Karl-Heinz Menke, Commission Member, on the Impossibility of Sacramental Ordination of Women

On Tuesday, Pope Francis established a commission to examine the issue of women deacons. Understandably, there is great interest in the membership of the commission and the views of its members.

One member, Fr. Karl-Heinz Menke, is Emeritus Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Bonn and member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, recently expressed his views on the subject in an interview with Die Welt. He favors a larger role for women, and sees no dogmatic objection to presiding at baptisms, weddings and funerals by non-ordained people. He is also open to the possibility of female cardinals. But he does not think women can be ordained to the first level of holy orders, the deaconate. He sees only the possibility of a non-sacramental role of “deaconess” for women.

Here, in translation, are excerpts from the interview.

Die Welt: How did the Pope come upon you?
Menke: I don’t know. But I can make some conjectures. In 2013 I published an examination of the topic “Female Deacons?” in the journal Theologie and Philosophie out of Frankfurt. And the Pope named me to the International Theological Commission in 2014.

Die Welt: What, precisely, is the mandate of the new commission on deaconesses?
Menke: This is not yet fixed in writing. I presume that the pope will want to have examined whether the reintroduction of a ministry [Beauftragung] tied to the title “deaconess” could serve the mission of the Church and, not least, the stronger incorporation of women. Although many outsiders wrongly assume so, it does not in any case concern the admission of women to the sacrament of orders (the sacrament of ordination is meant – Ed.). For the Second Vatican Council definitively declared whether the deacon receives the sacrament of orders. The sacrament of orders is received not only by bishop and priest, but also by the deacon. Thus, since there is only one single sacrament of orders (in three levels, i.e. deacon, priest, bishop), the admission of females to sacramental diaconate, bestowed by ordination, would mean their admission also to priestly and episcopal ordination. …

Die Welt: What role did deaconesses play in the early church?
Menke: The office of deaconess represents, in historical retrospect, a very complex phenomenon which is marked by great geographical and temporal differences. In the eastern church there are deaconesses to this day. Meanwhile, the historical sources have been sifted through exhaustively and show clearly: at no time and in no place did the deaconess have a part in the office bestowed by ordination. What is witnessed throughout is the express exclusion from any sort of liturgical service at the altar, public exercise of the ministry of proclamation, and solemn celebration of baptism. In the early church, deaconesses fulfilled charitable services, and administrative ones in part also, similar to today in the Catholic church’s active [karitativ] religious orders: nursing, service to the poor, care for people, etc.

Die Welt: In your view, should we reintroduce a female diaconate?
Karl Heinz Menke: Of course one can consider whether the institutionalization of women’s participation in the form of an office similar to the early church or the eastern church would make sense. But in this it cannot be a matter of officializing or clericalizing whatever can be done in the church. One should take note that, at least in the West, the institution of deaconess was taken over by active [karitativ tätig] women’s orders. The justified call for more participation of women in the church would hardly be met, if at all, by admitting them to an exclusively serving function. Women who were called deaconesses but were not equal to deacons would more likely feel discriminated against than valued more highly. …

Die Welt: Francis said that it should not be difficult to answer the question of deaconesses quickly, for this is an area discussed intensively since the 80s. When will your commission offer its results?
Menke: I know nothing of such a statement by the pope. As a rule, every comparable commission works for three to five years…

36 comments

  1. Well, it’s nice to see that the good dogmatics professor is being, well, dogmatic. 🙂

    Except… what about the well-researched works which show that the ordination prayers were substantially similar between deacons and deaconesses, sometimes being an almost carbon-copy with female names switched for male ones?

    Oh, yes, and except for them being invited into the ikonostasis to receive the chalice.

    Oh, yes, and except for the fact they are vested identically with their male counterparts.

    Oh, yes, and except for the fact that the Armenian Orthodox Church, at least today, seems to be allowing women to proclaim the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy.

    (Should I go on?)

    Actually, I think a better question might be: Is the diaconate the first division of Holy Orders, or is the diaconate a specific, consecrated lay ministry?

    Think about it… a layperson can baptize validly. In places laypersons have been deputized to witness marriages in the name of the Church. A layperson can validly distribute the presanctified Eucharist. A layperson can validly offer a reflection (not sure in Roman law if they can give a ‘homily’ or not) in the context of public worship (usually an office, in my experience)… so with the exception of the homily bit, unless I am missing something, a deacon cannot function in any way beyond any other layperson… it’s just that a layperson has to be commissioned to execute those duties whereas they are intrinsic to a deacon.

    So, if laypersons can do everything a deacon can do… then is the diaconate not a consecrated lay order as opposed to the first level of Holy Orders?

