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Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes

February 28, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, a retired curial cardinal living in Rome, has written an analysis of the new concept of the priesthood as discussed by Pope Francis in his February 12 post-synodal exhortation on the Amazon region, Querida Amazonia. Cordes detects in the document a footnote which quotes canon law in a defective way and rejects the idea of separating the priesthood from its governing mission.

Querida Amazonia was published in response to the final document of the October 6 – 27, 2019 Amazon Synod in Rome. He did not explicitly endorse the final document's idea of ordaining married men to the priesthood, nor encouraged discussion of a female “diaconate.” However, there have now been several statements from prelates close to the Pope that indicate that these topics are not yet off the table and that, instead, it would now be good for Amazon bishops to send to Rome concrete proposals and requests for a possible papal approval.

Writing for the German website CNA Deutsch, 85-year-old Cordes, who is from Germany, begins by discussing an essay that was published by the German bishops’ news website That article insists that in his new document, Pope Francis “cracked a clerical monopoly.” (LifeSite reported on this essay here.) The author, Professor Michael Böhnke, noticed that Pope Francis had proposed to allow laymen to become the leaders of parishes. In this context, the Pope had referred, in footnote 136, to canon 517§2, which gives a bishop the possibility of tasking laymen with the participation in putative leadership roles in the field of pastoral care. 

The canon states: “If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.”  

However, as Cardinal Cordes then shows, Pope Francis omitted to quote the end of the paragraph. That is to say, he omitted that part of the paragraph which insists that the bishop also must “appoint a priest who, endowed with the authorities and rights of a pastor, leads the pastoral care.” 

Comments Cordes: “That is to say, in the reference of QA [Querida Amazonia] the key statement of the CIC – leadership of the parochial pastoral care by an ordained priest – is simply being omitted.”

The prelate adds that Professor Böhnke, with his claim that the Pope had “cracked” a “clerical monopoly,” has “unfortunately overlooked the theological foundation for the leadership responsibility in the Church.” 

In the following, Cardinal Cordes reminds us of the intrinsic nature of the Sacrament of Holy Orders and of what it bestows upon a priest. The authority of leadership, he explains, “is sacramentally and grace-wise laid down in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.” With its reception, even Querida Amazonia states, the candidate is being made unto Christ and endowed with spiritual power. Here, Cardinal Cordes speaks of the concept of Exousia, a word used by Our Lord when speaking to the Eleven (Mt 28:18), which is the point of departure for the mandate “which the Lord gives to each Apostle and which they pass on to their successors.”

Exousia refers to the actions of a priest that are linked with the Sacrament of Holy Orders, with his ordination, while there exist other actions within the Church that the Church can and may transfer to others with the help of a missio, such as a missio canonica. The latter can be received by someone who is not an ordained priest.

Cardinal Cordes shows us that there are “two totally different foundations and qualities of ecclesial ‘power,’” which are neither “stressed,” nor “denied,” by Querida Amazonia

He speaks here from “imprecision” when the two spheres of power in the Church – sacramental and administrative – are casually being “mixed in an unfitting manner,” thus rejecting the approach of the line of argumentation from the German professor of theology, Michael Böhnke. “However,” Cardinal Cordes adds, “also the proposal of QA is to be examined. The distorted footnote 136 calls us to caution. It induces us to follow the arguments in favor of non-ordained parochial leaders.” 

Here we might add that this discussion – as can be seen in the above-mentioned German professor's essay – will be used in Germany by the progressivist wing to push ahead with the wished-for further laicization of the Catholic Church to purportedly will help solve the problem of clerical sex abuse.

Cardinal Cordes sees that Querida Amazonia (in no. 87) does not make clear enough what specifically the conformity (Gleichgestaltung) of the priest with Christ – as established by the Sacrament of Holy Orders – really entails. 

“An explanation of the ‘conformity’ is missing; it serves the affirmation that alone the priest is capable to ‘preside over the Eucharist.’ Later is added to this competence also the one of administering the Sacrament of Penance,” the prelate writes.

As the cardinal observes, the papal document then “quickly” changes its perspective, not dealing anymore with the “ontological conformity of the ordained, but moves over to his palpable action, the administration of the sacraments.” Herewith, says Cordes, the text “chooses an empirical perspective, but thereby neglects the spiritual and grace-related implications of the ministry of salvation. He who eclipses them, can without questions quickly move over to make proposals for a new-ordering of pastoral activities.”

Cardinal Cordes places here his finger into a serious wound of the papal text: if one reduces the essence of the priesthood and its mission to the administration of the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance, one truncates the essence of the priesthood which is so much more than that.

