YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – “Why don’t we have women Cardinals in the Church?” quipped Sister Josée Ngalula, the first–ever African woman to be a member of the International Theological Commission.

It was a witty remark – one that centered the conversation on how women can have a greater say in the Vatican. This was the major concern of African women religious and the laity, as they met from March 7-March 11 at the Hekima University College in Nairobi, Kenya, on the occasion of the International Conference on African Women Theologians.

Giving women a greater voice in Church affairs has become an issue of deep concern for the Church, especially given their numbers: Only a negligible 3 percent of them are in positions of leadership in the Church.

While the topic of women’s ordination was frequently raised at the Nairobi meeting, the majority of the women emphasized that it was not their immediate focus. Instead, they were more concerned with how the Church could start dismantling the longstanding obstacles that have disparaged and silenced women’s voices within its institutions.

Ngalula, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, suggested that one way of addressing those historical injustices is to return to the Church tradition wherein even lay Christians could be appointed cardinals, given that the role of the cardinal is to elect and offer counsel to the pope.

“Women are the majority in the Church, the laity is the majority in the Church, and here in Africa, young people are the majority in the Church. Then you see around the pope, those three categories are not represented: No laity, no women, no youths,” she said.

“If we look at the history of the Church, to be a cardinal, you don’t need to have the sacrament of holy orders. You don’t need to be a priest to be a cardinal. You don’t need to be a bishop to be a cardinal. This is the tradition of the Church,” she said .

In 2013, Jesuit Father Frederico Lombardi, the former director of the Holy See’s press office, made similar statements by indicating that making women cardinals was both “theologically and theoretically possible.”

“Being a cardinal is one of those roles in the Church for which theoretically, you don’t have to be ordained,” he stated.

Ngalula argues that appointing women or lay Christians as cardinals should be guided by their competence, wisdom and service, because it isn’t the sacraments that counsels the pope but “your wisdom, your experience that counsels.”

“To be a cardinal is not linked to the sacrament of the order and so a lay person, male or female can be cardinal in the Catholic Church. A religious man or woman can be cardinal in the Church. Then why not appoint laity, men and women who have wisdom in our Church as cardinals-counselors of the pope to contribute to the decision-making in the Catholic Church.”

Doing away with hierarchy

The participants further argued for a reevaluation of the Church’s hierarchical structure in favor of synodality to ensure that women’s voices are heard. Sister Teresa Okure from Nigeria advocated for a revival of the Church’s foundational teachings as a means to dismantle the existing, disconcerting hierarchy.

“We need to begin the conversation from the hierarchy of the Church,” the Nigerian theologian said.

“Hierarchy and synodality are contradictory in terms. We need to remove hierarchy which is not Gospel and go back to the foundations of the Church as synodality suggests,” she explained.

Sister Chin Ngoinso of Cameroon added rather sarcastically that Church hierarchies have often treated competent women religious as “placeholders, spare tires” waiting to be ejected when a male counterpart is available.

But one of the few African women delegates on the ongoing Synod on Synodality warned that the search for a space for women’s voices to be heard in the Church should not be confused with the fight for ordination.

“If we are fighting clericalism, we have to be careful not to make it look like for women to be heard and to be included in decision-making in the Church, then, they must be ordained,” said Dr. Nora Monterah.

The conference underscored the pivotal role of women as the Church’s cornerstone, fully capable of articulating their perspectives. The attendees called upon the Church to embrace the ethos of synodality, to protect women on the fringes, recognize their tribulations, foster their empowerment, and confront cultures that perpetuate oppression.

Acknowledging that “women can deliver,” Father Marcel Uwineza – a native of Rwanda – gave as example the important role women played in restoring peace post-genocide Rwanda.

“In Rwanda, women held positions in key institutions established to deal with the challenges of reconciliation in the aftermath of the genocide against the Tutsi,” he said.

“They worked in ‘The Unity and Reconciliation Commission and Gacaca transitional jurisdictions. The Gacaca courts, a community-based justice system, appointed local judges to preside over the hearings of individuals accused of participating in the genocide. These courts dealt with all charges except for the orchestration of the genocide itself,” he said.

Uwineza said the women were “considered good and honest witnesses and they played a major role as community mediators and contributed to resolving conflicts using traditional Rwandan practices of conflict resolution.”

He said it was probably in recognition of women’s capacity to deliver that Pope Francis assigned them to handle key responsibilities in the Synod on Synodality.