    This then goes hand in hand with a view that acknowledges the fluidity of biblical-patristic-historical evidence on the nature of the priesthood, which in places implies that bishops/presbyters are the same, and in other places implies they are distinct.

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn: If anything, I suppose I am saying “Have we, through the tide of history, managed to clericalize a lay function?”

        Let me here insert that I say this, not to campaign against the ordination of women to the diaconate, but to discuss in reality what the diaconate is.

        Whatever it is, consecrated lay order or constituent element of Holy Orders, it is clear to me that the ancient Church included women within it in many locales, based on the texts I have read.

        An extremely accessible English text for those interested in reviewing some of the rites is Paul Bradshaw’s “Ordination Rites of the Ancient Church of East and West” published, as I recall, by either Pueblo or Liturgical Press (fancy that!).

      2. @Father Robert Lyons:

        Let me here insert that I say this, not to campaign against the ordination of women to the diaconate…

        Oh I understood that, Father, and am glad you raised the issue of “clericalizing a lay function” in relation to the discussions about diaconate. It’s something I’ve been grappling with myself as well.

        Hopefully, this committee will address this question, among others, in their work.

  2. When I first saw the list, I wondered what an expert on the nineteenth century was doing on the commission. Now we know.

    I read that Mueller recommended some of the members. His views are exactly like Menke’s on the sacrament question.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Rita, from what I read, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put forwardhalf the names; the Presidents of major women religious communities the other half — two quite articulate bodies (which leave many voices out), which is why the mix of commission members is quite decidedly “centralized” (with one or two exceptions), I suspect.

      1. @Teresa Berger:
        Yes, I read that too. I was attributing the CDF choices to the Prefect. Do you suppose the whole CDF was co-responsible for the recommendations? My assumption is that they may have offered names but Mueller made the choice. I don’t know; maybe they are more democratic nowadays. When Ratzinger was prefect, my impression is that nothing happened unless he sanctioned it.

        There are a number of “safe hands” in the commission, for sure.

  3. Father Menke’s inclusion is a good sign. Brings to mind the proverb, “Only Nixon could go to China.”

    To answer the query posed by Fr Lyons: certainly, yes. Through many ages in church history the role of disciple has shifted from the baptized to the clergy. Perhaps the question is less who should be admitted to Orders, but what service is exclusive to clergy. Some say, with dogmatic certainty, that women can never be ordained. But can they preach, preside at the sacraments, or serve as pastors? Do these acts require ordination, or the spiritual gifts proper to them to make them fruitful and effective?

  4. “The justified call for more participation of women in the church would hardly be met, if at all, by admitting them to an exclusively serving function. Women who were called deaconesses but were not equal to deacons would more likely feel discriminated against than valued more highly. …”

    Interesting comment, that. Are deacons perceived by the church at large as being in an exclusively serving function?

  5. I appreciate the scholarly/historical research into the practices of the early Church, other uniate Christian rites, and various ordination rites. What I’m not grasping is why there is this sense that we are 100% reliant upon these things (esp. the historical research) to determine how the Body grows into its future. Can’t the Holy Spirit still do new things? Why the presumption that we can only do what has been done before? What if that attitude had taken hold the day after Pentecost?
    I know that this is an overly-simplistic pneumatology, but – through the Spirit – Christ still continues to make all things new.

    1. @Alan Hommerding:
      Alan — I don’t think the presumption is “we can only do what has been done before.” What eventually became the diaconate (Acts 7) was itself a change in the then-established reality. We are not necessarily bound by the past, but we need to know the past to plan creatively for the future.

  6. Alan Hommerding : I appreciate the scholarly/historical research into the practices of the early Church, other uniate Christian rites, and various ordination rites. What I’m not grasping is why there is this sense that we are 100% reliant upon these things (esp. the historical research) to determine how the Body grows into its future.

    I believe it is important because of the ongoing insistence that the Church ‘never did such and such’ as a defense against change when, historically, the Church did!

    That is a separate issue from the Holy Spirit moving differently today than yesterday.

    Rob+

  7. With Pope Francis, I question whether the purpose of discussion is to proceed to resolution. Rather, I think his goal is to frustrate assumptions/expectations that:

    1. We don’t need to discuss things that are resolved;
    2. The only purpose of discussion is to resolve things;
    3. We should resist discussing things that don’t appear likely to be resolved.

    Et cet. (all of the above are sub-types of the Proper Bostonian’s “Why should I travel if I am already there?” perspective I alluded to in a comment on another post yesterday – which is a perspective that be shared by progressives, not just traditionalists…).

