Abbot Primate Notker Wolf on Leadership, the CDF, and Women’s Ordination

Notker WolfAbbot Primate Notker Wolf, OSB, was recently at St. John’s Abbey and University and Liturgical Press in Collegeville. Abbot Primate Notker, originally from Germany, is the worldwide head of the Benedictine order and resides at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. He is the author of the just-released Liturgical Press book The Art of Leadership. On Thursday, April 3, he delivered an address in Collegeville, “What are the Characteristics of Effective Leaders?” (Full video below.)

Abbot Notker is an accomplished musician. At Midday Prayer in the School of Theology•Seminary, Abbot Notker played selections on his classical flute. He is also well-known as an electric guitarist and occasionNotker Wolf guitarally plays with the German rock group Feedback.

Pray Tell readers will appreciate the entire talk given by the Benedictine leader. Two excerpts are particularly interesting – the Abbot Primate’s remarks on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican body which oversees Catholic doctrine, and his remarks on women in ordained ministry.

At 1:09:45 in the video, the abbot says this about the CDF:

So sincerity, transparency, these are values in our times we need to respect also in our monasteries. And very often we were told, No we don’t. You can (?) tell it to this man. It depend upon the way how you are telling it. But everyone has to get the truth. I wonder when this will be always (?) the case now under Pope Francis. When you are accused at the CDF you will never know up until now who is accusing you, in order to respond in the right way. No, you have to defend yourself as if it would be just an objective accusation. If I would know the man or the woman I could say, “Sorry, my dear Cardinal Müller, this is a revenge. Somebody tries really to kill me. It’s not true, I didn’t say it in that way.” But you have to defend, to fight again like in the dark – and this is not possible. This is not according to the gospel.

At 24:25 in the video, the Abbot Notker says this about women’s ordination:

And the most problematic thing was clericalism. And he [Francis] is talking very much against clericalism. And I think only when we have resolved that problem, we can start to speak about women’s ordination. Because it would be horrible if we start clericalism even among women. And I think they are doing so much good to the church. They are just a double number of the priests. And now they want also clericalism. I don’t say that, I just… But it seems sometimes so.

I think first we have to find the new figure of a priest as a pastor. And then we can say, what’s the role of a woman in such a context? And this looks maybe different than we are expecting.


  1. I am not so sure transparency would be assisted by allowing individuals, who are perhaps relatively powerful in the Church, to blackball their accusers. That is not in accordance with the Gospel either.

    I think, without an equally strong call for protection for whistle blowers in the Church, this kind of comment can seem like an attempt to avoid accountability due to ones status. I don’t know if that is the case here, not having watched the video due to internet issues, but I think care needs to be taken.

    In terms of the comments regarding women, perhaps some context might assist?

    In my own diocese, we already have parishes whose pastor is a women, in the form of a lay female parish administrator under Canon 517, with the priest having a more restricted and sacramentally focused role. I understand this structure came from a trip our former Bishop had in Germany, where this is more common.

    Maybe this is the context from which the good abbot speaks? Approaches which might be accepted as orthodox, if novel, without reopening doors which have been closed?

  2. “And the most problematic thing was clericalism. And he [Francis] is talking very much against clericalism. And I think only when we have resolved that problem, we can start to speak about women’s ordination. Because it would be horrible if we start clericalism even among women.”

    Women’s ordination campaigns like our own Catholic Women’s Ordination in the UK are I think all clear that they are looking for a renewed ministry including women and, naturally, rejecting clericalism.

    What puzzles me personally is, why on earth is it acceptable to ordain a young person who is not a woman into a condition admittedly so beset with clericalism? This is an equally horrible thing to do.

    1. @Cathy Wattebot – comment #2:
      You raise an excellent point about the double standard implicit in the argument, Cathy.

      For those who are so concerned to protect women from becoming clericalistic, do they suppose that men are immune to this problem or better able to resist it? Men are the ones, after all, who have given us so many examples that we define the phenomenon from the framework of their experience!

      It oddly suggests that women are particularly prey to seeking ordination for all the wrong reasons, or are really “the weaker sex” unable to withstand the temptation to clericalism. Strange and sad to think this way.

      As with so many other things pertaining to ministry, I think that discernment of motivations and oversight of personal development and wholeness are so important. Holiness and maturity are always a work in progress. The right critique is of the clerical system as a whole, which sometimes makes it harder than it should be.

  3. I think only when we have resolved that problem, we can start to speak about women’s ordination.

    I think this closes the door on women’s ordination more effectively than John Paul Ii’s decrees.

  4. Before we begin denouncing “clericalism”, I think it is important to make clear what it is we are denouncing.

    Clericalism certainly manifests itself in a number of ways that should be denounced by clergy and laity alike: a sense of being above the law (ecclesiastical or civil); disregard of, neglect toward, or even downright abuse of the laity; a desire to obscure or withhold the legitimate rights of the faithful; a sense of entitlement (and a whole host of other narcissistic tendencies); favoritism and spiritual ‘nepotism’; despising the respect due one’s state and office; backbiting other clergy for acting in ways that fit under Church discipline, inter alia.

