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Colleen DulleOctober 24, 2023
Sister Samuela Maria Rigon, superior general of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, speaks during a briefing about the assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Oct. 23, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Yesterday in the synod hall, delegates approved a two-page letter “to the people of God” by applauding.

This was a new method for the Roman meeting, and one that understandably ruffled some feathers. Synod members had voted last week overwhelmingly (355-11) in favor of publishing such a letter, in part as a way to answer the question they will surely face when they return to their communities: “What exactly have you been doing for the last month?”

After the letter was drafted, though, synod participants were invited to signal their approval of the document by applauding. The group applauded, and only after this “approval” were synod delegates invited to contribute feedback or possible edits. It is not clear whether there will be any more voting or voting-by-applause to approve the final text. The letter is expected to be published tomorrow.

What message does it send to women when the first synod to include them as full, voting members opts to forgo an actual vote in favor of approval by applause?

The letter will likely be fairly anodyne, echoing what many synod participants have already said at Vatican press briefings about how they have been impressed by meeting, listening to and conversing with other Catholics from around the world. But the unusual, and unexpected, method of voting by applause has raised questions about whether the synod will approve the final document, which is expected to be more substantial—outlining convergences, divergences, questions for further consideration and ideas for moving forward—in the same way.

One woman, I am told, refused to clap for the letter yesterday, not because she opposed the content but because she was concerned about the method for approval. When the European continental synod assembly approved its document by applause, some of the same concerns were raised: With the applause method, there is no way to register how many people are actually approving or rejecting the document. It is also unclear exactly what the participants are approving if edits are being made afterward. That is not to mention the message it sends to women when the first synod to include them as full, voting members opts to forgo an actual vote in favor of approval by applause.

In past synods, the final document was voted on paragraph by paragraph, and sometimes, sentence by sentence. Asked yesterday about whether synod participants would vote on the forthcoming synthesis document in the same way, Vatican spokesman Paolo Ruffini said he could not answer the question because he had not yet seen the final document, and the way that the document is written would determine how voting is done. “It’s being drafted, so at the moment I cannot tell you if we are going to vote [for example] paragraph by paragraph or bullet points. I would imagine that every part would be voted on; I don’t know what we will call each part.”

The Vatican’s schedule for the event refers to Saturday’s session as “approval” of the final document, whereas it referred to yesterday’s approval of the letter to the people of God as “voting.” What will happen? We do not know, but after a two-year process of listening and synthesis, I think the precision that comes from voting on each of the document’s ideas would be the best way to communicate to the church what has happened in this historic moment, and what we are being called to discern in the next 11 months.

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