National Catholic Register


Only Men Can Be Deacons

BY Michael J. Miller

December 9-15, 2001 Issue | Posted 12/9/01 at 2:00 PM


Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who has taught Catholic dogmatic theology at the University of Munich for years, recently stated: “Any theology professor at a German university knows that the female students are in no way inferior to their male colleagues with regard to intellectual ability, spiritual vocation and personal qualifications, or in their dedication to the Church and to the Gospel.”

Professor Müller has dealt with questions about women and ordination while serving as a consultant to the German Bishops Conference and member of the International Theological Commission. He is no stranger to the high-voltage emotion with which some approach the issue, and he stands squarely with the magisterial finding, expressed in the 1994 declaration, Ordinatio sacerdotalis, that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”

To explain this teaching to horrified German intellectuals, Müller distilled his research in two books, Women in the Church and The Recipient of Holy Orders. Meanwhile, feminists in academia opted for a change of strategy: If not priesthood, then at least the diaconate.

Different rules govern church-state relations in Germany and Austria, and universities have been extremely politicized since 1968. Lately, elected officials in Germany have actually advocated state funding to train Catholic women to become deacons.

On Sept. 17, the Holy See responded with a “notification” warning against programs designed to prepare Catholic women for the diaconate. The document, signed by prefects of three Vatican congregations, says that such programs create “hopes which are lacking a solid doctrinal foundation and which can generate pastoral disorientation.”

Müller addresses the controversy in a book, Priesthood and Diaconate, slated to be published by Ignatius Press in the spring. This article summarizes his arguments for an all-male diaconate.

Historical Honesty

Proponents of ordaining women deacons argue that this would be a return to early Church practice. German women students, scouring the libraries for dissertation material, have marshaled evidence. In a list of greetings (Romans 16:1 ff.), St. Paul first mentions Phoebe, calling her a diakonos, “servant.” The feminine form, diakonissa, is a specifically Christian development. Many third- and fourth-century patristic documents mention deaconesses; a few contain prayers for their consecration.

Müller observes that Church history is often “misused as an arsenal of weapons for the ideological battle of the day.” The servants at the wedding in Cana are called diakonoi, too, but no one imagines that Christ ordained them. “The trouble is that the terms diakonos, diakonein and diakonia [servant, to serve, service] were applied to very different sorts of functions and activities,” he writes.

Objective inquiries into the duties of a “deaconess” are bound to disappoint feminists. Often it was an honorific title for the deacon's wife. (Similarly, a woman married to a German Ph.D. is addressed as “Frau Doktor So-und-so,” regardless of her credentials.) In this restricted sense, there were also “priestesses” and “episcopesses.” A prerequisite, though, was a vow of celibacy as their husbands embarked on a second career in ministry.

The other modest function of early Christian deaconesses resembled that of an RCIA sponsor for women catechu-mens (toweling them down after baptism by immersion, etc.). By the end of the fourth century the office had disappeared in both East and West.

Müller makes clear that there can be no question of “re”-introducing a ministry for deaconesses. Attempts to draw parallels with the recent reinstatement of the permanent diaconate are misleading. The magisterium has always taught that the ordained diaconate is an essential part of the hierarchical structure of the Church, together with the priesthood and the episcopate. Despite Protestant attempts to drive a wedge between New Testament times and the fourth-century Church emerging from the catacombs, this teaching continues unaltered from Ignatius of Antioch (died ca. 107) to the Council of Trent, and was reaffirmed by Vatican II (see Lumen gentium 20, 28–29).

The signature of Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy, on the notification of Sept. 17 vouches for the historical fact of an all-male Catholic clergy.

Disprove claims about early Christian deaconesses, and frequently the subject changes to the Church's sins of misogyny. People look at female Lutheran and Anglican pastors and ask when Catholics will stop “discriminating” against women.

Of course, Church policy cannot be decided by opinion polls, sociology or psychology. There must be theological grounds for ordaining men only.

The Western world sees man in terms of “self-creation, self-realization and self-glorification”, but this “is incompatible with the Christian understanding of man in his relationship to God, who creates and perfects man.”

Christian anthropology, founded on Scripture, teaches that male and female are equal in dignity but not identical. The distinct and complementary roles of man and woman are part of the order built into creation. They are made for each other and find fulfillment in relating to one another as persons — another way of saying that they are made in the divine image.

At the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity entered the human family as a male. “The masculinity of Jesus is part of the Logos' self-expression in the flesh,” notes Müller.

The ancient Christian churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, teach that Christ, in his pastoral relationship to his Church, can be represented only by a baptized male.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger signed the Sept. 17 notification to testify that the ineligibility of women for ordination is not mere custom, but rather a doctrine of the faith, based on divine revelation.

Instituted by Christ

“The vote in favor of a women's diaconate,” Müller points out, “has become part of the ritual at [diocesan] synods, academic conferences and workshops.” From their fall-back position, the radicals keep trying to redefine Church.

In Ordinatio sacerdotalis, the Pope called the question about ordaining women a “matter of great importance … which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself.” Our Savior's divine-human life, in union with his Church, continues in and through the sacraments. Today's bishops are not free to change the number or nature of the sacraments, because they were instituted by Christ himself: “It is precisely in the sacraments that the Church recognizes the absolute autonomy of revelation and the limits of human competence.”

Is it discriminatory to require that a candidate for matrimony receive the sacrament with a willing partner of the opposite sex?

No, this requirement for validity is inscribed in human nature and the order of creation. Neither is it discriminatory, then, to require a candidate for holy orders to be of the male sex.

The same theological arguments used to defend the all-male priesthood apply to the diaconate. Christ did not institute three kinds of ordination, but one sacrament of holy orders comprising three degrees: bishop, priest and deacon. Despite some initial uncertainty in terminology, this is plainly taught in the New Testament and the post-Apostolic age. “Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the bishop as the image of the Father, and the presbyters as the senate of God and the assembly of the apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church” (Ignatius of Antioch, Trallians 2:3–3:1).

The Church's liturgy is an expression, not of consensus, but of her own divinely instituted, sacramental character. Therefore Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, is also a signatory to the Sept. 17 notification.

Hydra-headed challenges from the “soft sciences” notwithstanding, the Church cannot re-engineer her clergy to suit contemporary tastes.

In his forthcoming book, Gerhard Ludwig Müller places the Catholic tradition of ordaining men in its proper perspective of creation theology and the sacramental constitution of the Church:

“The [perennial] practice of the Catholic Church, of conferring the Sacrament of Holy Orders only upon baptized men who are in full communion with it, is unanimous. It is rooted in the belief that, according to the institutional will of Christ, only a man can receive this Sacrament validly, not because of a superiority of men over women, but because the Sacrament of Orders presupposes the natural symbolism of the relation between husband and wife.”

In other words: “The job description for the female diaconate has no theological foundation.”

Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller into English for Ignatius Press.