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Cardinal Schönborn Backtracks on the Possibility of Female Priests and Bishops

The Austrian cardinal just gave an interview to an Austrian TV channel in which he now claims that the ordination of female priests is not permissible. However, women might somehow still be admitted to the first stage of sacramental ordination: namely, the diaconate.

Speaking (at minute 34) with a journalist from the TV channel on 18 June, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria says that “what is right now being considered is the diaconate, that is the first degree of ordination” when asked whether, in the future, there will be female priests. The prelate thereby affirms that he thinks of a sacramental ordination of female deacons. “There have been female deacons in earlier centuries, and that could also be again reintroduced,” he explains.

However, the cardinal adds, “there have never been female priests in the Catholic Church, from the beginning not.” Therefore, “this [female priests] would be such a deep incision [sic – “Eingriff”] into the 2,000-year-old tradition, and even Pope Francis has said that this [possibility] is not foreseen in the Tradition.”

Cardinal Schönborn is here somewhat backtracking from earlier comments that he had made on 1 April of this year. As we reported, he then claimed that a future Ecumenical Council could very well decide to admit women to the priesthood, and even to the episcopal office. “The question of ordination [of women] is a question which clearly can only be clarified by a Council,” the cardinal said and added that, with ordination of women, he meant “deaconesses, female priests, and female bishops.” He also insisted that changes with regard to female ordination should not be decided upon by the Pope himself, but by an Ecumenical Council.

In the wake of this controversial 1 April interview, on 30 May, Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer – the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – published a statement in the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in which he re-states the Church’s disallowance of the ordination of women to the priesthood. He insisted that this teaching is part of the Church’s infallible Magisterium.

Therefore, it seems that Cardinal Schönborn’s new and updated 18 June remarks have to be seen in view of this doctrinal correction and affirmation from Rome.

However, as can be seen in his new comments, this cardinal still sees it possible to ordain women to the diaconate, something that is also effectively impossible since the diaconate is part of the three-fold Sacrament of Holy Orders, which includes deacons, priests, and bishops. Experts insist that, therefore, the ordination of women to the diaconate is impossible, as well.

As we reported earlier, in response to the Ladaria statement, several progressivist voices in Germany have drawn similar conclusions to Cardinal Schönborn’s own, with regard to the female ordination question. For example, in their response to Ladaria’s recent statement, the Washington D.C.-based lobby group Women’s Ordination Conference itself highlights that the Prefect of the CDF did not, however, explicitly mention female deacons in his statement disallowing female priests. This group said:

Lastly, we note that Archbishop Ladaria, who was appointed by Pope Francis in 2016 to lead a study commission on the issue of women deacons, has omitted mention of that subject in this article [by Ladaria]. As we continue to await news from that commission, we hope this omission is significant.

Moreover, the news website of the German Catholic bishops,, shows itself surprised at the Ladaria statement, but then adds:

One thing, however, is striking: the word “diaconate” or “ordination of deacons” does not appear in Ladaria’s intervention. Nor does it appear in Ordinatio sacerdotalis [by John Paul II]. Some therefore speculate that the renewed “no” to the priestly ordination of women could be a preparation for a “yes” to the ordination of female deacons. But, for now, this is speculation. [emphasis added]

Thus, this recent backtracking by Cardinal Schönborn does not yet mean that the danger of an undermining of the three-fold Sacrament of Holy Orders has ceased to exist.

This caution has to be kept, especially in light of the fact that, in the history of the Church, female deacons were not sacramentally ordained, were excluded from any role in the liturgy, and thus cannot be compared with a sacramentally ordained female deacon as Cardinal Schönborn and others propose. In 2002, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission came to the following important conclusions about female deacons in the history of the Church which exclude the possibility of a sacramental ordination of female deacons:

1. The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the [male and ordained] deacons;

2. The unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the Magisterium.

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