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By the numbers: How the Catholic Church has changed during Pope Francis’ pontificate

Pope Francis at his weekly Wednesday audience in St. Peter's Square June 26, 2019. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

St. Louis, Mo., Mar 13, 2023 / 03:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis was elected to the papacy 10 years ago, on March 13, 2013. How has the worldwide Catholic Church changed since then?

Statistically speaking, the Church has grown, keeping pace with and even exceeding overall world population growth. The total number of Catholics worldwide grew from ​​1.253 billion in 2013 to 1.378 billion in 2021, an increase of nearly 10%. During the same period, the world’s population as a whole grew by 9.1%, according to the World Bank.

Despite this increase, the Church performed 2 million fewer baptisms in 2020 than in 2013. The number of marriages declined by 702,246, or nearly a third. Confirmations and first Communions also dropped by 12% and 13%, respectively, despite relatively stable levels of Mass attendance in the world’s 13 most Catholic countries.

A Catholic researcher told CNA this week that the biggest likely reason for this drop in participation in the sacraments is not hard to guess — three of the 10 years of Francis’ pontificate have been marked by the worldwide effects of a pandemic. But that’s not the only reason, he says.

“I don’t know if the Catholic world has changed as much as just the world [in general] has changed,” Mark Gray, senior researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, told CNA.

“The Church and Pope Francis and bishops have had to try to navigate their way through some really challenging demographic changes as well as the pandemic. And the Catholic Church has come out of these better than many other Christian denominations. So there’s good news there, but there’s still a lot to weather. There’s a headwind, I would say, against the Church.”

The drop in participation in the sacraments worldwide is not due only to the pandemic, he cautioned, but rather is part of a much larger demographic trend worldwide of declining births. According to the World Bank’s world development indicators, life expectancies at birth have been increasing globally from 51 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2020. At the same time, Gray wrote, the birth rate per 1,000 people has fallen from 32 in 1960 to 17 in 2020.

“The number of births is expected to decline annually into the foreseeable future, eventually being outnumbered by deaths in 2085, according to U.N. projections,” Gray wrote in a March 9 blog post.

“The population will grow in the decades ahead as life expectancies continue to increase but at the same time births will decline and that will result in fewer baptisms, fewer first Communions, fewer students, and yes even fewer marriages annually just by the numbers of the demographic shift we are experiencing.”

Gray wrote that the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, which prevented Catholics around the world from accessing the sacraments for a time, will likely take years to fully quantify. He also cautioned that two of the most authoritative sources for the number of Catholics have significant lags in their data. The most recent full dataset contained in the current edition of the Vatican’s Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae is for 2020, though the Vatican’s newspaper published a summary of the 2021 statistics earlier this month. The Official Catholic Directory, which covers the United States, goes up to 2021.

“Any impact, positive or negative, Pope Francis may have had will be overshadowed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when our most current data represents 2020 and 2021,” Gray wrote.

“We know looking at Church data for these years we are going to see lower levels of Mass attendance and sacramental practice with the impact of lockdowns, restrictions, and hesitancy for people to gather in crowds in enclosed spaces during those two years.”

Other statistical indicators present a mixed picture of the Church’s growth in some areas and recession in others. For example, the total number of students in Catholic schools is up by 7.3% since 2013.

“One of the really bright signs for the Church is growth in Catholic education globally; more of the world’s youth are being educated in Catholic schools than they have in years and decades past,” Gray noted to CNA.

The number of diocesan priests worldwide appears to be virtually unchanged in the decade of Pope Francis’ pontificate, while the number of religious priests dipped only slightly. The number of religious sisters worldwide suffered a larger drop of nearly 11%.

According to the Vatican, however, the number of seminarians worldwide has been decreasing since 2013. The 2021 report shows the number of seminarians across the globe decreased by 1.8% since 2020. The sharpest declines were in North America and Europe, where the number of seminarians decreased by 5.8% on both continents.