    In other words, he’s noticed the trend of the past two pontificates is (a) deep discomfort with messiness, and (ii) a strong desire to push things to Resolved and Done category.

    And, being a Jesuit, he presumably understands that this dynamic is spiritually toxic if allowed to fester.

    Unfortunately, it will likely mean that expectations of resolution will be frustrated because so many people share the above dynamic – it’s been baked into the Catholic cake for a long time.

    1. @Karl LIam Saur#12:

      +1, especially this:

      …the Proper Bostonian’s “Why should I travel if I am already there?” perspective… – which is a perspective that be shared by progressives, not just traditionalists…

      One shouldn’t be surprised but it’s still quite disappointing to see, even when the committee does not even yet have a clearly written mandate (what???), that one committee member, Fr. Karl-Heinz Menke, is already claiming “‘this’ cannot be done!” citing various works that support his own particular views, while another member, Phyllis Zagano, is declaring “‘this’ must be done and therefore, the Pope must do it,” likewise citing all the works that support her own particular views.

      Talk about staying put in the comfort of one’s own beliefs and ideas.

  8. “Think about it… a layperson can baptize validly. In places laypersons have been deputized to witness marriages in the name of the Church. A layperson can validly distribute the presanctified Eucharist. A layperson can validly offer a reflection (not sure in Roman law if they can give a ‘homily’ or not) in the context of public worship (usually an office, in my experience)”

    A priest also can do all those things. Ergo, there is no need for laypersons, so let’s eliminate them.

    Whatever a deacon is, it’s more than a bundle of “can do’s” and “can’t do’s”, just as defining a priest strictly be what he is empowered to do that laypersons can’t is a reductive view of the priesthood.

    Because laypersons are authorized to do certain things doesn’t mean that ordained persons shouldn’t do them, too. Perhaps we should rejoice that laypersons (of many different walks and stations of life) and clergy (of various ‘fullnesses’) can share in the sharing of sacramental life so fully.

  9. If, in the directives given “royal assent” by the Holy Father, women deacons are not ordained but instead are made instituted ministers, a prominent question (problema) appears. Any of Christ’s faithful (christifideles) can pronounce the formula for baptism in emergency, but the full baptismal liturgy includes exorcisms which are prerogatives of major orders. Laypersons and instituted ministers cannot now pronounce the exorcism formulae. So, why would women deacons perform baptisms if they shall be permitted to pronounce the formula but not permitted to pronounce the exorcisms? If women deacons, though not in major orders, are given the power to exorcise, then a seminarian (lector or acolyte) could do the same by corollary. The instituted ministers option is rather messy. This avenue creates difficulties that are not present in the status quo.

    It appears to me that there are only two options: ordain women to major orders according to the ordination rite for men, or maintain the status quo. Half-measures, such as institution, create only chaos. Some of the most memorable homilies and sermons I have heard were delivered by women clergy of liturgical Protestant traditions, and I have been glad to hear the perspective of a cleric who happens to be a woman. I would not at all be scandalized by women deacons, and I suspect many of the laity would likewise agree. Even so, I suspect that the more immediate concern of the Church is not faux-scandal but sacramental integrity. The latter is a maze which may stymie progress.

  10. No, I don’t think so.
    The whole point of getting people together to talk is not that they don’t already have formed opinions. If that were true, all interfaith and ecumenical dialogue would be useless. This group will produce a better outcome if divergent views are heard and considered. Everyone starts from someplace, and the group will all be listeners as well as speakers and discerners,

    1. @Rita Ferrone#16:

      This group will produce a better outcome if divergent views are heard and considered. Everyone starts from someplace, and the group will all be listeners as well as speakers and discerners,

      Well, of course. But this is not the message I got from those two committee members after reading their respective interviews.

      Then again, this may be due to my own bias, since I’m not a fan of either one. Perhaps it is I who ought to get moving along and traveling (lol).

      In any case, I trust Pope Francis and his discernment, if not the committee’s, and cannot wait to see how this actually plays out, and if the recent Synods are any indication, it’s going to be very interesting.

  11. Associated Parishes, a group for liturgical reform in the Episcopal Church, has long argued for disentangling the role of deacons and priests: deacons are ordained deacons permanently, priests are ordained directly to the priesthood. This would address the concerns in Menke’s second paragraph, but I can’t imagine the Catholic Church going there. For that matter, AP has not been able to convince the Episcopal Church of the need for this change, either.

    1. @John Schuster-Craig:

      What is Associated Parishes’s overall consensus on women in orders? The Anglican parish I once worshiped at would only allow the woman vicar of the parish to vest as deacon for High Mass. Eventually, a coalition of parishioners spearheaded by younger grad students “stormed” the vestry and pushed for the priest to take her rightful role as presider. I gave my “yea” to the plot in absentia, but as a Roman Catholic not registered to the parish, my vote was only in solidarity.

