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Synodaler Weg

A Bridge too Far


Female Priests and the Synodal Path

Von Tarcisius Mukuka

This short article is a personal view on the exclusion of women to the Catholic priesthood and its implications for the Synodal path. My hypothesis is that the key issue here is what Ettore Ferrari has referred to as “an idolatry of [heterosexual] maleness,”[1] both consciously and unconsciously, especially in the African Catholic Church. When it comes to female ordination/non-ordination in the Catholic Church, there is no sitting on the fence. Like Marian Ronan “I continue to believe that the exclusion of Roman Catholic women from the priesthood is wrong” (Ronan 2007: 149). I have a hunch that the German Catholic Church Synodal path is and will continue addressing this, whether the Magisterium is listening to the vox populi or not. I approach this issue from an African perspective as a lay Catholic theologian and biblical exegete. I am less sanguine about there being appetite for female ordination in the African Catholic Church than there might be even for male married priests in the Catholic Church. I think the German Catholic bishops’ approach to the Synodal path (German: Synodaler Weg) holds more promise than the “Synod 2021‒2023: For a Synodal Church” which sounds like having a meeting about a meeting. For a start, the German process is more representative and has been underway since 2019. It consists of 230 members, made up of archbishops, bishops, and auxiliary bishops, as well as an equal number of lay members from the Central Committee of German Catholics. The Synod is still an all-male club, highly protected by patriarchy and male celibacy. I think that a Synod of bishops ought to be obsolete and replaced by a Synod of the People of God for it to make any real difference. Throughout this article, I refer to Jesus through the Hebrew transcription of his name, Yeshuah, rather than the Greek Iesous which has given us the English Jesus.


Tarcisius Mukuka

ist Bibelexeget und lehrt derzeit an der Mulungushi University in Kabwe, Sambia. Er besitzt ein Lizenziat in Bibelexegese vom Päpstlichen Bibelinstitut in Rom und einen Doktortitel in biblischer Hermeneutik von der Universität Surrey im Vereinigten Königreich. Zu seinen Forschungsschwerpunkten zählen die Themen Postkolonialismus, Gender, Religion, Politik und Macht.


1. Female Ordination and the Synodal Path

If the etymology of Synod (Greek: σύνοδος, meaning “assembly” or “meeting”) means walking together, ironically the one issue we have not walked together in the Catholic Church ought to be female ordination. I have immersed myself in discourses on male-gendered clericalism and patriarchy and their perniciousness in society and religion and have argued throughout my theological career that debunking and dismantling male-gendered clericalism and patriarchy will advance the cause of Catholic female ordination and egalitarianism immeasurably and promote a fully conscious and active female participation in Religion. This, in a nutshell ought to be at the top of the agenda for the Synodal path.

The egalitarianism we aspire to is not a matter of human rights or simply pandering to a feminist agenda. It is our inheritance as sisters and brothers of Yeshuah.

The new chairman of the German bishops’ Commission for faith, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck has supported the ordination of Catholic women priests. “For people with the deep conviction of the equality of all human beings, the current approach to Church ministries and access to them is factually no longer comprehensible,” he told the Rheinische Post Newspaper on 28 September 2021, cited in the National Catholic Reporter.[2] In the same interview, Bishop Franz-Joseph Overbeck added, “The vast majority no longer agrees that the ordained ministry should be reserved exclusively for men” or based on what sounds like the legend of ascertaining the male gender of a Pope in the middle ages by the duos testiculos habet et bene pendentes [he has two testicles and they hung well] putative ceremony. Bishop Franz-Joseph Overbeck leads the Diocese of Essen and is co-chair of the forum on power and power-sharing in the Synodal Path reform project of the Catholic Church in Germany. But even in Germany, probably as a result of Vatican pressure, I am not at all sanguine that the ordination of women is any time soon, least of all in the African Catholic Church.