Despite overall growth in the number of Catholics worldwide, that growth has not been evenly distributed. Overall, Africa has a higher baptism rate than Europe and a far higher rate of Mass attendance in countries with large Catholic populations. Another recent analysis by CARA found that Nigeria, Kenya, and Lebanon have the highest proportion of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more, with Nigeria as the clear leader. Ninety-four percent of Catholics in Nigeria say they attend Mass at least weekly. In Kenya, the figure was 73%, and in Lebanon it was 69%. In comparison, countries like Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are all under 15%.

In addition, Africa bucks the trend of declining vocations by showing an increase in seminarians and religious brothers, according to the 2021 Vatican statistics. Africa also saw the only increase in seminarians and religious brothers across the globe from 2020-2021, at 0.6%. The number of religious brothers in Africa increased by 2.2% during the same time frame.

Pope Francis has made pastoral attention to Africa a priority of late, making a visit to the heavily Catholic Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan last month to an enthusiastic welcome.

Focusing on the United States — where a mere 5% of the world’s Catholics live — the picture is a bit less optimistic. In contrast to the stable numbers of the world as a whole, the number of diocesan priests in the U.S. dropped 8% from 2013 to 2021. There are 27% fewer sisters, 19% fewer brothers, and 15% fewer religious priests compared with a decade ago, though the number of permanent deacons has increased slightly, by 3%. Gray said the United States disproportionately relies on immigrant priests to address its own shortages.

Additionally, according to the General Social Survey, weekly Mass attendance among Catholics in the U.S. declined from 25% in 2012 to 17% in 2020-2021. The drop in sacramental participation in the U.S. — baptisms, marriages, etc. — mirrors the global trends.

As well, “since 2013, we’ve lost more than 1,000 parishes through reorganizations and closures,” Gray noted.

“Daily prayer declined from 59% to 51% from 2012 to 2020-2021. Unlike Mass attendance, one can pray at home and this should not have been affected by the pandemic. If anything, one might think Catholics would be praying more often during that time.”

Gray again cautioned that there are much larger demographic and social changes going on in the U.S. — and in the world at large — than can be attributed solely to Pope Francis’ leadership.

“No one should be giving Pope Francis a 10-year report card based on the most current data available,” he concluded.

“And when more comparable post-COVID-19 data are available, any ‘grades’ given for changes in the number of sacraments celebrated should be considered within the context of what is happening demographically across the globe.”

Speaking with CNA, he added: “It’s hard to make this comparison [between 2013 and 2023] because we have these lags in the data … We’ll know more in a couple of years when the data catches up with us.”

‘Not an easy job’: Pope Francis asks for prayers on 10th anniversary as pope

Pope Francis at his general audience in Paul VI Hall on Feb. 15, 2023. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Mar 12, 2023 / 11:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis asked for prayers as he spoke about the future of the Church and his pontificate so far in an interview published in the early hours of Sunday.

Speaking to the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, Francis declined to evaluate his pontificate so far, saying the Lord will judge his life one day based on whether he practiced the Corporal Works of Mercy as taught by Jesus.

“The Church is not a business, or an NGO, and the pope is not an administrator who has been commissioned to balance the numbers at the end of the year,” he said, according to an English transcript published on Il Fatto Quotidiano March 12.

The interview, one in a slew of recent papal interviews to be published, marks the March 13 anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy.

“Being the pope is not an easy job. Nobody has studied before doing this,” the pope said, recalling how St. Peter also “fell” when he denied Christ.

“But, after the resurrection, Jesus chose [Peter] again,” Pope Francis explained. “That is the mercy of the Lord towards us. Also towards the pope. ‘Servus inutilis sum.’ I’m a useless servant, as wrote Saint Paul VI in his ‘Thoughts on Death.’”

According to the pope, it’s not easy to pay attention to God’s will and put it into practice: “It’s necessary to attune yourself with the Lord, not with the world.”

