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Theologian at Synod on Synodality: There’s ‘Too Much Emphasis’ on Women Priests

Articles | October 18, 2023 | by Catholics for Catholics

Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

Spending too much time on the “niche issue” of women priests or deacons distracts the Church from addressing what women really need, a theologian participating in the Synod on Synodality said Tuesday.

“As a woman, I’m not focused at all on the fact that I’m not a priest,” Renée Köhler-Ryan, one of 54 women delegates to the Synod on Synodality, said at a press briefing Oct. 17.

“I think that there’s too much emphasis placed on this question,” the Catholic professor added. “And what happens when we put too much emphasis on this question is that we forget about what women, for the most part, throughout the world, need.”

Köhler-Ryan is head of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. She participated in the Church in Australia’s plenary council and is writing a forthcoming book on St. Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman.

Paolo Ruffini, president of the synod’s information commission, told journalists that synod discussions on the afternoon of Oct. 16 focused a lot on the role of women in the Church, including whether women should be able to preach the homily at Mass and the “reinstatement of the female diaconate.”

Another topic of discussion, he said, was “how to overcome clerical models that impede communion or that can impede the communion of all the baptized.”

Köhler-Ryan said “some people are very focused on this idea that only if women become ordained will they have any kind of equality.”

But equality is “not a one-for-one thing” in the Church, she said, pointing out that the Synod on Synodality has focused a lot on the idea of unity in diversity.

“Well, part of that diversity is that there are realities of motherhood and fatherhood that are both spiritual and biological and that are really important for understanding what is going on across the whole Church,” the wife and mother added.

She said the issue of women’s ordination “distracts” the Church from what it could be doing to help women in other ways, like offering greater support to families and working mothers.

“I think that’s a far more interesting conversation for most women than what I tend to think of as a kind of niche issue,” Köhler-Ryan said.

Köhler-Ryan’s comments came shortly after another delegate described women’s participation in the Synod on Synodality, where they are full voting members for the first time, as “setting the stage for future changes.”

Sister Maria de los Dolores Valencia Gomez, a Sister of St. Joseph, led the Synod on Synodality assembly Oct. 13 in her capacity as one of Pope Francis’ 10 president-delegates. She described the experience of sitting with the Pope “as a symbol of this opening, this wish that the Church has … for something that places all of us at the same level.”

Another synod participant, one of 13 people tasked with helping put together a summary document of the Oct. 4-29 assembly, told the National Catholic Reporter last week that he would be open to a female diaconate.

“The question of the ordination of women is clearly something that needs to be addressed universally. … And if it were to be that the outcome was for ordination to the diaconate to be open to women, I’d certainly welcome that,” Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst, Australia, said in a podcast interview.

Ruffini said Monday’s discussions also included requests for “greater attention to an inclusive language in the liturgy and ecclesial documents” and that the word “cooperate” in Canon 208 of the Code of Canon Law, which says all Christians “cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ according to each one’s own condition and function,” be changed to “co-responsibility.”

On “the possible reinstatement of the female diaconate,” Ruffini said there was reference to first studying the exact nature of the diaconate.

About women deacons, Köhler-Ryan said what the synod is “identifying at the moment is where there needs to be more theological consideration of different issues, and I think I can safely say this is one where there needs to be more consideration, knowing that this has been an issue that has been looked at before.”

During his pontificate, Pope Francis has formed two temporary commissions to study the question of women deacons.

The first, in 2016, examined the historic question of the role of deaconesses in the early Church. In 2019, it was announced that the 12-person commission had not reached any consensus on the question.

In April 2020, the Pope formed a second commission after the topic of female deacons was discussed at the Amazon synod the prior October, together with a request for the 2016 commission to be reestablished.

At the end of the October 2019 meeting, synod members recommended to Pope Francis that women be considered for certain ministries in the Church, including the permanent diaconate, which is an order within the sacrament of holy orders. 

But in his apostolic exhortation on the Amazon, published in February 2020, Pope Francis called for women in the South American region to be included in new forms of service in the Church, but not within the ordained ministries of the permanent diaconate or priesthood.

The subject of women deacons has previously been studied by the Church, including in a 2002 document from the International Theological Commission (ITC), an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In the document, the ITC concluded that female deacons in the early Church had not been equivalent to male deacons and had neither a “liturgical function” nor a sacramental one. It also maintained that, even in the fourth century, “the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns.”

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