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…