The latest papal interview centered on Pope Francis’ hopes for the future of the Church, the world, and his own life.

He said the “governing program” of his pontificate was to implement the requests of the College of Cardinals’ general congregation, the meetings that took place ahead of the conclave that elected him.

He also said that back in 2013, he reflected often on a quote from the homily of the first Mass of Pope Benedict XVI.

On April 24, 2005, Benedict said: “In this moment it’s not necessary for me to present a governing program. … My true governing program is that which doesn’t follow my own will, to not pursue my own ideas, but to listen, alongside all of the Church, to the words and the will of the Lord and let myself be guided by him, so that he himself guides the Church in this hour of our history.”

Francis also credited Benedict XVI with tackling the abuse crisis in the Church with courage.

Asked about his wish for the world, Pope Francis responded: “peace.”

He also criticized what he called a “globalization of indifference” in the face of tragedies like war: “The turning a blind eye and saying, ‘Why should I care? It doesn’t interest me! It’s not my problem!’”

Francis said one of his dreams for the future of the Church is a Church which ventures out into the world and is among the people.

He also addressed the topic of clericalism.

“I dream of a Church without clericalism,” he said, quoting Cardinal Henri-Marie de Lubac.

Lubac wrote that for a priest, clericalism “would be infinitely more disastrous than any simple moral worldliness,” the pope said.

“Clericalism is the worst thing that can happen to the Church, worse still than the periods in which the pope was corrupt,” he added. “A priest, a bishop or a cardinal who becomes ill through clericalism does a lot of damage to the Church. It’s a contagious disease. Even worse are the clericalized lay people: they are a nuisance in the Church. Lay people should be lay people.”

Pope Francis said one issue that has made him suffer a lot during his pontificate is corruption.

“I’m not speaking about only financial corruption, inside and outside of the Vatican, I’m talking about corruption of the heart. Corruption is a scandal,” he said.

His hope for his own future, he said, is that the Lord will be merciful with him.

Addressing readers of the newspaper, he asked for prayers from those who pray and “good vibes” from those who do not. “The pope loves you and is praying for you.”

“Even if bad things happen, even if you have had a bad experience with someone from the Church, don’t let it condition you. The Lord is always waiting for you with open arms. I hope you succeed in experiencing it within your lives like I have within mine many times. The Lord has always been beside me, above all in the darkest moments.”

Pope Francis: People are looking for ‘an oasis in the Church’

Pope Francis gives the Angelus address on March 12, 2023. / Vatican Media.

Vatican City, Mar 12, 2023 / 06:37 am (CNA).

People are looking for an oasis in the Catholic Church from which to slake the thirst left by busyness, indifference, and consumerism, Pope Francis said on Sunday.

The pope’s March 12 Angelus message, delivered from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, focused on the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, specifically his request to her to “give me a drink.”

“This Sunday,” Francis said to approximately 20,000 people gathered in the square, “the Gospel presents us one of the most beautiful and fascinating encounters Jesus has.”

Jesus’ request for water to the Samaritan woman “is an image of God’s abasement,” he said. “God abases himself in Jesus, God made himself one of us — he abased himself — [made himself] thirsty like us. He suffers our same thirst.”

Crowds watch Pope Francis' Angelus address and prayer on March 12, 2023. Vatican Media
Crowds watch Pope Francis' Angelus address and prayer on March 12, 2023. Vatican Media

Pope Francis said the words of Jesus, “give me a drink,” also teach us about our obligation to help others in need, whether materially or emotionally.

“How many say give me a drink to us — in our family, many at work, many in other places we find ourselves. They thirst for closeness, for attention, for a listening ear. People say it who thirst for the Word of God and need to find an oasis in the Church where they can drink,” he said.

“Give me a drink,” the pope added, “is a cry from our society, where the frenetic pace, the rush to consume, and above all indifference — this culture of indifference — generate aridity and interior emptiness.”

