Maike Hickson

Cardinal Walter Kasper
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Cdl. Kasper calls for ‘non-sacramental, liturgical blessings’ for female Eucharistic ministers, lectors

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July 3, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Cardinal Walter Kasper said that the Church is "free" to bestow on women a "non-sacramental, liturgical blessing" that would not be a "sacramental ordination" but which would confirm women in Church ministries in which they already function, such as extraordinary Eucharistic ministers, lectors, and aiding in the Church's charitable works and administration. 

The German Cardinal made these remarks to LifeSiteNews while commenting on Pope Francis's recent remarks on the female diaconate. He said he was “not surprised” by the result of the 2016 female deacon commission. He adds that it was already clear that female deacons did not have the same role as male deacons. 

LifeSiteNews had reached out to Cardinal Kasper after the Pope's recent remarks on the outcome of the 2016 Female Deacon Commission. On May 10, Pope Francis had told the International Union of Superiors General in Rome about this commission's findings saying “it’s little, the result isn’t much, but it’s a step ahead.”

Said the Pope: “Certainly, there was a form of female diaconate in the beginning [of the Church's history], especially in the region of Syria. I said it on the plane: they were assisting with the baptisms, in the cases of dissolving marriages, and the form of ordination was not the sacramental formula. It was, so to say — this is what those who are informed tell me, because I’m not an expert — it was like the abbatial blessing of an abbess is today, a special blessing for deaconesses.”

Further explaining his thoughts in light of these papal comments, Cardinal Kasper said that “it does not make much sense to continue this discussion,” but pointed out that women today are given much more important roles in the Church than in the past. He refered to women as extraordinary Eucharistic ministers, as leaders of liturgies of the word, and as lectors. 

He proposed that the Church could give these women a sort of blessing, similar to the ones bestowed upon abbesses:

“The Church is free to carry out the vocation of women to these offices with the help of a non-sacramental, liturgical blessing, and in the presence of the whole congregation and within the celebration of the Holy Eucharist (for example in the context of the Prayers of the Faithful).”

“The result of the commission, which was to deal with the question of the history of the female diaconate, did not surprise me,” Kasper told LifeSiteNews. “I have expected the result just as the Pope has presented it.” The German prelate who has lived in Rome since 2001, said that it is “uncontested” that there were female deacons in the past, but that is just as “uncontested” that “these female deacons are not to be regarded as female counterparts of the male deacons.”

However, the question as to whether these female deacons received a “sacramental or non-sacramental ordination,” is still “contested,” said Kasper. “Also the International Theology Commission remained divided when dealing with this question (2002).”

Cardinal Kasper said that “according to my conviction, it makes little sense to continue to debate this question. Because the clear differentiation between the seven sacraments and sacramentals exists only since the 12th century (around the time of Petrus Lombardus). It is unhistorical to project this question back into the first millennium,” he continued, adding that “similarly, it also seems impossible to me to go back behind the clarifications of the second millennium which have mostly been adapted also by the Eastern churches.”

Cardinal Kasper furthermore pointed out that the “position of the woman in society as in the Church is today very different from the one of the women in the first millennium.”

“Today, women have many functions in the Church that go far beyond those that the female deacons had in the first millennium,” the German prelate explained. As examples, he mentions “extraordinary eucharistic ministers, lectors at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, leaders and presiders of Liturgies of the Word, next to often important leading functions in the Church's charitable works and administration, as well as those offices in dioceses and in the Roman Curia which are not bound to sacramental ordination.”

It is in these fields, Cardinal Kasper suggested, that the Church could establish new ministries or offices for women in the Church, established with a sort of blessing, rather than through an ordination.

“The Church is free to put into effect the vocation of women to these offices with the help of a non-sacramental, liturgical blessing – in the presence of the whole congregation and within the celebration of the Holy Eucharist (for example in the context of the Prayers of the Faithful) – and to do so in such a form that there is no confusion with a sacramental ordination. In similar ways, it is done in the case of the blessing of an abbot or an abbess, of a religious profession, of the Sacrament of Matrimony, and so on,” he said.

Cardinal Kasper also highlighted in his comments to LifeSiteNews that the Church's history knows of “many holy women who, without ordination, had in their time – in partially up to today – an influence in the Church that goes far beyond that of a bishop or of a cardinal.” For example, “Saint Catherine of Siena achieved more than all the cardinals of her time taken together.” Other saints mentioned by the German prelate included St. Hildegard von Bingen, St.  Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Joan of Arc.

Kasper concluded his comments with the words: “Innumerable priests and bishops owe their vocation to the priesthood to the example and prayers of their mothers; St. Augustine certainly was not the only one. It is a form of bad clericalism to think only a clergyman has influence in the Church. Each parish that I know around the globe would have already long collapsed without the service of women in the fields of catechesis, charitable works, and more.”

LifeSiteNews also reached out for comment to Professor Paul Zulehner, a collaborator of Bishop Fritz Lobinger and Bishop Erwin Kräutler. All three clergymen are in favor of married and female priests.

Zulehner – who also launched the Pro Pope Francis initiative which now aims at assisting the Pope in his Church reforms – commented to LifeSiteNews that the commission's report “obviously dealt with sources of the Early Church. It did not produce a result that makes it easy to decide: yes, there were female deacons – especially in the tradition of the Eastern Church. No, there are no clear signs that Jesus would have wanted such an office.”

For him, the commission was “perhaps looking too much for possible traces of a female diaconate, instead of pursuing more fundamental questions which enlarge the horizon within theology.”

Zulehner said that the fact that the Female Deacon Commission's report manifested “many subjective views” and thus did not seem “unambiguous” to the Pope is “a sign that there has not been a clear rejection of the opening of Holy Orders to women on the level of the diaconate.” 

Referring to a book that he published, together with his colleague Thomas Halik, on Pope Francis' reforms, the Austrian theologian stated that female experts in this field “have no doubt that the access to the Holy Orders cannot be denied to women.”

Quoting Tertullian (209 AD) (who was later drawn into the spiritual heresy of Montanism) as saying that the Holy Orders [Zulehner uses here the Latin word Ordo] had been “established by ecclesiastical authority” (“ab auctoritate ecclesiae institutus” – Exhortatio de castitate), Zulehner wondered whether the “Church in turn has the possibility to further develop with full authority the official structures, as it has de facto already taken place in the course of time and is still possible to today?”

He said that only men had first access to the official ministries due to the “cultural-historical role of man and woman in the time of the Early Church.” He hopes not only to have female deacons, but a more fundamental access for women to the ordained offices, as well as to leading offices in the Church. The Austrian theologian would not wish women merely to have access to the lower level of ordination – the diaconate – thus having still “a submission of female deacons under male priests.”

Professor Zulehner concluded his comments to LifeSiteNews as follows: “However, I can also understand when some people quietly think according to the drop-by-drop logic: as soon as the diaconate is open to women, the path to the episcopal office is open. But he who is opposed exactly to this, will never give his support to the female diaconate, even if it existed in the Early Church. Such experts then rejoice and say, with a tone of relief: 'and then the traces vanished...'”

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Maike Hickson

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, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.