      If Associated Parishes’s goal is to lock-out women from the presbyterate and episcopate through advocacy for terminal ordinations to the diaconate, I am certain their plan will fail. I am likewise convinced that artificial divisions in Catholic orders will likewise cause only endless strife and division, if even this is possible. As Karl-Heinz Menke notes,

      “Thus, since there is only one single sacrament of orders (in three levels, i.e. deacon, priest, bishop), the admission of females to sacramental diaconate, bestowed by ordination, would mean their admission also to priestly and episcopal ordination. …”

      The Anglican example above is not congruent with Catholic theology. As Heinz Menke makes clear, tinkering with ordination boundaries will not at all stand in the court of curial opinion. In fact, conciliar teaching, as Heinz Menke notes, simply cannot admit divisions into the sphere of Holy Orders. Facility is irrelevant.

  12. @Teresa Berger#20:

    …the mix of commission members is quite decidedly “centralized”

    @Rita Ferrone#21:

    There are a number of “safe hands” in the commission, for sure.

    What do these phrases –“centralized” and “safe hands” — mean in this context?

  13. Re the term “centralized” I chose: I fished around for a way to describe what struck me about the commission, and never came up with something better. I wanted to describe the fact that most members seem to come out of Rome-related, international circles (e.g., Roman universities, the international theological commission, etc.). And with the two bodies that were asked to choose, certain pre-choices are made, and certain occlusions writ in.
    Sorry if this is no clearer than what “centralized” tried to get at. But as a laywoman and a scholar, it strikes me as a particular choice to let women religious do half of the choosing. I can imagine other choices.

  14. By “safe hands” I mean to suggest there are some people here (not all) who fit snugly within the clerical system that already exists; they may have been chosen because they can be trusted not to challenge it. But I am always open to surprises!

  15. Wasn’t it just last year that the German-speaking bishops to the synod came up with a consensus statement, despite the intense differences they had aired in public? I expect such a consensus here, perhaps a cautious one that supports something like a pilot program that can inform further deliberations for the whole Latin rite. And it will come fairly quickly, if the pope makes it clear he wants that to happen.

    1. @Paul Schlachter:

      I hope that a consensus statement will provide a new way of seeing the discussion. ‘The Church is authorized to address the needs of women’ instead of ‘deaconesses only helped for modesty’s sake.’ It was the needs of women that led to the creation of the deacons in Acts 6, so providing for them is at the heart of the diaconate. Modern society has a greater range of needs today, and it should be possible to agree that women need to help address those needs.

  16. The key part of Fr Menke’s argument seems to be ‘Thus, since there is only one single sacrament of orders (in three levels, i.e. deacon, priest, bishop), the admission of females to sacramental diaconate, bestowed by ordination, would mean their admission also to priestly and episcopal ordination.’ However this argument has been refuted many times by many people. My argument against Fr Menke is that only the bishop has the fullness of the sacrament (see Lumen Gentium chapter 21). He delegates some of his juridical authority to priests but not to deacons. So the three levels of the sacrament carry quite different duties and responsibilities. There is no automatic right to move from one to another. Deacons cannot ‘loose and bind’ as they do not have any power to judge or rule. Hence they cannot hear confessions. As deacons do not have a right to become priests and cannot rule, women can be deacons without contradicting the teachings of St Paul, who was perfectly happy to give Pheobe the title of deacon (not deaconess – he used the male form of the word).

    1. @jane Coll:

      Jane: “There is no automatic right to move from one to another. Deacons cannot ‘loose and bind’ as they do not have any power to judge or rule. Hence they cannot hear confessions.

      A deacon’s permission to preach, and a priest’s permission to preach and hear confessions, are licenses granted by the bishop independent of ordination. After the Second Vatican Council, most deacons and priests automatically receive all licenses at ordination; few are ordained simplex. Yet, in the Tridentine era often priests were ordained without preacher’s licenses or the faculty to hear confession. Sometimes a deacon was ordained to the presbyterate without licenses before he had finished his course of seminary study, only to receive licenses later. In other cases, a deacon ordained priest simplex was not intended to ever preach extemporaneously or hear confessions.

      I strongly doubt should women be ordained to the major order of deacon that a bishop would withhold a license to preach. This is quite illogical, as often this is a deacon’s primary role at Sunday Mass. Should preaching be withheld from women deacons, their primary role at Mass would be to prepare the altar at the offertory, lift the chalice at the per ipsum, and distribute communion. These few responsibilities, besides baptism and marriage officiation, suggest an impoverished role for women in liturgy.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo:
        I wonder why you are linking preaching and hearing confession? Giving absolution involves exercising juridical authority, preaching does not; so no great reason why a female deacon could not preach, after all most catechists and teachers in catholic schools are female.

