Pope Francis has ruled out a woman ever serving as a priest in the Roman Catholic church.
The declaration is not a change in stance for the Argentinian pope, who has always said the door was closed on women being ordained as priests.
But when he was asked and then pressed on the matter by a Swedish journalist during a press conference onboard the papal plane, Francis suggested the ban would be eternal.
“Saint Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands,” Francis said in his initial response, referring to a 1994 document stating that women could never join the priesthood.
“But for ever, for ever? Never, never?” the reporter asked in a follow-up question, as the papal delegation flew back to Rome from Sweden on Tuesday.
Francis replied: “If we read carefully the declaration by St John Paul II, it is going in that direction.”
The pope went on to say women did “many other things better than men”, emphasising what has been called the “feminine dimension of the church”.
“People ask me: ‘Who is more important in the theology or in the spirituality of the church, the apostles or Mary, on the day of Pentecost?’ It is Mary,” he said. He then added: “More.”
But Francis’s praise of women will do little to comfort feminist Catholics who want women to have a broader role in the church, including ordination.
The church has always responded to criticism of the ban on women by pointing out that Jesus only chose men as his apostles. Proponents of a change argue, among other points, that the church is facing a shortage of priests.
Francis seemed to open the possibility that women might become ordained ministers earlier this year, when he commissioned a study of the role female deacons played in the early church.
Women have been barred from the priesthood for centuries. Under current rules, deacons are ordained similarly to ministers, and are men. While they cannot celebrate mass, they are allowed to preach and conduct some ceremonies, including baptisms, wakes and funerals.
The pope’s remarks came a day after he signed a joint declaration with Lutherans, which commemorated the Reformation and stated that the two Christian traditions had more in common than differences. When he landed in Sweden, Francis was greeted by the female head of the Swedish Lutheran church, Antje Jackelén.
The issue of women’s inequality in the Catholic church remains a hot topic among activists, despite Francis’s position. At a recent gathering, representatives of Catholic priest movements and international lay organisations called for reform on issues including equality for women and LGBT rights.
In a statement released by organisers, Kate McElwee, the co-executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, said: “In this space, we wrestled with the damaging effects of oppressive structures, knowing that patriarchy and hierarchy hurt us all.
“We discovered, time and again, that by sharing as equals and asking hard questions, we can transform ourselves, our church and our world.”