2. Female Ordination in the African Catholic Church: Still a No-Go Area

As early as 1989, just before John Paul II’s visit to Zambia, as a thirty-two-year-old fire brand, I tried to table the ordination of women in the African Catholic Church as part of the theological reflection in preparation for the Pontiff’s visit. I was quickly shouted down and reminded of the position of the Polish Pontiff on the matter. It was he who had settled the question in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), declaring, “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22.32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 1994: par 4). If not the Church, who? Presumably, we have to wait for the second coming by which time ordination will be obsolete. This declaration was in keeping with Pope John Paul II’s predecessor, Pope Paul VI who declared in 1975 that “She [the Roman Catholic Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church” (Pope Paul VI 1975, AAS 68 (1976): 599). As to who decides what is “in accordance with God’s plan for his Church,” the Magisterium would be excused for reminding us, ad nauseam, “It’s the Magisterium stupid!”

Both Pope Paul VI’s letter and Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter were quite short. A much more detailed statement is to be found in the declaration Inter Insigniores (1976). Issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under its powerful prefect and theological watchdog, Cardinal Franjo Šeper, this was as authoritative dogmatically as they come. The declaration opens its argument by declaring that “The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women” (Inter Insigniores 1976: section 1). Did the document say, “never felt” as in feeling like? So, this is a matter of affectivity rather than rationality or divine revelation? Understood in this sense, this sounds like a typographical error when it should have read “never considered.” Section 2 opens with what has come down to be the Magisterium’s pièce de resistance which I have referred to as the female exclusion criterion. “Jesus Christ did not call any women to become part of the Twelve. If he acted in this way, it was not in order to conform to the customs of his time, for his attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it” (Inter Insigniores 1976: section 2). What else could he have conformed to, if not “the customs of his time?” There is a yawning fallacy here. Women were not the only class excluded from Yeshuah’s inner cabinet. There were many other groups not included such as gentiles, gay people, blind people, one-eyed people, Samaritans, lame people, black people, dwarfs, elves, Romans, leprechauns, pygmies, Greeks, Chinese people, Khoisan, etc.  If the penny has not yet dropped, I write half in jest. There was an obvious reason why Yeshuah did not appoint any women among the twelve. He was sensibly conforming “to the customs of his time.” The early disciples were to go out on mission, and it would have been culturally inconceivable for a woman to do that at the time, whether married or not. Ever the maverick he was, it surely must have crossed Yeshuah’s mind. Today we would say that Yeshuah was being pragmatic rather than ideological. A slight reinterpretation of Luke 8.1‒3 may give us some insight in that direction and the direction the Synodal path should be thinking.

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided [διηκόνουν] for them out of their resources (Luke 8.1‒3 NRSV).

Most versions and translations of Luke 8.1‒3 provide a footnote at “for them” to read as “for him,” that is for Yeshuah. Although the ordinary meaning of διακονέω is to wait at table, it may also mean to go out on mission on behalf of someone as in the case of Onesimus in the letter to Philemon when Paul tells Philemon, the slave’s owner, “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service (διακονῇ) to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel” (Philemon 1.13 NRSV).

For all his reforming spirit, not even Pope Francis is able to sidestep the teaching of his predecessors on the matter of women’s ordination. In 2016, Joshua J. McElwee reported that, “Pope Francis has said he thinks the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on priestly ordination for women will continue forever, saying his predecessor Pope John Paul II’s declaration on the matter ‘goes in that direction.’ Francis expressed his thoughts on the subject in response to a question from a journalist aboard the papal flight back to Rome after a two-day visit to Sweden.”[3] In a biography of John Paul II, Hugh Costello writes, “The otherwise reform-minded Pope Francis acknowledged as much [that the teaching of John Paul II was infallible] when in July 2013, he said, ‘with regard to the ordination of women the Church has spoken and said “no.” The Pope said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed” (Costello 2017: 990. Hans Küng was moved to write, not that he needed much encouragement, especially on infallibility. He literary wrote the book against infallibility.[4]

I cannot help thinking what people might have thought in Geneva or Canterbury (or let alone among Old Catholics) when the Pope now infallibly condemns a practice that has since been tried and tested in the Churches of the reformation. It is hardly possible to kick our ecumenical brothers and sisters more roughly in the teeth than this Pope has done (cited in: Costello 2017: 100).