      2. @jane Coll:

        I explained the way licenses work in the presbyterate only to illustrate that preaching in the diaconate is not a right, but a privilege. I engaged in some speculative thinking as to what would happen if a bishop did not permit women deacons to preach. This is a near impossibility, but might nevertheless be possible. I merely wished to explore what would happen in a nearly impossible case.

        As I noted earlier in #27, most Catholics encounter the diaconate on a regular basis through Sunday preaching. Not allowing women deacons to preach would be illogical at the very least. I certainly agree with you that there are many women who are able to preach. Moreover, this circle of potential preachers extends beyond catechists and teachers to many women, some of whom are not even active in parish administration.

  17. The first thing that stuck me was the bishop’s use of the term “outsiders.” What members of the church are “outsiders” on these issues? Isn’t this a very basic ecclesiological question about the significance of baptism? Then, I thought, “Let’s not jump to conclusions. This is a translation, and he shouldn’t be indicted over one unfortunate English word.” So I looked up the original article (http://www.welt.de/kultur/article157489723/Wenn-Franziskus-will-waeren-Kardinaelinnen-moeglich.html), and, sure enough, his word was Außenstehende, for which there’s no better translation than “outsiders.”

    Woe.

  18. I know Vatican II declared deacons ordained through the Sacrament of Orders, but didn’t Pope Benedict XVI make a slight change to Canon Law which specifies deacons do not act in persona Christi? By doing so, this might open the door to woman being admitted to the Sacrament of Holy Orders?
    Personally, I hope the Pope Francis will decide to allow women to be ordained and not just installed as deacons. Why shouldn’t the Holy Father use his authority to “bind & loose” on this matter.
    I think we should be doing everything we can to make the Gospel message as attractive and intelligible to people of the 21st century. Having women finally able to serve as ordained ministers of the Church, in my humble opinion, would be a giant step forward in reaching more people with the Gospel.
    I also believe this is the answer to welcoming women into the hierarchy of the Church. It is absolutely embarrassing that in 2016 women do not have a deliberative voice in the Church. It’s time.

    1. @Rev. Joseph Devlin:
      Yes, Pope Benedict issued a Motu Proprio ‘Omnium in Mentem’ on 26 October 2009 clarifying that bishops and priests acted In Persona Christi Capitis whereas deacons acted as servants of the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity. So two quite distinct ‘career paths’ and admitting women to one path does not give them access to the other path.

  19. Let me add briefly that perhaps the question of women deacons should not be my interest. I have the unfortunate tendency to consider every question from a logical perspective first. Only when logical possibility has been secured, then I can consider affective concerns. Logical possibility is still tenuous with regard to women in major orders. From my perspective, even the first condition has not been fulfilled.

    I am not a woman or a man who desires to be clergy. I am certain that I would view this issue quite differently were I a woman who earnestly desired to be a deacon. For this reason it is perhaps best that brothers in Christ not comment often on the question of women deacons, as perhaps not a few men consider affective desire a secondary or even tertiary variable.

    I wish that the desires of women who desire to be deacons are fulfilled, and that the Vatican commission and the Holy Father reach a just decision.

  20. “I explained the way licenses work in the presbyterate only to illustrate that preaching in the diaconate is not a right, but a privilege. ”

    FWIW, and I don’t claim subject matter expertise on this, I’ve had it explained to me that, whereas faculties (licenses) are granted by the bishop for such things as celebrating baptism, there are no faculties granted for preaching; the “license to preach” is inherent in one’s ordination.

    The person who explained this to me is very critical of the practice, fairly common I believe, in which some or all deacons in some dioceses are not permitted to preach. For example, in my own archdiocese, Chicago, the first classes of the permanent diaconate were not allowed to preach because they had not had homiletics training as part of their formation.

    But according to this view which I’m summarizing here, the power to selectively prohibit preaching does not really exist. The rule would be: If you don’t want him (and perhaps soon, her) to preach, then don’t ordain him (her). And if you do ordain him (her), you’ve essentially granted him (her) the responsibility and privilege of preaching.

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      At least in the Middle Ages the right to preaching was seen to be the privilege of bishops, which they could, if they wished, extend to others. When the Order of Preachers was founded in the 13th century someone at the Vatican asked (perhaps waggishly) if this was to be an order of bishops.

      Of course, this is not how people view these things these days, at least where presbyters are concerned.

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