On 31 May 2015, the official website of the German bishops, katholisch.de, reported an interesting and revealing press event, at which a German theologian and the managing director of the International Diaconate Center (Internationales Diakoniezentrum, Rottenburg, Germany), Dr. Stefan Sander, has promoted the idea of women deacons. He is currently in Rome, said katholisch.de, because of “an international meeting.” Additionally, katholisch.de stated: “On Saturday [4 June], he [Sander] will – together with other experts – be received by Pope Francis [in a papal audience].”
The German branch of Vatican Radio, Radio Vatikan, published on 29 May its own report on an interview with Dr. Sander which is entitled: “The Church Needs Women as Deaconesses.”
This news also comes at the same time when The Tablet has reported that “campaigners for women’s ordination have had an unprecedented meeting with a Vatican representative.” As The Tablet states:
Campaigners calling for women priests are meeting in Rome this week where they have launched a poster campaign drawing attention to their cause and they will participate in their first ever official public demonstration.
Women’s Ordination Worldwide, which this year marks its 20th anniversary, wants to re-open dialogue in the Church in spite of Pope John Paul II’s ruling that the matter of female priests should not be discussed.
The British newspaper then continues, saying that these women had the special privilege of presenting posters pleading their cause, and even on Vatican grounds, namely in the garden of Castel Sant’ Angelo. They were also given the unexpected honor of meeting with an unnamed representative of the Vatican’s Secretary of State. The Tablet puts it, as follows:
Yesterday evening two of them [both of them “ordained” and subsequently excommunicated women] had an unprecedented meeting with an official from the Vatican Secretariat of State who agreed to give a petition to the Pope calling for the excommunications to be lifted, and who, according to the women, listened to “our heartfelt plea for women priests in our Church”. [….]
For the first time the group has been given official permission to hold a public demonstration in the gardens of Castel Sant’Angelo on Friday, the day that the Pope celebrates a Jubilee Mass for priests in St Peter’s Square. Members of the women’s ordination group have also been given tickets to attend the Mass.
On 3 June, Edward Pentin, the Rome Correspondent of the National Catholic Register, provided additional information on this event.
To return to Dr. Sander – and I will quote here from both above-mentioned reports, as published by katholisch.de and by Radio Vatikan. It is very probable that his timely concurrent presence in Rome is also, in some way, connected to this larger women’s campaign, because Sander now claims, according to katholisch.de, that “there is no dogmatic stipulation that would exclude women from the diaconate.” As Sander told Radio Vatikan: “A diaconal Church needs the deacon, and a diaconal Church needs the women!” He continues, by saying: “In my view, this Church also needs women as deaconesses.” It is here not yet clear, but soon will be, whether he is promoting the idea of sacramental orders for women deaconesses, as opposed to the distinctly non-sacramental role some believe certain women played in previous eras of the Church.
According to Radio Vatikan, Sander calls it a “great surprise that Pope Francis put this topic [of female deacons] up for further discussion and study. However, says Sander, it is not yet clear “how he [Francis] understands the women diaconate.” He adds: “Whether there shall be rather a blessing or whether there can be a sacramental office for women.” Here, Sander himself is now explicitly in favor of a sacramental diaconate for women, although he is skeptical that it would be easily or at all achieved, as Radio Vatikan reports.
What Sander now sees to be necessary, according to katholisch.de, is to have “both offices, each with its own special charism, just as the Second Vatican Council had made it [this dual office] possible. In this way – in opposition to what the current Prefect for the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, said in a study of the year 2004 – one does not necessarily need to constrain the diaconate to the role of being a ‘helper of the priestly ministry.’” The German also adds that deacons should not too closely imitate priests.
Sander sees, rather, the deacon and the priest as “two arms” of the bishop, and he proposes to “let them both exist next to one another,” more autonomously, and without organizing them hierarchically. As katholisch.de comments: “With it, he [Sander] put into question the current Catholic practice according to which the ordination of deacons is also [often] administered as a first step toward the priestly ordination.”
The German theologian Sander then also refers to the Early Church and its establishment of the diaconate, which purportedly shows that new offices (even sacramental ones?) can be established “out of a sense of urgency.” Without further distinctions, Sander abstractly speaks of the deacons altogether as “messengers of Jesus Christ.”
During the papal audience which then took place on 4 June, the president of the International Diaconate Center himself, Professor Klaus Kiessling, also made an explicit reference in his speech in support of women deacons, just as Dr. Sander had done a few days earlier. As the Austrian Catholic website, kath.net, reports:
He [Kiessling] stressed especially his institute’s theological research concerning deaconry and the diaconate. According to Kiessling, it [this research] is at the same time also about the respect for the dignity of those women who ask to be admitted to this office.
We are witnessing here, it seems, a further equivocal addition to the already spreading confusion within the Catholic Church under the current pontificate. And once more, much of the confusion is being promoted by German theologians.