We need more women in Church leadership positions who then become the superiors of priests”, German cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki has declared.

Superiors of priests yes, but priests themselves no

Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne, was speaking February 17 to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

But while the prelate made that positive noise on opening up Church leadership to women, he once again argued against their ordination as deacons and priests.

On the question of women’s ordination “there is a clear, conclusive no from Pope John Paul II, which Pope Francis has just confirmed again”, Woelki said.

The cardinal said he understood how “painful” it is when the standards of the world and those of the Church collide, as on the gender equality issue.

But while the many other different offices in the Church should be equally distributed among the sexes, “the apostolic ministry founded by Christ” is reserved only for men, the cardinal reiterated.

Apostles of Christ, not moral apostles

Cardinal Woelki has been the ‘leader of the opposition’ to the German Church’s “synodal path”, the two-year reform process set up by the Bishops and laypeople of the country to consider possible changes to Church doctrine and practice in the light of the clergy sex abuse crisis, specifically on sexual morality, ecclesiastical power, celibacy and the place of women.

That opposition to the synodal path has earned Woelki the ire of the faithful of even his own diocese: so much so that a signature drive has now been launched with the aim of limiting the cardinal’s participation in future synodal path debates.

But in his latest interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Woelki returned to his criticisms of the synodal way, insisting: “We have to talk about how our priests live, how we talk about sexuality, how we can promote women.

“But I am afraid that this is happening in a way as if one could simply vote in the Catholic Church on things that are established worldwide and on the basis of the Magisterium”.

Going deeper into synodal path debates on questions such as the ordination of women, compulsory priestly celibacy, contraception and homosexuality, Woelki explained “we have to try and get the [Church’s] teaching through more deeply”.

“Of course I know that many have difficulties” with the Church’s traditional doctrine, the cardinal recognised, but insisting: “Our challenge is to translate what we have recognized as true and correct by faith”.

But in Woelki’s view, at any rate, the weight of these moral questions in Christian life is overestimated.

“Christ sent apostles into the world, not moral apostles”, the cardinal recalled, insisting on keeping relevant the question of God, “something much more important than discussing rules for the bedroom”.

Expecting criticism from an independent Cologne archdiocese sex abuse investigation

Also with regard to the synodal path, Woelki has faced intense criticism for disparagingly comparing the Catholic reform process to a “Protestant church parliament”.

The cardinal addressed those criticisms in the interview Monday, and insisted he meant no “insult” by the comments, but only to point out that “the communities of the Reformation have a different understanding of the church than we Catholics”.

Another issue Woelki spoke to Monday to the newspaper was the ongoing debate in the German Church over compensation payments to clergy abuse victims, a question Church experts are continuing to work on to ensure uniform guidelines on payouts across the country.

With regard to clergy abuse, Woelki also alluded to the possible results of an independent Cologne diocese investigation due out in March, in which the cardinal could well be implicated in cases of negligence.

“I have to endure that. Maybe I’m also criticised. I ordered my own indictment, so to speak. I don’t know what will come out”, Woelki admitted.

Out of the race for next German Bishops’ President?

One final point the cardinal mentioned was the succession of Cardinal Reinhard Marx as German Bishops’ President, in which race Woelki ruled himself out.

“Personally, I would like to concentrate on the challenges facing me as the Archbishop of Cologne and as Cardinal of the Universal Catholic Church”, the prelate said.

He added that he would have the “greatest respect for any bishop who wants to take on this additional task”.

Next on Novena:

New female Catholic “pastor” making history in Germany urges other women to follow in her footsteps

Groundbreaking: woman shatters stained-glass ceiling, becomes first female ‘dean’ in German diocese

Cologne cardinal Woelki paying price for allergy to reform? 120,000 left local Churches just in 2019

German Catholic youth blast Synod-phobic Cardinal Woelki for ‘noes’ on women priests, Church democracy

Key German layman defends “synodal process” from Cardinal Woelki’s “schism” warnings

German ‘synodal path’: “The majority of the faithful will leave the Church if it fails”

‘No’ to clericalism, ‘yes’ to co-responsibility: the keys to the first assembly on the German synodal path

Cardinal Woelki in Germany, Cardinal Zuppi in Italy clamour against anti-Semitism, racial hatred: “Not with me! Never again!”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.