The same and yet different?

The same and yet different?

Discussion about female deacons in the Catholic Church © shutterstock

In the discussion about the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg speaks out in favor of a diaconate for women as an office in its own right. Would that be the solution to a decades-long dispute?

For Augsburg Bishop Bertram Meier, it is the future: women could be commissioned for diaconal ministry, "but also formed with their own profile." He said last weekend in the faith podcast "About God and the world" of the "Augsburger Allgemeine". An office similar to the permanent diaconate for men, but tailored to women – that is what the bishop can imagine.

The future role of women in the Catholic Church is one of the central points of discussion in the reform efforts of the Synodal Way. While Catholic women's associations and lay people in particular are calling for more responsibility and access to ordained ministry for women, Rome and numerous bishops are of the opinion that ordained ministry is reserved for men alone.

Deacon as a precursor to the priesthood

The reason: In the Catholic Church, the deacon is considered a preliminary step to the priest. The ordination of deacon, priest and bishop are inextricably linked, and because women cannot become priests under Catholic doctrine – as Pope John Paul II noted. 1994 in his letter "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" for the last time clear – they may also not become deaconesses.

The fact that since 1968 married men can be ordained as "permanent deacons", but they do not aspire to the priesthood, does not change anything in this regard. They may administer the sacrament of baptism and preach, but not preside at Mass or hear confessions. Women are deprived of this office.

Would this mean that the "diaconal ministry" with "its own profile" for women, cited by Bishop Meier, would be a solution? "If we succeeded in forming a diaconate of women that would correspond to women and not just be a copy or a knock-off of the permanent diaconate, then I see the future in it," he told the "Augsburger Allgemeine" newspaper. Whether the ecclesiastical commissioning should take place in the form of a blessing or a sacramental ordination, he left open. However, he warned against endangering the unity of the tripartite sacrament of Holy Orders. If women were ordained as deacons, they would rightly criticize the fact that they could only reach the lowest level, he said.

The debate about the diaconate of women is not new – already during the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), in the course of the introduction of the permanent diaconate, there were suggestions to think about a diaconate of women according to the model of the early church. The German dioceses deepened these thoughts in the course of the deliberations of the Wurzburg Synod in the 1970s and finally sent a vote to Rome with the recommendation to resume the ordination of deaconesses. The answer from Rome is still pending.

The debate gained new momentum in 2013. At that time, Cardinal Walter Kasper made a proposal to the German Bishops' Conference for "a new office with its own profile". In doing so, he praised the charism and competence of women in the Church, but at the same time made it clear that they "cannot have a function at the altar" and should not be "the female equivalent of the male deacon". Instead of ordination, there could be a "sacramental laying on of hands similar to the ordination of abbesses," Kasper said, which would then commission them to pastoral, charitable, catechetical and certain liturgical ministries.

For Mary 2.0 unacceptable

Even then, the "Netzwerk Diakonat der Frau" criticized the proposal as insufficient. One holds on to the demand for a sacramental ordination, "everything else would see women as devaluation up to discrimination", said the chairman Irmentraud Kobusch at that time.

And even today, church women's movements do not like the Augsburg bishop's idea. For the theologian Maria Mesrian of the Maria 2 initiative.0, it is unacceptable: "Because behind it lies the same discriminatory attitude that has been practiced for centuries by the Church toward women."She calls the exclusion of women from ordination a "violation of human rights" because it discriminates against women. That the Church refers to the doctrinal letter of John Paul II in this regard. She sees the question of women's ordination as a theological problem: "When the church says it has no authority, it pretends to know whom God wants to authorize to do what," she says. That, he said, is a judgment on God that no one should presume to make.

Dogmatist Hoping speaks of "cheating package"

Also the dogmatist Prof. Helmut Hoping of the University of Freiburg considers the idea of a specifically female diaconate to be difficult: one must ask where the plus lies in comparison to other ministries such as pastoral or parish assistants, he says. "And if they end up being identical to those of ordained deacons, whether in the area of liturgy, preaching or diakonia, that is a sham". That would leave many women feeling fobbed off with a "second-class diaconate". As a dogmatist, he does not consider the proposal to be purposeful "because theologically it would cause some confusion and need for clarification." He doubts that such a specific office will come for women.

But despite decades of demands, the opening of the office of deacon to women is not currently expected either. It is true that Pope Francis had appointed a commission in 2016 to investigate early Christian tasks and offices of female deacons. In May 2019, however, the head of the church said that the work had not led to a unanimous result, as had previous studies by the International Theological Commission. In the spring of 2020, the pope appointed a new study commission on the subject, the results of which are still pending. But also he has made clear again and again – as for example in the post-synodal letter "Querida Amazonia": sacramental ordinations for women will not exist under him.

Soon is "Day of the Deaconess"

Maria Mesrian of Maria 2.0 goes one step further by fundamentally putting the ordained ministry in its current form up for discussion: "Abuse of power and the cover-up of sexual abuse are closely linked to clericalism, the inflated image of priests and ordained ministries. If they are exercised incorrectly, they lead to abuse." In 2018, the MHG study on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church had also worked this out. Therefore, Mesrian continues, the question must be allowed, "whether we do not have to think about the offices and ordination in the Church in a completely new way".

On 29. April is the "Day of the Deaconess," celebrated annually since 1997 on the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena. Once again, Catholic women's associations such as the Catholic Women's Community of Germany (kfd) or the Network Diaconate of Women will demand equal rights for women and men in the church and access for women to all ministries and offices. This year's motto is "Just": "Living and acting justly are Christian missions," reads a joint statement, "But how justly is it done in the church itself??", questions this. Women representatives know they need patience and staying power. The Catholic Church is known to think in centuries.

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