“And — let us not forget this — give me a drink is the cry of many brothers and sisters who lack the water to live, while our common home continues to be polluted and defaced. And it, too, exhausted and parched, ‘is thirsty,’” he said.

However, Jesus shares the world’s thirst, Pope Francis emphasized.

Crowds watch Pope Francis' Angelus address and prayer on March 12, 2023. Vatican Media
Crowds watch Pope Francis' Angelus address and prayer on March 12, 2023. Vatican Media

“In fact, Jesus’ thirst is not only physical,” he explained. “It expresses the deepest thirsts of our lives, and above all, a thirst for our love. He is more than a beggar; he is [athirst] for our love. And it will emerge at the culminating moment of his passion, on the cross, where, before dying, Jesus will say: ‘I thirst’ (Jn 19:28). That thirst for love that led him to come down, to lower himself, to be one of us.”

“The Lord who asks for a drink is the One who gives a drink. Meeting the Samaritan woman, he speaks to her about the Holy Spirit’s living water. And from the cross, blood and water flow from his pierced side (cf. Jn 19:34),” he continued.

“Thirsty for love, Jesus quenches our thirst with love. And he does with us what he did with the Samaritan woman — he comes to meet us in our daily life, he shares our thirst, he promises us living water that makes eternal life overflow within us.”

Pope Francis as diplomat: the principles that have guided his 10-year-old pontificate

Pope Francis meets with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana, Cuba. on Feb. 12, 2016. / Vatican Media.

Vatican City, Mar 12, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

In his public diplomatic efforts in the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis has repeatedly said that he is ready to go to Kyiv, but only if that trip can be combined with a trip to Moscow.

This is the latest demonstration of the pope’s strong preference in diplomatic matters: He does not want to take sides but rather engage in conversation with all the interlocutors, even if this willingness to dialogue at all costs risks being misinterpreted.

Throughout the 10 years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has abandoned the traditional diplomatic prudence of the Holy See, opting instead for a pragmatic approach of direct dialogue. The foundation of this approach can be seen in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which is in some ways the ideological basis of the pontificate. As he calls for Christian evangelizers to engage in “respectful and compassionate listening,” his approach to diplomacy seeks to open processes rather than to look for definitive solutions.

All of the diplomatic actions of his pontificate follow this principle. This includes his first diplomatic success, namely the role the Holy See played in restoring relations between the Holy See and Cuba in 2014. It is also seen in the controversial agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, signed in 2018 and twice renewed. And it applies to the “rules of engagement” of the first meeting of a pope with a patriarch of Moscow, which took place in Cuba in 2016, and, precisely, to the question of possible mediation to achieve peace in the war in Ukraine.

The diplomacy of pontifical journeys

To date, Pope Francis has made 40 international trips. The destination of his next papal journey is always a subject of speculation and curiosity and says much about his priorities for papal diplomacy.

This year is a good example. He will be in Budapest from April 28-30 and will almost certainly be in Lisbon for World Youth Day in August. However, there is already talk that the pope will go to Marseilles to participate in the meeting of the bishops of the Mediterranean, and then from there travel directly to Mongolia, where no pope has ever gone.

Thus packaged, the trip would show two cardinal criteria of Pope Francis in choosing the countries to visit. The first: Don’t go to countries that are already leaders on the world stage. To go to Marseilles, without passing through Paris, the capital of France, would highlight that the passage through French territory will only be for one event. This is what happened in 2014 when Pope Francis restricted his visit to France to Strasbourg, where he visited the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

The second criterion: to give preference to small nations, going where God is needed.

Mongolia is a nation with a tiny Catholic flock that has never been visited by a pope. So it is no coincidence that Pope Francis wanted to name Giorgio Marengo, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, a cardinal to signal a particular preference for that country, which, among other things, is located on the border with China.

