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Meet the Aussie Laywoman Pushing for Motherhood — Not Female Priesthood — at the Synod on Synodality

If there’s a push for women’s ordination at the Synod on Synodality — which it appears there is — it’s safe to say Renee Köhler-Ryan is one of the leading voices pushing right back.

The Australian philosopher, wife and mother made headlines after an Oct. 17 synod press briefing, when she said there was “too much emphasis” placed on the “niche issue” of whether women can be deacons or priests.

“And what happens when we put too much emphasis on this question,” the Archdiocese of Sydney native said, “is that we forget about what women, for the most part, throughout the world, need.”

It wasn’t the first time Köhler-Ryan, the national head of the University of Notre Dame Australia’s School of Philosophy and Theology, has made a splash on the topic. As a delegate at the Church in Australia’s contentious 2021-2022 plenary council, she wrote that a focus on the issue of women’s ordination felt “forced,” animated by the provocative and seductive “secular story that unless a woman can do absolutely everything that a man can do, she is not ‘equal’ to men.”

An expert on St. Edith Stein’s thought on womanhood and a mother of five, the Aussie philosopher has emerged as a compelling synodal voice for the Church’s understanding of women, grounded in both her experience and her expertise.

In fact, sources at the ongoing Synod on Synodality told the Register that it was Köhler-Ryan herself who delivered an Oct. 16 speech to the rest of the synod assembly criticizing an ongoing push for women’s ordination — not only to the diaconate, but to the priesthood — as an effort to clericalize the laity.

Köhler-Ryan wouldn’t comment on that claim when she was asked by the Register. But she did share what she thinks is behind pushes for women’s ordination, who she thinks is missing from the discussions in Paul VI Hall, and what she hopes is not the result of the synodal process.

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Representation and ‘Blind Spots’

One of 54 women participating among the synod’s 365 voting members, Köhler-Ryan said that she has “definitely felt very much respected as a woman at the synod.”

In fact, she shared that bishops from other parts of the world have even approached her during free periods to get her thoughts on how their local Church can better serve women. “It’s just been an extraordinary gift to have that experience of being there together,” said Köhler-Ryan.

The mother and wife, who met her husband while they were both graduate students at the University of Leuven in Belgium, added that the novel participation of parents in the synod has had a noticeable impact on deliberations.

Parent participants have regularly shared insights based off their experience of raising children in the faith, and Köhler-Ryan said bishops have welcomed these reports on “what’s happening in the domestic church.”

Showing other members of her small group pictures of her five kids — ages 16, 14, 13, 11, and 2, who she said she misses “very much” — has been a regular part of Köhler-Ryan’s synod experience.

If widespread consultation is the aim of the synod, the Australian philosopher thinks the current synod assembly is a step in the right direction by being “more representative,” which is “already a good thing.”

Even so, Köhler-Ryan told the Register that the ongoing synod — which she thinks of more as an “assembly of the People of God” than a “Synod of Bishops,” given that 27% of voting members are non-bishops — could be “more representative still,” by including more typical, everyday Catholics in its deliberations.

Most of the non-bishops participating in the synod are either members of religious communities, clergy or laypeople who, like Köhler-Ryan herself, work professionally for some sort of Catholic institution or apostolate.

For instance, the 10 members of the non-bishops delegation from North America include two religious sisters (one who is chancellor of a diocese), a diocesan priest, a university theologian, a director of education at a parish, a Catholic education administrator, and a lay staff member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“If we’re really consulting with the People of God, then it would be good to have a bit more variety in the room,” said Köhler-Ryan of the synod assembly in general. The concern, she said, is that the synod could have some “blind spots,” in terms of the challenges, needs and desires of the average Catholic.

“What does the person working in a bank or an insurance agency or for a car-rental company or a fish-and-chips shop in Australia, or a grocery-store owner or a mechanic or a plumber — what do these Catholics need from the Church?” she asked. “What I worry about is whether we’re missing something in the room by not having them there.”

The current global synod assembly in Rome, which will have a part two in October 2024, is the final stage of a multiyear consultative process that has sought input from Catholics at the diocesan, national and continental levels.

Some have expressed concerns that those previous stages, which are serving as the basis for discussions at the Synod on Synodality, did not accurately capture the views of the entire People of God, given low participation levels and disproportionate involvement by certain demographics.

Köhler-Ryan said that, between now and next October, it will be “critical” for synod participants and organizers to go back to the parishes and find out if what they’ve been discussing in Paul VI Hall are “the things that people actually care about.”

For instance, she said a 15-minute conversation with a faithful elderly person, a dad trying to provide for his family, or a mom who has just had a new baby are invaluable opportunities for synod participants to receive a little prompt from God, saying, “Have you thought about this?”

What ‘Women’s Ordination’ Gets Wrong

The other side of the average “persons in the pews” being underrepresented at the synod is that more particular perspectives may be overrepresented in discussions — such as the call for women’s ordination.

