Pope Francis will allow women to vote for the first time at a global summit of bishops in October, in a historic move that might promote more inclusivity in the Roman Catholic Church.
Women used to be permitted to participate in the synods, a papal consultative body, as auditors but without voting privileges.
The revolutionary rules, announced on Wednesday, allow for five religious sisters with voting rights.
Additionally, the pope has decided the inclusion of what a Vatican document called “70 non-bishop members who represent various groupings of the faithful of the people of God”.
The 70 priests, religious sisters, deacons and lay Catholics will be chosen by the pope from a list of 140 people recommended by national bishops’ conferences. The conferences were encouraged to include young people. The Vatican has asked that 50% of the 70 be women.
Synods are usually attended by about 300 people, so the bulk of those with voting rights will still be bishops. Still, the change is remarkable for an institution that has been male-dominated for centuries.
The new rules follow two major steps Francis took last year to place women in decision-making positions in the Vatican.
In one, he introduced a landmark reform that will allow any baptised lay Catholic, including women, to head most Vatican departments under a new constitution for the Holy See’s central administration.
In another last year, he named three women to a previously all-male committee that advises him in selecting the world’s bishops.
Women’s groups in the Church have for years been demanding the right to vote at the high-profile synods, which prepare resolutions that usually lead to a papal document.
A 2018 synod became a flashpoint when two “brothers”, lay men who are not ordained, were allowed to vote in their capacity as superiors general of their religious orders.
But Sister Sally Marie Hodgdon, an American who also is not ordained, was not allowed to vote even though she was the superior general of her order.
In 2021, Francis for the first time named a woman to the number two position in the governorship of Vatican City, making Sister Raffaella Petrini the highest-ranking woman in the world’s smallest state.
The same year, he named Italian nun Sister Alessandra Smerilli to the number two position in the Vatican’s development office, which deals with justice and peace issues.
He also named Nathalie Becquart, a French member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters, as co-undersecretary of the Vatican department that prepares synods.
The upcoming synod has been in preparation for two years, during which Catholics around the world were asked about their vision for the future of the Church.
Proponents have welcomed the consultations as an opportunity to change the Church’s power dynamics and give a greater voice to lay Catholics, including women, and people on the margins of society.
Conservatives say the process has been a waste of time, may erode the hierarchical structure of the nearly 1.4 billion-member Church and in the long run could dilute traditional doctrine.