Furthermore, Pope Francis has always wanted to emphasize dialogue in his travel. In Europe, as a rule, he visits locations where Catholics are a minority: Bulgaria, Romania, and North Macedonia in 2019; the Baltic countries in 2018 (where only Lithuania is majority Catholic); Greece and Cyprus in 2021; Sweden in 2016; Albania in 2014; and the visit to the meeting of the World Council of Churches in 2018.

Within Europe or at the borders of Europe, the pope traveled to the Holy Land, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. When his destination was a powerful or majority Catholic country, it was because a big event was taking place there. He went to Krakow, Poland, for the 2016 World Youth Day, the United States for Philadelphia’s World Meeting of Families in 2015, and to Ireland for the 2018 World Meeting of Families.

In some cases, his choice of destination was made precisely to provide for the opening of processes. The visit to Bulgaria, for example, was also the occasion for a meeting with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which does not even participate in the Mixed Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission.

The mediation of the Holy See

Cuba has been the site of two of the most important successes of the pontificate: the meeting with Patriarch Kirill and the reopening of diplomatic relations, which the Holy See has facilitated.

The Holy See’s success followed 75 years of uninterrupted diplomatic relations with the island. Nothing in the Church happens suddenly; everything is the fruit of long work.

Thus, from the travels, one comes to understand diplomatic work.

Cuba represents a new impetus for pontifical mediations, as seen in Venezuela at the direct request of the parties involved, and also in Nicaragua, where the diplomatic line now seems to be one of remaining a step behind. The decision not to appoint a new nuncio after the sudden expulsion of Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag from Managua was a move to avoid having to dialogue with the government of Managua for the approval of a diplomat while maintaining a presence in the country.

In the Vatican’s problematic relations with China, the goal has been to keep the lines of communication open. Pope Francis wanted an agreement to appoint bishops, which was signed in 2018 and renewed twice for two years. So far, only six bishops have been appointed after the deal, while Beijing seems to want to push religions (and not just Catholicism) more and more into so-called “sinicization.”

The object, however, is to have an agreement, even if imperfect, to have a basis on which to negotiate.

Wars in the world

The criterion of dialogue at any cost was the basis of the pope’s diplomatic efforts over the war in Ukraine. The Holy See has been following the situation in Kyiv since the Maidan protests of 2014. Pope Francis has launched a special collection, the Pope for Ukraine. At the same time, in 2019, he wanted an interdicasterial meeting in the Vatican with the synod and the bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

However, Pope Francis wanted to keep the channels open with Moscow, so much so that his first instinct at the outbreak of war was to go personally to the embassy of the Russian Federation to try to speak with President Vladimir Putin.

Pope Francis has repeatedly underlined that many territories are engaged in what he calls “a piecemeal world war.” His visit to Iraq in 2021; his frequent mention of Yemen; and Syria, whose nuncio was named a cardinal by the pope, are examples of his efforts in these troubled regions.

The diplomacy of prayer

Syria is an example of Pope Francis’ “diplomacy of prayer” because it was due to the situation in Syria that Pope Francis, in September 2013, proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer for Syria and the Middle East. And a day of prayer for peace, declared in the Vatican Gardens in June 2014, was used as a diplomatic lock-pick to create a meeting point. The prayer retreat with the South Sudan leaders in 2019 was part of this effort.

In Pope Francis’ vision, religions must meet to create the common good. Interreligious dialogue is part of diplomacy. The restored relations with the al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the major centers of Sunni Islam, can be read in this light.

During his trip to Egypt in 2017, the pope participated in the International Peace Conference organized by the same institution. He reiterated that there could be no violence in the name of God.

A desire for interreligious dialogue marked the decision to travel to the United Arab Emirates as well as that of going to Morocco in 2019. In Abu Dhabi, the pope signed with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib a declaration on human fraternity that set guidelines for diplomacy, so much so that the pope has given a copy to all the heads of state who have visited him.