The Notre Dame Australia philosopher described this push, which she told the Register is present in the synod hall, as the product of a “Western paradigm,” animated more by secular conceptions of power and equality than by anything distinctively Catholic.

“There’s a lot of goodwill in this whole thing, but they’re seeing priesthood as some kind of power role,” Köhler-Ryan told the Register.

She also added that while some women might feel that they are called to the priesthood, that subjective sense of being called doesn’t correspond to an actual vocation in the Church.

“If you’re being called to something that is not being called for, then we have a bit of a problem there,” said Köhler-Ryan.

Part of the problem, the philosopher believes, is that these pushes for women’s ordination are missing out on “something richer going on within our Catholic tradition that we should be tapping into more” — an emphasis on male and female always in connection with fatherhood and motherhood.

That tradition, she says, includes a whole way of “thinking through what it means to be a woman and a mother,” from Genesis all the way through the Old Testament, reaching “a peak moment” with the Magnificat.

“Mary is just voicing the experience of so many who have come before her. But she’s showing us even more what it is to be a woman loved by God and giving her life to God.”

An expert on St. Edith Stein’s reflections on womanhood (with a forthcoming book on the topic due out in 2026), Köhler-Ryan says the thought of both the 20th-century philosopher-saint and also of Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope St. John Paul II) has helped develop the Church’s theology of women by faithfully applying the tradition to present-day questions and challenges. She also cited the work of Abigail Favale, a Catholic academic focusing on questions of women and gender at the “other” University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana.

Köhler-Ryan described the Church’s vision of womanhood, which always includes motherhood, as “really powerful stuff,” but not in a masculine way, which, “crudely put,” is about imposing one’s will and ordering things. Instead, she said, real femininity is about bearing and nurturing life.

“The Church is a mother, and I think we forget all of that at our peril, because we’re going to forget what it is to be the Church if we keep on thinking only according to a very masculine paradigm.”

Regarding the synod’s focus on the role of women in the Church, which was the subject of one of the themes under consideration, Köhler-Ryan said that she doesn’t think “everyone is starting from the same place” in terms of the Church’s tradition.

“All of this should be obvious to us, but I don’t think that it is.” In fact, even the document guiding the synod’s discussions, the instrumentum laboris, fails to mention “motherhood” once — though it refers to “women” 45 times.

Comparatively, Köhler-Ryan said she finds the document’s emphasis on authority, power and structures “concerning.”

The philosopher said that there is a fear to affirm maleness and femaleness in today’s culture and to speak of mothers and fathers — which is actually holding the Church back from addressing crises that are causing grave harm, like the expansion of transgender ideology.

“Instead of being afraid of affirming masculinity and femininity as being essential to who we are as human beings, we should be working out the language that we need to use in order to proclaim the Gospel again,” she said.

Real Reform for Women

Köhler-Ryan’s ardent opposition to “women’s ordination” is rooted in her commitment to the Catholic tradition’s understanding of womanhood.

But the same commitment leads her to believe that the Church has a way to go in terms of better serving and recognizing the gifts of Catholic women — something that the Synod on Synodality can and should be addressing.

In her estimation, the Church still has “blind spots” in its pastoral care regarding the pain many women feel from miscarriage, infertility or not finding a suitable partner for marriage. Assisting working moms with better maternity care and ensuring access to health care are also “women’s issues” that the Church should be taking a leading role on, she says.

Furthermore, the Church could more actively follow the encouragement of popes like St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI in promoting the presence of women in public life, where their feminine genius could positively impact conversations around topics like bioethics and war and peace.

“If you have people who are particularly alert to just how miraculous it is that we can bear and nurture life in the first place, but also just how much work it takes, then you’re going to have people who are far more reticent to just forge ahead with certain technologies that are detrimental to human life,” she explained.

Regarding the topic of conversation currently under discussion at the synod, how the Church can reenvision its structures in a “synodal key” to better include all its members, including women, Köhler-Ryan says that “the good news is that we actually have all the structures sitting there.”

Citing the reforms of Vatican II, the Aussie philosopher said that a theology of lay participation and organizations like parish councils and diocesan councils are already in the Church’s repertoire — “but what we haven’t been good at doing is actually using all those structures properly to our benefit.”

She also said that the Church can become more synodal, or better at listening to all its members, by employing more women in important but non-ordained positions, such as diocesan chancellor.

“The more we can just get a range of laity, including women, going in the existing structures, the better we’ll be,” she said.

Thus, while some influential synod organizers, like Jesuit Father Dario Vitali, the coordinator of the synod’s theological experts, are calling for “the renewal of processes, structures and institutions in a missionary synodal Church,” it’s Köhler-Ryan’s view that “we don’t need to invent new structures.”

Why not?

“Three words: too many meetings. We need to get out there and spread the Good News. If we’re stuck in meetings all day, we can’t do that.”

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