More to Catholic women than deacon question, says Professor Renée Köhler-Ryan


The first assembly of the Synod on Synodality saw a number of world firsts, perhaps none more surprising than the inclusion of 54 women as voters in what had, until now, been a synod exclusively of bishops.

One of them was Sydney’s Professor Renée Köhler-Ryan, National Head of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

On her return from Rome—and after some quality time with her husband and five children, from whom she was separated for a month—she told The Catholic Weekly that after the first assembly a broader range of Catholic women’s views and priorities were explored, beyond ordination.

“It is an obvious fact that most women in the church have no interest in being priests, and have no interest in being deacons. Statistically,” Prof Köhler-Ryan said.

“Many women, when surveyed, think in principle as a matter of feminist justice that option should be available to them.

“But for the most part they themselves are not interested. So, it’s at a very abstract level, almost.

“The question is then, ‘What is it that women in the church need? What do they need from the church?’

“That was where my statements to the [synod press conference on 17 October] came out:

‘What women want will be different because every woman is different.’”

Women are often carers and mothers, and that work needs to be respected, Prof Köhler-Ryan added.

It was a positive development that mothers and grandmothers were acknowledged as the ones who pass on faith to their children and grandchildren.

“But how often do we actually hear that from the pulpit or elsewhere?” she asked.

“Catholic employers should really have this on their radar, so that a parent’s right to be with their child—to be with them in their formative years—should never be undermined.

“No woman, or man, should be made to feel lesser because they’ve made the choice to be there with their children.”

The alternative is to give into a “very secular agenda” that wants to see roles within the church from a democratic, rather than complementary, perspective—one that insists women cannot be truly “equal in baptism” until they are ordained to the priesthood.

This perspective had knock-on effects throughout the synod, including in the language used in the synod’s final synthesis document.

“What I noticed in the synthesis document especially, was that the church was referred to ‘it’ as if it’s somewhat neutral, rather than she or her; the church is a mother,” Prof Köhler-Ryan said.

“When we lose that sense of the motherhood of the church, we lose the sense of the nuptial mystery of the priesthood in relationship to the church as well.”

Spending time away from her family was difficult, and Prof Köhler-Ryan said it was “absolutely essential” that she went to Rome with her husband’s “absolute support.”

Yet the synod’s organisation “would lead one to believe there’s not an appreciation of what it takes for a layperson with a young family to go away for four weeks,” a frustration she shared with other parent-delegates in Rome.

Nevertheless, these lay voters with families brought the presence of the “domestic church” to the consultations, Prof Köhler-Ryan said.

“When a member of a religious congregation walks into the room, you have a sense it’s almost like they’ve brought the whole order into the room, the whole charism,” she said.

“It needs to be appreciated that when a lay member who is married with kids walks into a room, they’re coming from that ethos of the domestic church. It’s always there, in the back of their mind.”

Yet she also said that while lay women were in focus, “the male lay voice still needs to be tapped into more.”

“We know that lay men are missing to a very great extent from the pews, and we need to figure out what’s going on there, and bring that up as a point of conversation more than we do.”

With the synod at its halfway point, and the synthesis document available to the church, Prof Köhler-Ryan said there was more discernment and conversation to come—including on the authority of the synod, now non-bishop voting members have been included.

“The rest of the world seems to be looking on, with some exceptions, thinking: ‘This synod needs to make some decisions, needs to make them now, so that the church can be brought up to the 21st century and we can all go back to being outraged about something else.’”

“But what is actually the case is that the synod cannot change church teaching, that’s not going to be an automatic outcome of a synod.

“And the synod can’t make the Catholic Church cease to be the Catholic Church.

“And the synod cannot change that fundamental relationship between the Bishop of Rome as pope with his bishops, and with the universal church.”

  • Adam Wesselinoff is Deputy Editor of the Catholic Weekly.
  • First published in The Catholic Weekly
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