The guidelines were put into practice during Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq, which culminated in the meeting with the Grand Ayatollah al Sistani and with the other religions at the Plain of Ur (but without Jewish representatives, which perhaps seemed like excessive diplomatic prudence). It was also evident in Pope Francis’ last trip to the Gulf, in Bahrain, in 2022.

The theme of fraternity then resulted in an encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, developed during the pandemic and now part of the diplomatic instruments of the Holy See and presented on April 15, 2021, at a high-level event at the United Nations.

The duty to protect

In short, you must, first of all, prove that you are friends for diplomacy to proceed effectively. This was the line dictated by Cardinal Pietro Parolin in September 2014 when, as secretary of state, he participated in the United Nations General Assembly. The key of his speeches was the “duty to protect.”

The Holy See, in recent years, has applied this duty to protect the environment (just think of the encyclical Laudato Si and the commitment to a climate agreement), to persecuted minorities (thanks to the diplomatic commitment of the Holy See for the first time in the European institutions, talks began about the persecution of Christians), to people who are victims of human trafficking (perhaps the central theme of Pope Francis’ diplomatic activity), to migrants (Pope Francis has allocated an entire office of the Roman Curia, under its direct dependence, on the migrant emergency).

The entire diplomatic effort of the Holy See in 2018 was then dedicated to the issue of migrants, working on the global agreement on migration discussed in Marrakech on Dec. 10-11, 2018.

The diplomatic network

In recent years, the diplomatic network of the Holy See has grown. Three nations joined the diplomatic network of the Holy See during Francis’ pontificate. In 2016, Mauritania established full diplomatic relations. In 2017, Myanmar forged ties with the Holy See, thus paving the way for the pope’s next trip to the country. And, in February, the Holy See and Oman entered diplomatic relations.

The Holy See now has diplomatic relations with 184 nations around the world. And Vietnam, where the Holy See currently has a nonresident representative, is expected to be soon added to these nations.

The next challenges

In addition, throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has often warned against ideological colonization and has defended indigenous cultures in various speeches, especially in his travels to Latin America and his most recent trip to Canada.

And it can already be foreseen that the pope’s forthcoming diplomatic speeches may broach new topics, such as artificial intelligence, which is increasingly becoming the focus of activities.

Women’s ordination, transgender ideology move forward at German Synodal Way

Delegates at the fifth assembly of the German Synodal Way, meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 11, 2023, applaud after the he passage of a text calling for changes to the German Church's approach to gender identity. / Jonathan Liedl/National Catholic Register

Frankfurt, Germany, Mar 11, 2023 / 07:30 am (CNA).

Delegates of the German Synodal Way on Saturday overwhelmingly passed measures to change Church practices based on transgender ideology and to push the universal Church to ordain women to the sacramental diaconate.

The votes took place on the final day of the process’ concluding assembly, held in Frankfurt March 9-11. On previous days, delegates voted overwhelmingly to adopt same-sex blessings, normalize lay preaching, and ask Rome to “reexamine” the discipline of priestly celibacy.

While the Germans pushed forward with these controversial measures, the assembly held back from crossing a line laid down by the Vatican concerning the establishing synodal councils at the national, diocesan, and parochial levels. The Vatican has said the synodal council model, which involves shared governance between bishops and the laity, is not consistent with Catholic ecclesiology.

The synodal assembly decided to delay voting on the proposal. Instead, it will be considered by a newly established synodal committee over the next three years, while Synodal Way leadership attempts to change the minds of Vatican officials and garner more widespread approval in the universal Church.

At the concluding press conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the bishops’ conference, said that the results give a mandate to the bishops to make some changes in Germany now while pushing for broader reform.

“The Church is visibly changing, and that is important,” Bätzing said.

Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), said the results show that the synodal path in Germany will continue.

“It does not end here. It is just the beginning,” she said.