In the context of the discussion of the Amazon Synod's working document which had already proposed to separate the priestly powers, Cardinal Gerhard Müller had made a strong defense of the three-fold mission of the priest – to preach, to sanctify, and to govern. He also pointed out to the abuse of the times of the Middle Ages, where there existed so-called “altarists.” These “altarists” were priests who were only permitted to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, while they were barred from preaching and governing. This institution at the time became a cause of harsh criticism on the part of Protestant critics of the Church.

The Synod’s working document (number 127) had proposed to “reconsider the notion that the exercise of jurisdiction (power of government) must be linked in all areas (sacramental, judicial, administrative) and in a permanent way to the Sacrament of Holy Orders.” 

“At ordination,” Cardinal Gerhard Müller at the time explained, “there are not being transferred individual particular competences without any inner order and interconnection. It is the one service in the Word, through which the Church is being assembled as a community of the Faith, in which the Sacraments of the Faith are being celebrated and through which God's flock is being governed by its appointed shepherds, in Christ's Name and Authority. That is why the priestly offices in doctrine, worship, and governance are united at the root and are merely different in their theological aspects, under which we look at them (Presbyterorum Ordinis 4-6).” 

Returning to Cardinal Cordes’ defense of the priesthood, he raises the question which is to arise at some point in light of Querida Amazonia: “Why are the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance left solely to the priest?” That is to say: was it merely a legal act, the Sacrament of Holy Orders, with the help of which the priest received the “right” to administer these specific sacraments?

But the prelate reminds us that the Sacrament of Holy Orders – at the moment the bishop lays his hands upon the candidate – bestows the Holy Ghost upon the candidate which “binds the ordained in a specific way to Christ.” This gesture of the bishop, according to Cordes, can be traced back to the oldest ritual of ordination (Hippolytus of Rome, +235). The cardinal wishes to stress here “the special gift of the Holy Ghost for the priestly service.”

Referring to the Second Vatican Council's decree Presyterorum ordinis (2), Cardinal Cordes shows that the priest is to act “in the person of Christ,” in persona Christi. The Sacrament of Holy Orders accordingly marks the soul of the priest in a special way so that he can “act in the person of the head, Christ.”

The “true root” of all actions of a priest is the fact that “Christ is the real priest,” explains Cordes. Not the “bearer of the office himself, but Christ Himself is the actor of the salvific actions. He is definitively the true Auctor ministerii.”

“This fact may not be forgotten in all the speculations about structures,” he states, “otherwise the truth is overshadowed in the Church that alone Christ Himself gives all her actions fruitfulness.” He also speaks here of a “relationship with Christ as established by the Holy Ghost.” 

The priest thus has a special relationship with Christ which is different from the one of every baptized person. Thus, a good definition of the priesthood does not “start with the different individual tasks” of a priest, says Cardinal Cordes. It is not limited to “presiding over the Eucharist,” but consists of “manifold” tasks. For Cordes it is clear that the best definition of a priest is to say that he acts “in the person of Christ.” His “being,” not his individual tasks, characterizes a priest. This marks the “uniqueness of the priestly service,” concludes the cardinal.

“God's salvific work is not accessible to the categories of society,” the prelate writes, and he warns against a “troubling profanation of the Church's office” when speaking about the “idea to call upon laymen to lead parishes.” 

Here, he points out that the three spheres of the ecclesial office and duties – the munera docendi (teaching), sanctificendi (sanctifying), regendi (governing) – have a “spiritual interdependency.” They are “theologically inseparable” and they lose their “efficacy” when separated.

Cardinal Cordes stresses that the three-fold character of the priestly tasks goes back to the time of Justin the Martyr (+165), who spoke of the “munus triplex Christi.” In teaching and sanctifying the faithful, a priest “builds up the parish,” the prelate explains, after showing the close link between the proclamation and the sacraments. “Sacraments and proclamation are thus the pillars of the munus regendi,” the government. Cordes also points out that St. Paul refers to the authority that has been given to him by the Lord (2 Cor 10:8seq and 13:10).

In a forceful manner, Cardinal Cordes ends his analysis of a key passage of Querida Amazonia with the words: “The Church's structure and order [‘Ordnungsgefüge’] cannot, by virtue of its own authority, give away one of its three crucial activities – the leadership. It would need a formal reference to God – not inclusively, but expressis verbis. Otherwise, the Church would continue to secularize herself and thus would contribute herself to the notorious and bemoaned modern ‘forgetfulness of God’ (Pope Benedict XVI).”

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Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli,, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana,, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.