The problem with the Catholic Church is its implied arrogant monopoly of divine revelation which is now hermetically sealed in the deposit of faith, somewhere in the vaults of the Vatican, presumably. For that the Catholic Church can thank St Peter.

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Mt 1. 13‒20 NRSV).

Based on the above, whatever claims the Catholic Church makes are the fruits of divine revelation safely tucked away and safeguarded by the Magisterium, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it.

The apostles entrusted the ‘Sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. ‘By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practising, and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992: par 84).

Elsie Gibson captures some of this “remarkable harmony” or rather, lack of it, when she discusses ecumenism and the ordination of women (Gibson 1978).

There has always been tension in the Church between those who maximise the extent of revelation [such as the Roman Catholic Church] and those who insist that its cultural framework is fluid [such as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans]. In the 19th century, when the slavery issue was divisive, the first group defended slavery as a divinely ordained institution because Paul said, ‘Slaves, obey your masters,’ while the second group regarded this as good advice considering the culture in which Paul lived. The same split opinion exists now regarding the subordination of women.  The Holy Spirit was given to the Church, not only to keep her memory keen regarding tradition but also to enable her to move confidently into the future. As each Church charts its way with the help of God, it contributes something to ecumenical understanding (Gibson 1978: 299).

The problem with the Catholic Church is that deep down, it believes there is nothing others can contribute to its deposit of faith whose keys mentioned above are safe with the successor of Peter. For those tempted to rely on the continuing inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Dei Verbum would have them remember that “The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum 1965: par 4). One is just not sure what to do with the public revelations of Our Lady from Guadalupe (Mexico) to Fatima (Portugal), from Knock (Ireland) to Walsingham (United Kingdom) and from Lourdes (France) to Kibeho (Rwanda). I know the official answer, “no further new public revelation.” Our Lady never says anything not already found in the depositum fidei.



Both from those who support or are against the ordination of women, the key issue is what Ettore Ferrari referred to as “an idolatry of [heterosexual]maleness” or rejection of it, either consciously or unconsciously. The argument of the Magisterium goes something like this. The priest presiding at Mass does so in persona Christi [in the person of Christ], therefore the priest must be male because Yeshuah was male, at least for 30-plus years of his life in first century Palestine. The priest stands in for Yeshuah and therefore has to have a “natural resemblance” to the earthly Yeshuah, and that resemblance is his maleness. Just why this male resemblance is important is not set out in black and white. Being human is not enough or Yeshuah’s post-resurrection status in which male gender or sex are irrelevant and do not cut any ontological mustard. There-in lies the problem with the Church teaching, especially in light of my pushing “the natural resemblance” to its logical conclusion. This ontological inferiority argumentum ad absurdum may well lead to the non-necessity of baptism for women because it is through baptism that ontologically we become another Christ and yet that is not good enough for magisterial sacramental symbology, as Ettore Ferrari points out

Maleness, in other words, is given a significant weighting over all other social and cultural differences, including femaleness. In this sense, this belief represents an idolatry of [heterosexual] maleness — an exalting of male over female, despite the inclusive impetus of baptism and despite the fact that, in creation, women as well as men are made equally in God’s image. The ‘natural resemblance’ to Christ that is needed is not maleness but rather humanness.[5]




[1] Ettore Ferrari (10 June 2019), “Women priests could help the Catholic Church restore its integrity. It’s time to embrace them,” The Conversation, (Accessed on 21.12.2020).

[2] Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur (29 September 2021), “Debate over women's ordination as priests mounts in Germany,” National Catholic Reporter, Link     .

[3] Joshua J McElwee (1 November 2020), “Pope Francis confirms finality of ban on ordaining women priests,” National Catholic Reporter, Link     (Accessed on 13.12.2020).

[4] Hans Küng (1994), Infallible? An Unresolved Enquiry, London: Continuum.

[5] Ettore Ferrari (10 June 2019), “Women priests could help the Catholic Church restore its integrity. It’s time to embrace them,” The Conversation, Link     (Accessed on 21.12.2020).