    These aspects of clericalism know no distinctions of age, place, rank, or ideology. It is hard to think anyone would defend them.

    There are a whole host of other things that come part and parcel with maintaining a priestly identity that, while maybe not “liked” by certain laity or clergy, should not be considered clericalism provided they are maintained in a healthy balance with other facets of personality and ministry:
    – openness toward (but not demand of) actions on the part of the laity to give respect due to his priestly character;
    – wearing of clerical attire (and to be picky, in US particular law this is defined as a clerical suit or a cassock);
    – expectation of professional courtesies (e.g. a reasonable expectation of being called Fr. Lastname);
    – maintaining some degree of boundaries between himself and the laity should he so desire (even if this is perceived as ‘coldness’ by some) — remember different personality types have different needs;
    – personal integrity that comes with holding to the doctrines of and following the disciplines of the Church (together with the expectation that others do the same);
    – a desire to spend social time with other priests;

    Some might consider these to be part of “clericalism” — but I do not, and could never denounce a notion of “clericalism” that encompasses them.

  5. We have always addressed popes by their first names as in Pope Francis rather than Pope Bergoglio. If this is apt for the servant of the servants, why not for the servants? Religious have also been most commonly addressed by their first names. For the life of me I don’t know what other than clericalism would prompt an aversion by some priests of being addressed by their first names along with the title Father. No one would object to priests wishing to spend some time with other priests, but not if this involves an avoidance of spending time with parishioners in social settings.Is Christ responsible for establishing the sacramental character of ministerial priests as superior to the sacramental character of his priestly people? Clerical attire is a rather late development but clearly it emerged at a time when priests were regarded as superior to the laity so as to set them apart. When the temple police came for Jesus in the garden they needed someone who knew him to point him out. Guess he wasn’t wearing distinctive garb? So if the master didn’t do this why should his disciples? Anything priests can do to identify with those they serve as fellow disciples, all the better.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #6:
      At least as an adult, I have referred to all my parish priests by their first name, and we’ve always been on good terms. In fact, one priest I was and continue to be very fond of had his first name as Edward, so we all called him Fred as in Fr.Ed. I actually think to some degree the laity clothe a sort of clericalism on their priests, and some of the priests are all too willing to put the garment on.

  6. “women’s ordination … it would be horrible if we start clericalism even among women.”

    This is an excuse to not ordain women. Yes, a more Pope Francis style excuse (he said basically the same thing in an interview) but still just an excuse. Excuses like this will certainly not convince most Catholics, mush less the rest of the world.

  7. Clericalism among women doesn’t exist? What about the refusal by women religious to face up to their own crimes of physical and sexual abuse? Women religious display all the bad aspects of clericalism that priests do.

    Mr. Morelli successfully points out the bad clericalism present among too many of our clergy, Such clericalism exists even (or especially?) among those who constantly denounce clericalism.

  8. Clericism is just the church’s version of the in-group loyalty and self-interested dishonesty that exists in many groups (example: police corruption). It’s human nature and it’s not gender specific.

  9. I agree with what Rita said about Cathy Wattebot’s double standard argument, and I say that as someone who has expressed concern about women and clericalism. Regrettably I have expressed my concerns inadequately, I believe. And I wholeheartedly agree about Rita’s comment that women are “particularly prey” is problematic.

    This post and thread cause me to try to better articulate myself. The point made in Cathy’s comment, about “renewed ministry is what I personally have not focused on enough.

    Here in my diocese we have many women who lead parish communities, that have priests, often retired, to celebrate liturgy and sacraments. Of late, a new model has emerged, where parishes are clustered with the “business leadership” taken over by a deacon, often a retired businessperson. We have a new bishop, so who knows what will follow.

    Back to leadership, I often find that quality lacking in general. My point of view is perhaps tainted by a long corporate career where I learned more about leadership from what was not done, rather than what was. In parishes, often time trustees, finance committee members, pastoral council people, and others bring their “business” acumen to the table, but what sorely lacks are pastoral gifts, whether undeveloped or not present. Priests seem to often times doubt their own skills as true leaders, and turn over the controls in some ways. This is a lack of integrity, a poor eucharistic model!

    Anyway, let me say that gender does not determine leaders. One of the strongest pastoral leaders in my diocese, truly a pastor, is a woman. Two worker priests, and one retired priest assist her in a very vibrant parish. The model truly works, in that regard.

    The question remains for me, although I wonder if I veer far off topic, is this… why conflate ordination and leadership? Sometimes I think that is part of the problem in questions about women and ordination. Yet, I fully understand that with a priest-led model, the conflation must exist.

    1. @Fran Rossi Szpylczyn – comment #12:
      As shorthand, I can’t think of a better definition of clericalism that to equate ordination and leadership — you can’t be a leader without being ordained — and your last paragraph takes us right back to Abbot Notker’s comments. To borrow your language, I hear him saying that as long as too many in the church conflate ordination and leadership, the church cannot have an honest conversation about either one.

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