Observers, including 103 international bishops who signed a letter warning that the Synodal Way could lead to schism, have expressed concern about the heterodox ideas promoted by the process and the effect it could have on the wider Church if the Vatican does not sufficiently intervene.

Vote on gender ideology

The implementation text “Dealing with gender diversity” passed with support from 96% of the 197 voting delegates. Thirty-eight bishops voted for it, while only seven voted against it. Thirteen abstained from voting.

Consistent with a pattern running throughout the assembly, there would have been enough votes to block the measure if those abstaining had voted against it. Critics of the Synodal Way say that organizers’ removal of the secret ballot has created a fear-driven atmosphere that has prohibited many bishops from voting freely.

The resolution calls for “concrete improvements for intersex and transgender faithful,” including changing baptism records to match someone’s self-identified gender, banning one’s gender identity from consideration for pastoral ministerial roles, and mandatory education for priests and church employees to “deal with the topic of gender diversity.” Intersex refers to people born with mixed sexual characteristics.

The text also bars “external sexual characteristics” from being used as a criterion for “accepting a man as a candidate for the priesthood,” a measure that could open the door for attempted ordinations of women.

During the debate, a small minority of bishops voiced opposition to the measure, while emphasizing that the Church should improve its pastoral care of those identifying as transgender. Auxiliary Bishop Stefan Zekorn of Bistum Münster said he could not support a text based on gender ideology, while Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau said that the document failed to emphasize that a Christian’s primary identity should be rooted in Jesus Christ.

But the vast majority of those who spoke expressed support for the measure. Gregor Podschun, the head of the heterodoxical Federation of German Catholic Youth, said the claims of gender ideology were “a scientific fact,” and that the Church’s denial was causing people to commit suicide. Julianne Eckstein, a professor of theology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, claimed that the book of Genesis was an inadequate basis for questions of sexual anthropology. And Viola Kohlberger, a young adult from Augsburg, said that there is no “norm” for gender and that the tradition of the Catholic Church was holding back progress.

“And I would like to break it today,” she said.

When the vote passed, delegates stood to applaud, while some unfurled rainbow flags expressing support for homosexuality and transgender ideology.

Support for women’s ordination

Delegates passed the implementation text “Women in sacramental ministry: Perspectives for the universal Church dialogue” by a similarly large margin. Only 10 of 58 bishops voted against the measure, which calls for the German bishops to advance the issue of the sacramental ordination of women at the continental and universal level of the Church.

A motion adopted by the assembly replaced a call for the establishment of a “sacramental diaconate of women” with “opening the sacramental diaconate for women.” The distinction made clear that the Synodal Way is pushing for women to be integrated into already existing holy orders, an idea the Church has repeatedly affirmed is impossible.

Delegates adopted another motion that modified priorities related to the all-male priesthood, calling for the practice to be simply reexamined, rather than ended, at the universal level of the Church. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising said that the motion was needed to “build consensus” for changes to the Church’s dogmatic teaching related to the priesthood.

Others were less interested in the slow approach. Several women delegates were seen in tears after the vote, saddened that the text did not more explicitly call for female priests.

“Discriminating against someone because of their gender must be put to an end in the Catholic Church,” said delegate Susanne Schumacher-Godemann.

“The patriarchy needs to be destroyed,” added Podschun.

Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg spoke up in opposition to the text, characterizing the push for ordaining women to the diaconate as “a first step toward opening up” the priesthood and the episcopacy, too.

The Regensburg bishop, a close friend of Pope Benedict XVI, is one of only three German bishops to have publicly voted against each of the Synodal Way’s controversial texts.

The synodal assembly also elected 20 members to the transitory synodal committee that will work over the next three years to prepare for the establishment of a permanent synodal council at the national level. The 20 elected members, which consisted of 19 laypeople and one auxiliary bishop, will join the 27 bishops who head dioceses and 27 members of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) already on the committee.

The Synodal Way, which began in 2019, has been a collaborative effort between the ZdK and the German bishops’ conference.