony to the entire church, and as a witness, that there are consequences to perpetrating abuse,” clerical abuse victim Gina Barthel told The Pillar.
4 Child sex abuse in Baltimore
In April 2023, Maryland’s attorney general released a report outlining the sexual abuse of children and teenagers over six decades by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, The New York Times reported. The 463-page report identifies 156 abusers (10 of whose names are redacted) connected to the church, mostly men who served as priests, who abused more than 600 children dating back to the 1940s.
The report “illustrates the depraved, systemic failure of the archdiocese to protect the most vulnerable — the children it was charged to keep safe,” Attorney General Anthony Brown said. Archbishop William Lori, head of the Baltimore archdiocese — the oldest diocese in the U.S. — said in a statement he sees “the pain and destruction that was perpetrated by representatives of the church and perpetuated by the failures that allowed this evil to fester, and I am deeply sorry.”
5 The outing of a top priest
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, secretary-general of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was forced to resign from his position in 2021 because he was found to have downloaded the gay dating app Grindr and frequently visited gay bars. However, there was controversy in the the way this information was discovered. Catholic news site The Pillar outed Burrill using “commercially available data to trace his calls, movements and behavior since 2018,” The Atlantic reported.
The manner in which The Pillar outed Burrill bothered many people more than his evident breaking of his vow of celibacy. “The use of app-based location tracking data to make public that which someone assumed would remain private should be chilling to any American with a smartphone,” remarked Catholic journal America Magazine. In addition, The Pillar “missed no opportunity to mention … charges that Grindr and other ‘hookup apps’ are used to facilitate sex with minors,” The Atlantic added, essentially conflating homosexuality with pedophilia, despite an acknowledged lack of any evidence that Burrill was in contact with any minors.
6 The prosecution of McCarrick
The Vatican expelled former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood in 2019 for sexually abusing minors. In 2021, he was officially charged in Massachusetts with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy in the 1970s, making him “the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in the United States to face criminal charges in the clergy sexual abuse scandal,” The Boston Globe reported. McCarrick pleaded not guilty.
However, McCarrick, now 93, had the charges dismissed in August 2023 due to “age-related incompetence,” with the judge determining he was not mentally fit to stand trial, CNN reported. “In spite of the criminal court’s decision today, many clergy sexual abuse victims feel as though former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is and will always be the permanent personification of evil within the Catholic Church,” said the victim’s lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian.
When Pope Francis called two years ago for a worldwide discussion among rank-and-file Catholics about the main challenges and issues facing the church, the question of women’s ministry and leadership echoed loudly in parishes and bishops’ assemblies.
The question is resounding more loudly as the summit of bishops and lay Catholics known as the Synod on Synodality, scheduled for October, draws near. Participants and observers alike recognize that any conversation about reforming church hierarchy or promoting lay involvement, Francis’ twin goals for the synod, has to include honest exchanges about the role of women.
“It’s not just one issue among others that you can tease out,” said Casey Stanton, co-director of Discerning Deacons, a group committed to promoting dialogue about the female diaconate in the church. “It’s actually kind of at the heart of the synod and we need to take a step forward that is meaningful, and that people can see and feel in their communities.”
Stanton believes that opening the door for women to become deacons — allowing them to oversee some aspects of the Mass but not consecrate the Eucharist or perform other duties reserved for priests such as anointing the sick — could send an important signal to Catholics that the Vatican is listening to their concerns.
The upcoming synod already gives a greater role to women, who will be allowed to vote for the first time in any such meeting. Of the 364 voting participants, mostly bishops, more than 50 will be women. But women were never the intended focus of the synod, a project Francis hoped would inspire discussion of a “new way of being church,” which was interpreted to mean a focus on church power structures and rethinking the privilege enjoyed by clergy.
But by the end of the last phase of the synod, when gatherings of bishops divided by continents examined the topics brought up at the grassroots level, it was clear that the question of women had taken center stage. The document that emerged from those discussions, with the telling title “Enlarge Your Tent,” spoke to the “almost unanimous affirmation” to raise the role of women in the church.
