Rome is a Catholic menagerie these days.
An excommunicated woman dressed in red bishop’s robes is marching toward the Vatican behind a procession of would-be female priests. Conservative culture warriors are headlining theaters, delivering screeds against Pope Francis before marginalized cardinals and exorcists sitting in velvet seats. The abortion-rights leader of Catholics for Choice is knocking on Vatican doors. Progressives will hold a meeting this week that includes panels with titles such as “Patriarchy, Where Did It All Begin?”
They have all descended on the Italian capital hoping to share the spotlight cast on a major assembly of more than 400 bishops and lay Catholics, called by Pope Francis to discuss issues vital to the church’s future — the ordination of women deacons, the celibacy of the clergy, the blessing of same-sex couples.
The smorgasbord of juicy topics at the confidential Vatican meeting, known as the Synod on Synodality, has drawn every ideological stripe of Catholic activist, culture warrior and special interest group. The result is a Joycean, “Here Comes Everybody” vision of the church that reflects all the gradations of faith, and all the flashpoints of division, across a broad Catholic spectrum.
“People are joining in, and that’s really great,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, a veteran Vatican watcher and senior analyst at Religion News Service. “The danger is if all these groups fight each other. The church is a family, but sometimes we have food fights.”
It’s already getting messy.
Miriam Duignan, a leader of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, said her group was worried enough about conservatives trying to shut down its events that it had kept secret the location of its first meeting in Rome, at a basilica dedicated to St. Praxedes, an ancient Roman woman who gave care to persecuted Christians.
“There’s a certain type of man who has sought refuge from the modern world in the Catholic church as a bastion of male supremacy,” she said. “They are really afraid that women are going to march on the Vatican.”
On Friday, they came close.
The group, dressed in purple, some members wearing “Ordain Women” stoles, buttons or wrap dresses, gathered on the steps of a 16th-century church that holds a relic of the biblical figure St. Mary Magdalene. Its leaders, who have been arrested multiple times over the last 20 years, pointed out their police escort.
This year, they got a permit to demonstrate in front of Castel Sant’Angelo, a landmark down the road from St. Peter’s Basilica. But on the walk over, they were not allowed to carry signs or protest.
“We are just pilgrims walking in silence in the footsteps of St. Mary Magdalene, whose left foot is just behind me here,” Ms. Duignan said.
They had decided that it would be more prudent if one woman, dressed in red robes and a homemade felt miter, kept her distance behind them.
“I am a bishop,” said Gisela Forster, a German theologian and teacher and one of the “Danube Seven,” a group of women who were unofficially ordained by a rogue former bishop on the Danube River in 2002, and then officially excommunicated by the church a year later.
The group marching toward the Vatican, she said, included many women whom she had personally ordained, but they had asked her to keep her distance after the police had warned them that her outfit violated the no-signs-or-banners policy.
She took it in stride, trailing 20 yards behind the procession.
“Look at this one,” said a delighted taxi driver, as she crossed the street.
“You should be pope!” said a tourist eating pizza.
Beneath a sculpture of an angel holding crucifixion nails on the crowded Sant’Angelo Bridge, Ms. Forster expressed skepticism about meaningful change coming out of the synod, which will meet again next year.
“Francis, he’s an event boy. He likes events,” she said, adding, “He’s not a pope for problems — abuse, celibacy, women. When he will die, no one will remember him. It’s so sad because he can do so much.”
Conservatives hope she is right.
Last week, the de facto leader of the conservative opposition to Francis held court in a theater across the street from the Vatican.
In a venue more accustomed to a Barbra Streisand tribute concert, the houselights beamed on the scarlet zucchetto of Cardinal Raymond Burke, an arch conservative who has been steadily knocked down from his exalted Vatican positions by Francis over the last decade.
At an event called “The Synodal Babel,” he read a long speech casting him and his allies as defenders of church doctrine against a synod that he charged was nothing more than political cover for Francis to make progressive changes.
Afterward, a news media scrum formed outside the theater’s exits. “Burke is the Taylor Swift of cardinals,” said one cameraman, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
The cardinal’s groupies, and the synod’s enemies, hung around, too. The Rev. Tullio Rotondo, an exorcist who has been suspended for insinuating that Francis is a heretic, called the cardinal “a point of reference in these years.”
Michael Haynes, a Vatican reporter for LifeSiteNews, the uber-conservative Catholic website in North America, said that his colleagues would cover the synod closely and that more of them “are coming.”
Maria Guerrieri, 77, who spilled out with her friends after the show, said the synod was “as evil as it gets,” a “Protestant revolution 500 years later.”
Liberals descending on Rome for an alternative synod later this week think a revolution is overdue.
They will hear pointers from Germans who pushed forward against the Vatican’s disapproval on blessings for gay couples, and listen to Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland and, according to the program, a “leading critic of Catholic Church teaching on” a list of subjects too copious to fit here.
There will also be Sister Joan Chittister, whom Ms. Duignan called “a super famous nun in America — Oprah interviewed her.”
Other activists argued that all the partisanship obscured the real problem.
“The conservative-liberal divide is all you’re going to hear about at the synod,” Peter Isely, a founding member of the advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse, told reporters at a news conference. “It’s a false division. The line of division is: Are you going to stop the abuse of children in the Catholic Church or aren’t you?”
But perhaps no advocate on the synod sidelines has a tougher row to hoe than Jaime Manson, who identifies as queer, feels called to the priesthood and leads the abortion-rights group Catholics for Choice.
On Thursday morning, she risked arrest by unfurling a “Faithful Catholics Have Abortions” sign on the Sant’Angelo Bridge facing the Vatican.
“Can confirm,” she said of her mission impossible, adding of both the Vatican and the conservatives, “Yeah, they’re definitely not pleased that we’re here.”
She was pleased that welcoming L.G.B.T.Q. people and the ordination of female deacons made it onto the synod agenda. But, like some conservative culture warriors, she, too, felt that abortion had gotten short shrift, if for entirely different reasons.
“There are far more women, Catholic women, having abortions than there are L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics or even women called to the priesthood,” she said.
It was an issue, she acknowledged, that the most liberal prelates and bishops brooked no dissent on. Francis, she recalled, had equated getting an abortion with hiring a hit man.
Nevertheless, she sought to deliver a personal note and a book with stories of Catholics who had received abortions to the office of the cardinal in charge of the synod.
“What do you have to do?” the drowsy doorman in the Vatican building said.
“This book,” Ms. Manson tried in Italian.
When she said “synod,” the doorman exclaimed that no one was there — everyone was behind the Vatican walls, meeting at the big assembly hall. She should go there.
“Have a good day and good work,” he said.
“I can’t leave this?” she asked.
“No, no, no,” he said, throwing up his hands. “No, no.”