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The pope says there could be ways for the Catholic Church to bless same-sex unions

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For the first time, Pope Francis has suggested that Catholic priests might bless same-sex unions. The pope was replying to a challenge by some of his strongest opponents, conservative cardinals who signed a letter asking the pope to clarify his position on the matter. That news comes as the Vatican opens a monthlong assembly of church officials called a synod to discuss the church's future. The meeting, which starts tomorrow, will spotlight the role of women in the Catholic hierarchy. And for the first time ever, women will be allowed to vote in this synod. Until now, only men were allowed to vote on the future of the church. Kate McElwee is executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, a group that has advised the Vatican on the role of women in the church. McElwee is in Rome in an observer capacity, and she joins me now. Good morning, Kate.

KATE MCELWEE: Good morning.

FADEL: So pretty historic that women are now allowed to vote. What does this mean for you and for the church?

MCELWEE: It's a significant crack in the stained glass ceiling that women will be in the room with bishops, able to vote and have their voice equally counted. This is something that my group lobbied for for several years. And to see the church able to listen to its people and make changes is significant. And so I'm very excited for what will come and hopeful that, although it's a small minority - about 54 women will be able to vote in an assembly of more than 450 people - this is a change in the Catholic Church, and that's something to celebrate.

FADEL: One of the big issues for women is that women can't be ordained, can't join the priesthood. Do you expect that to change?

MCELWEE: I think throughout the synodal process, we've heard calls for women's greater participation for women around the world. This is a reality that I think the church must confront. And so I hope that this is on the agenda. I know that it's in the air. And this is something that I think the synod will have to take up and discern. Catholic women around the world are longing for equality. Many would love to answer their call to priesthood. And so I hope that the synod is able to hear that with urgency. It's time.

FADEL: When you say urgency, what do you mean?

MCELWEE: I think for generations, Catholic women have been turned away. And so I think the time is now for Catholic women to be included as equals in the church, not just as observers or helpers or associates but as fully equal, able to participate in all aspects of the church and all ministries of the church. I think many Catholics around the world will be looking at this synodal gathering - and their watch to see if the church is really able to shift and attend to the needs of the people today.

FADEL: So the big news before this gathering even begins is this suggestion from Pope Francis that Catholic priests might bless same-sex unions. What's your reaction to that?

MCELWEE: I think this is very significant. Even though Francis offered a strong defense of the church's long-standing teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, he called for pastoral charity when considering blessings of same-sex couples. And while he said that this should not be confused with sacramental marriage, I think he called for discernment on a case-by-case basis. So not only does it indicate that the Vatican can recognize holy love between same-sex couples, but again, this is something - this is a step on a long journey towards equality for LGBTQ Catholics.

FADEL: With these changes, women voting at the synod, this suggestion from Pope Francis and other things, what does this say about this pope and the legacy he may leave?

MCELWEE: I think Pope Francis is doing something really different through this synodal process. He's engaged, you know, a global consultation leading up to the Synod on Synodality. And he's really trying to model a sort of laboratory of a new way of being church, something that Catholics are not used to. And so I think this is an exciting moment. I think Pope Francis will be remembered by this synod in particular but all of his synods, where he's really trying to enliven and add dynamism to the church conversation. So I think this is - his legacy will be remembered by these synods.

FADEL: Kate McElwee is executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference. And she joined us from Rome. Thank you so much for your time and your insights.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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