Pope Francis has approved changes that will allow women to vote at a global meeting of bishops for the first time.
Women’s groups in the Catholic church – who have for years been demanding the right to vote at the high-profile synods – praised the move as historic, for an institution that has been male-dominated for centuries.
“This is a significant crack in the stained-glass ceiling,” said Kate McElwee of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for women’s ordination.
Popes have summoned the world’s bishops to Rome since the 1960s for a few weeks at a time to debate particular topics.
At the end of the meetings, the bishops vote on specific proposals and put them to the pope, who then produces a document taking their views into account.
Until now, the only people who could vote were men, and women only attended the influential gatherings as observers.
Under the new rules announced on Wednesday, five religious sisters will join five priests as voting representatives for religious orders.
Pope Francis has also decided to appoint 70 non-bishop members of the synod – a papal advisory body – and has asked that half of them be women. They too will have a vote.
Synods are usually attended by about 300 people, so the majority of those with voting rights will still be men.
“It’s an important change, it’s not a revolution,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, a senior synod organiser.
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Pope Francis has upheld the Catholic church’s ban on ordaining women as priests, but has taken steps to give women greater say in decision-making roles.
He has appointed several women to high-ranking Vatican positions, though none head any of the major offices or departments.
Preparations for the upcoming bishops’ meeting in October have been under way for two years, during which Catholics around the world have been asked about their vision for the future of the church.