Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ, the archbishop of Luxembourg and a key leader of the Synod on Synodality, said the Catholic Church’s teaching on a male-only priesthood is not infallible and a future pope could allow women priests.
The cardinal, 64, addressed the topic of the ordination of women, homosexuality, women in the Church, obedience to the pope, and the German “Synodal Way” in an interview with Glas Koncila, a Croatian Catholic weekly, published March 27.
“Pope Francis does not want the ordination of women, and I am completely obedient to that. But people continue to discuss it,” Hollerich said.
The cardinal questioned the infallibility of papal documents such as St. John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which affirmed the Church’s perennial teaching that only men may be ordained to Holy Orders.
“It is the Holy Father who has to decide” whether women can be priests, Hollerich said.
The cardinal added that “with time” a pope could go against what John Paul II wrote in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, saying he is “not sure you could call it” infallible.
“It surely is a true teaching for its time, and we cannot just push it aside. But I think that there might be some space to expand the teaching — to see which of the arguments of Pope John Paull II could be developed,” he said.
“But for the moment, if Pope Francis tells me it is not an option, it is not an option.”
John Paul II stated in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: “Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church ... 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” (No. 4).
Pope Francis has upheld John Paul II’s teaching on a male-only priesthood at multiple points in his pontificate.
“On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the final word is clear, it was said by St. John Paul II and this remains,” Pope Francis told journalists in 2016.
In a 2018 interview with Reuters, on women priests Francis said: “John Paul II was clear and closed the door, and I will not go back on this. It was something serious, not something capricious. It cannot be done.”
In the Croatian weekly interview, Hollerich said he does not promote women’s ordination, but he supports giving women more pastoral responsibility.
“And if we achieve that, then we can perhaps see if there still is a desire among women for ordination,” he said, noting that such a change would need the consent of the Orthodox Church, since “we could never do that if it would jeopardize our fraternity with the Orthodox or if it would polarize the unity of our Church.”
Last week Hollerich was succeeded as president of the European bishops’ commission (COMECE), a post he held since 2018. On March 7, Pope Francis appointed Hollerich to his council of cardinal advisers.
In the interview, the cardinal was asked if his appointment was a sign of Pope Francis’ trust in him during a time when many Catholics find it difficult to trust the pope.
Hollerich said: “It is very difficult to be Catholic without obedience to the pope. Some very conservative people always preached obedience to the pope — as long as the pope said the things they wanted to hear. The pope says things that are difficult for me, too, but I see them as a chance for conversion, for becoming a more faithful and happier Christian.”
The Luxembourger cardinal also commented on homosexuality, saying: “When Church teaching was made, the term homosexuality did not even exist.”
He claimed that in the time when St. Paul was writing about the impermissibility of sodomy, “people had no idea that there might be men and women attracted to the same sex” and “sodomy was seen as something merely orgiastic at the time, typical of married people who entertained slaves for personal lust.”
“But how can you condemn people who cannot love except the same sex? For some of them it is possible to be chaste, but calling others to chastity seems like speaking Egyptian to them,” he said.
Hollerich added that people can only be held to moral conduct bearable “in their world.”
“If we ask impossible things of them, we will put them off. If we say everything they do is intrinsically wrong, it is like saying their life has no value,” he said. “Many young people came to me as a father and spoke to me about being homosexual. And what does a father do? Does he throw them out or embrace them unconditionally?”
The cardinal also said he finds “the part of the teaching calling homosexuality ‘intrinsically disordered’ a bit dubious.”
“Still, we have to accept all the people and make them feel the love of God. If they feel it, I am sure it will change something in their heart,” he added.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that homosexuality “has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures.” It goes on to say that “basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law” (No. 2357).
Hollerich also was asked to comment on the idea that there is an “effeminate” spirituality in the Church and that it might be to blame for a decade-long decline in vocations to the priesthood.
The cardinal said: “Boys and men disappear in every system that disregards differences in psychology.”
“Looking at the Church, if most of our catechists are women, they will catechize in a feminine way, which will estrange some of the boys. If it is too soft, they will not like it. We have disregarded these differences, and in that sense, have become very feminized,” he said.
Hannah Brockhaus is Catholic News Agency's senior Rome correspondent. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and has a degree in English from Truman State University in Missouri.