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Does the New CDF Statement on Female Priests Imply an Opening to Female Deacons?

A few days ago, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), restated the Church’s infallible teaching about the ordaining of female priests in the Catholic Church. The statement was followed by many speculations. For example, some people ask whether this Ladaria text really corresponds to Pope Francis’ own desires. This question is even more pressing in light of the fact that Bishop Kräutler, a close collaborator of the pope, proposed two years ago the ordination of female married priests. Many progressivists in the Church propose the idea that this Ladaria statement really means an opening toward ordained female deacons.

On 29 May, Archbishop Ladaria, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made it clear that there is no permitted possibility to ordain women to the priesthood. He quoted John Paul II’s 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and insisted that this interdiction stems from the infallible Ordinary Universal Magisterium. The prelate also showed himself concerned over the fact that there are people in the Church who are still proposing to discuss this matter, even though it has been clearly and definitely closed by the Magisterium. Ladaria states:

It is a matter of serious concern to see the emergence in some countries of voices that question the definitiveness of this doctrine. To argue that it is not definitive, it is argued that it was not defined ex cathedra and that, then, a later decision by a future Pope or council could overturn it.

As different outlets such as LifeSiteNews have pointed out, Ladaria might very well be referring here directly to a recent statement made by a papal confidant, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who implied that the decision of allowing women to the priesthood and even to the episcopate is possible and could be made by a future ecumenical council. Speaking in April to an Austrian newspaper, Schönborn had said:

The question of ordination [of women] is a question which clearly can only be clarified by a council. That cannot be decided upon by a pope alone. That is a question too big that it could be decided from the desk of a pope.
When asked whether he speaks here about the ordination of female priests, Schönborn responds: “[Ordinations] as deaconesses, female priests, and female bishops.”

Thus, Schönborn might very well have been the cause for this new CDF statement. However, the news website of the German bishops refers, on 30 May, to other recent statements that might also have been the cause of the Vatican response. There are at least five different voices named in the German article which have promoted the idea of female priests. One of these voices was “Voices of Faith” (about whose 8 March conference in Rome we reported here).
Additionally, Stefan Kiechle, the former head of the German Jesuits, called in April of 2018 for the ordination of married (sic) men and women. Kiechle also questioned in his intervention as to whether John Paul II’s ruling in this question is truly binding. He explicitly said that such a decision would be worth the risk of losing some traditional Catholics over this matter. Moreover, bishops should make the first steps in this matter, fully in line with Pope Francis’ own desire for a more “decentralized” Church. Kiechle is the editor-in-chief of the German Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit in which he also published his recent bold statements.

Next to these voices in favor of female priests as mentioned by, OnePeterFive also reported on the intervention of a monk and priest, Father Anselm Grün, who recently even proposed the idea of a female pope. Grün had been publicly praised by Pope Francis not long before that troubling statement.

What now comes to us as an important additional piece of information is a 2016 interview given by Bishop Erwin Kräutler, a long-term proponent of a married priesthood. His voice is significant because he was a collaborator of the pope on the papal encyclical Laudato si (he is even called a “co-author” of that text); and because he still works closely with the pope, who called him to be part of the preparatory team for the upcoming 2019 Amazon Synod. In 2016, he claimed one could alter the Church’s teaching against the female priesthood as it had been laid down by Pope John Paul II in his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis.

Speaking to the Austrian regional newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung, Kräutler said “about the question of celibacy” that he is “in favor of the idea that everybody has the right to chose his own life plan,” adding: “But it does not do that the Eucharistic celebration is dependent upon the availability of a celibate man.” When asked whether lay people could so easily take over such tasks, the prelate answers: “Of course they may.” One might not make such a decision within a day or so, “but one can reflect upon the conditions for the admission to the priesthood.”

Coming back to the idea of ordaining women to the priesthood, Kräutler says that he is “skeptical” concerning the priestly ordination of the so-called “viri probati” (morally proven married men). “Then there would be half of humanity excluded! At the Xingu [River], there are two thirds of the communities that are now being led by women.”

Once again, these remarks are coming from a man who is a close collaborator of the pope and who is said, according to a German report, to have already submitted to Pope Francis a draft which would allow for the ordination of married men in the Amazon region.

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, one of the four Dubia cardinals, only recently reminded us that anyone who insists upon the topic of female priests – to include the ordination of female deacons – “has left the foundations of the Catholic faith,” and thus “fulfills the elements of heresy which has, as its consequence, the exclusion from the Church – excommunication.”

In this light it is important to consider that the progressivist forces in the Church might now first push for a female diaconate, leaving the female priesthood up to a future debate. For example, the British progressive journal The Tablet commented on Ladaria’s recent authoritative remarks and pointed to the fact that Ladaria himself is heading the commission on female deacons as established by Pope Francis, adding that “there is speculation in Rome that his intervention [in L’Osservatore Romano] could be a shoring up of teaching on the priesthood ahead of a move on allowing women into the diaconate.”

Of course, this door also is already closed, since the ordination of deacons is part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders which may only be bestowed on men. Cardinal Brandmüller has made that very clear.

But that does not seem to trouble the progressivist camp. In their response to Ladaria’s recent statement, the Washington D.C.-based lobby group, Women’s Ordination Conference, shows its disappointment, but also highlights their opinion that the Prefect of the CDF did not, however, explicitly mention female deacons in his statement. Says the group:

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. As we continue to await news from that commission, we hope this omission is significant.

The news websites of the German and Austrian bishops’ conferences, which work closely together, both came to the same conclusion as the other progressivist outlets. shows itself surprised at the Ladaria statement, and 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 goes the interpretation of the more progressivist wing in the current Church. An assessment of Ladaria’s own conservative attitude and conviction, however, puts in doubt any such novel interpretation. It is not probable that Ladaria covertly has progressive intentions in the matter of ordination.

For the more conservative wing in the Church, Ladaria’ statement was a surprise, as well, and some even were astonished that Pope Francis let him even publish his text in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. This is striking, indeed, since we all know that Francis is inclined toward reforms with regard to the broader topic of the ordination of priests, and he surrounds himself with people who say so explicitly (see Schönborn, Kräutler, and Cardinal Beniamino Stella).

But we also know that the pope has a way of letting some orthodox curial members make statements, only in order then to ignore them. Here, Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s statement on the question of the “remarried” divorcees comes to mind, which he had published in October of 2013, at the beginning of Pope Francis’ papacy. In this text, the then-Prefect of the CDF restates the Church’s teaching in the question of the “remarried” divorcees and their possible access to the sacraments, and he also quotes his predecessor Joseph Ratzinger’s clear words:

If the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception.

Thus, there can be seen a sort of parallel between both Cardinal Müller’s and Archbishop Ladaria’s attempts at preserving irreversible Catholic doctrine under Pope Francis’ reign. As we have seen with Amoris Laetitia, unfortunately, Cardinal Müller’s attempt failed; the pope simply ignored him. Only the future – and perhaps even the near future – will tell whether the same will happen to Archbishop Ladaria and his good doctrinal intentions.

We already can take it as a clue that the Vatican will now try to ignore Ladaria’s recent remarks, especially when we look at the reporting of the official Vatican news agency, Vatican News. The Italian, the English, and the Spanish branches of Vatican News have not at all reported on this 30 May Ladaria statement as published in L’Osservatore Romano! However, there are French and a German reports now published on Vatican News, but these two language groups have a fairly limited reach and circulation due to the language barrier.

Thus, let us not drift into the assumption that the Ladaria intervention has given us some clear and candid space, and some resolute doctrinal protection. We must remain vigilant.

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