Theologian Dismisses Call for Women ‘Deacons’

They would not be ordained to the sacrament of holy orders, he advises, and calling them deacons would be ‘ambiguous.’

German Archbishop Robert Zollitsch recently discussed the possibility of a 'specific office' of women deacons.
German Archbishop Robert Zollitsch recently discussed the possibility of a 'specific office' of women deacons. (photo: Deutsche Bischofskonferenz)

BERN, Switzerland — Theologian Father Manfred Hauke said recent comments from a German archbishop appearing to support a particular diaconate for women are confusing to Catholics and others.

“Allowing women to be deacons would create great confusion for the faithful,” Father Hauke, a professor of patristics and dogmatics at the Theological Faculty of Lugano, told Catholic News Agency April 30.

“You would have to explain to them the difference between male and female deacons,” he pointed out.

Female “deacons” would not be ordained to the sacrament of holy orders, and calling them “deacons” would be “ambiguous,” Father Hauke said. Women could “receive a benediction for services of charity” but not ordination, he clarified.

At the conclusion of a diocesan conference on possible Church reforms last week, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg im Breisgau discussed the possibility of “a specific office of deacon for women.”

This “specific” or “particular” office of deacon for women was an example of how the Church might “promote the use of new Church ministries and positions, open also to women,” he said.

Archbishop Zollitsch went on to speak of the importance of leadership roles for women and had earlier talked of the importance of being a more strongly charismatic-oriented Church and the strengthening of the “common priesthood of all the baptized.”

He believes the Church needs to commit to reform in order to regain credibility and strength.

Father Hauke said that Archbishop Zollitsch, who was ordained a priest in 1965, has made some confusing remarks on previous occasions and that he probably “got his idea” to introduce a “specific office of deacon for women” from fellow German Cardinal Walter Kasper.

However, Cardinal Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, had clearly distinguished between a service ministry for women and the sacramental ordination of men as deacons.

Father Hauke said that most people who advocate for women deacons “ultimately want women in the priesthood.”

The Code of Canon Law makes clear that ordination, including to the diaconate, is validly received only by “a baptized male,” and Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Priestly Ordination) teaches definitively that only men may be ordained priests.

On May 29, 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed that whoever “shall have attempted to confer holy orders on a woman” — including necessarily the diaconate — “as well as the woman who may have attempted to receive holy orders, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”


‘No Historical Basis’

Father Hauke noted that, in 2003, the International Theological Commission “published a document with evidence that we have no historical basis for the sacramental diaconate being bestowed on women.”

And, in September 2001, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and the prefects of the Congregations of Divine Worship and Clergy prepared a document, which was approved by John Paul II. It affirmed that “it is not licit to put in place initiatives which in some way aim to prepare female candidates for diaconal ordination,” according to the Italian paper La Stampa.

Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg has said he can appreciate Archbishop Zollitsch’s call for a greater role for women in the Church but that the sacramental diaconate cannot be received by females.

He was quick to distance himself from Archbishop Zollitsch’s remarks and said that a non-sacramental female diaconate would not satisfy the desire for a greater leadership role by women in the Church.

Bishop Voderholzer pointed out that abbesses, general superiors and school principals all generally have more influence than deacons.

“The sacramental diaconate — like the priesthood and episcopacy — is inextricably a sacrament, which, according to the Bible-based Tradition of the Church — even the Eastern Churches — is reserved to men,” he stated April 28.

Some have called for the ordination of women deacons by noting ancient documents referring to “deaconesses,” including a letter by St. Paul.

Father Hauke responded that, in such instances, the “deaconesses” referred to in the documents “cannot be identified as really deacons.”

The word “deacon” comes from a Greek word which simply meant “servant,” and so early references to “deaconesses” signify women in roles of service in the Church.

In the early Church, which more frequently practiced baptism by immersion, such “deaconesses” assisted in the baptism of females for the sake of modesty.

These deaconesses were servants of the Church but were not sacramental deacons, as there is no mention of a bishop laying hands on them in an act of ordination.