The document described the peripheral role played by women in the church as a growing issue that impacted the function of the clergy and how power is exercised in the historically male-led institution. While it made no mention of female ordination to the priesthood, it did suggest that the diaconate might answer a need to recognize the ministry already offered by women all over the world.
“It’s remarkable the shared cry that came through in ‘Enlarge the Space of Your Tent’ around the deep connection between creating a new synodal path in the church and a church that more fully receives the gifts that women bring,” Stanton said.
When, in June, the Vatican issued its “instrumentum laboris,” or working document that will guide the discussion at the synod, it explicitly asked: “Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?”
Attributing the question to the continental assemblies and avoiding the words “ministry” and “ordination” in asking it, said Miriam Duignan, co-director of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, constituted a “preemptive strike” against open discussion of priestly ordination.
This avoids a direct challenge to the Vatican, which has shut down the possibility of women’s ordination many times.
In 1976, the Pontifical Biblical Commission established that Scripture did not prevent the ordination of women and voted that female priests did not contradict Christ’s vision for the church. But soon after, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, intervened to state that the church was not authorized to ordain women.
Pope John Paul II had the final word on the issue when he definitively stated that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women,” in his 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (“Priestly Ordination”).
Francis and synod organizers have emphasized that the synod has no intention of opening that door. “For the Catholic Church at this moment, from an official point of view, it’s not an open question,” said Sr. Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary at the Vatican’s synod office, in an interview.
The question of the female diaconate, however, remained open. Pope Benedict XVI changed canon law in 2009 to clarify the distinction between priests and bishops, who act as representatives of Christ, and deacons, who “serve the People of God in the diaconates of the liturgy, of the Word and of charity.”
“Benedict predicted that the call for women priests and ministry was going to get stronger and stronger,” Duignan told Religion News Service on July 25 in a phone interview.
The demand for women deacons was an underlying topic during Francis’ previous synods on young people, the family and the Amazonian region. Francis created a commission to study the possibility of women deacons in 2016, and when no clear results emerged, he instituted another in April 2020.
According to Duignan, the commissions were “set up to fail,” since a decision on the matter required a unanimous vote. While it’s undeniable that women deacons existed in the early and pre-medieval church, theologians and historians remain divided on whether women were ordained deacons or if they occupied the role in a more informal way.
“There were women deacons in the past. We could do it again,” Stanton said. “Let’s just settle that.”
The division on the question means that Francis will likely have to decide. “Our prediction is that there is going to be a bit of a stalemate between those bishops who fear a diaconate role for women, and those who say now it’s the time, let’s give them the diaconate,” Duignan said.
Advocates for female deacons hope the pope will finally welcome the demand felt by many Catholic women. “For many young people it has become untenable,” Stanton said, “an obstacle to feeling the gospel.”
The pope could leave the decision to individual bishops, which would create a patchwork of policies. Stanton, who has witnessed many experiments for new ministries for women, said that while one bishop may open new opportunities for women, the issue will “wither on the vine” if another bishop doesn’t see it as a priority.
In the end, she added, “it’s one cleric getting to determine the scope of a woman’s vocation and ministries.”
“There were women deacons in the past. We could do it again. Let’s just settle that.”
— Casey Stanton
Historically, the path to priestly ordination follows the steps of lector, acolyte and deacon. In January 2021, Francis allowed women to become lectors and acolytes; a decision in favor of female deacons could signal a cautious opening for the cause of women priests.
“The glacial pace for change in the modern Catholic Church means we have to accept any steps forward as progress,” Duignan said. The female diaconate would in her opinion offer some recognition for the women who catechize, evangelize and assist faithful all over the world.
“Once they start seeing women at the altar in an official role and seem to be leading the Mass there will be more calls for women priests,” she added.
Advocacy groups such as Women’s Ordination Worldwide will be in Rome in October to make their demands known through vigils, marches and conferences. The Synod on Synodality will draw the attention not just of Catholics but women everywhere, putting the question of female leadership in the church and beyond in the spotlight.
“The women are coming,” Duignan said. What remains unknown is whether the Vatican is prepared.