Maike Hickson

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Pope Francis is ‘not a deeply learned theologian’: Member of Vatican commission on female deacons

Maike Hickson Maike Hickson Follow Maike

June 14, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – A member of the 2016 Vatican commission on the female diaconate said he was “manifoldly irritated” by comments Pope Francis recently made about the commission in which the Pope indicated that the commission had failed to reach a conclusion because of differences of opinion. He also criticized the Pope who "in contradistinction to his predecessor" is "not a deeply learned theologian" ["umfassend belesener Theologe"].

“I am manifoldly irritated about the media reports concerning the comments made by the Pope on his flight from Skopje back to Rome (8 May 2019),” German dogmatic theologian Karl-Heinz Menke stated in a June 9 interview with journalist Regina Einig of the Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost.

On his trip back from Skopje, Pope Francis commented on a report produced by the commission. 

“The commission was made, it worked for almost two years. They were all different, all toads from different wells, all thinking differently, but they worked together and were in agreement until a certain point. But each of them, then, has her own view that does not agree with that of the others. And there they stopped as a commission and each is studying [how] to go forward,” he said, as reported in a transcript by Catholic World Report. 

Menke said, however, that from the onset, the commission was given explicit instructions to write a short report about its findings that excluded “collective conclusions or recommendations.”

“For example, it was from the onset not to be expected that there would be collective conclusions or recommendations from the special commission; they were intentionally avoided due to the instructions given,” he said. 

In light of the fact of these explicit limitations of the work of the 2016 commission, Professor Menke corrected Pope Francis's claim about the female deacon commission's work, namely that “the result isn't much” (“kein grosser Wurf”). When asked to comment on this papal claim, he said: “The special commission has started its work following the instruction that the Pope himself does not wish [to receive] a comprehensive study according to the model of the above-mentioned ITC document [the 2002 International Theological Commission (ITC) document on the topic of female deacons was the result of ten years of study], but, rather, a five-page long (at most) text that sums up the results of the historical research.”

“It is due to the instruction of the Pope himself that the result of the commission “wasn't much' [“keinen 'grossen Wurf'”],” he said.

Menke said that he thinks that Francis – “who is, in contradistinction to his predecessor, not a deeply learned theologian” – “most probably” did not have the 2002 ITC results regarding the question of female deacons in mind when he promised a religious sister in 2016 to set up a study commission on the topic. 

“The study order was a surprise for all people involved, because – against all expectations – we were not at all confronted with the questions which the ITC document had left open. On the contrary, we were to limit ourselves to a short assessment of the historical findings.”

Menke also criticized the Pope for making the commission’s report available to others when it was intended for the Pope’s reading alone. The Pope handed the Commission’s final report to the head of the International Union of Superiors General, Sister Carmen Sammut, on 10 May 2019. He also handed over to her the different personal statements of the commission members, namely, “of ones who wanted to go further, of the ones who wanted to stop there,” in the Pope's own words.

“From the onset, Cardinal Ladaria told us that the document that the special commission was to produce was only meant for the Pope alone – in contradistinction to the ITC document,” he said. 

Professor Menke also expressed dismay about the Pope's use of the word “priestess” during his May 8 inflight interview and about his claim that there were female deacons in the past who exercised a role in baptisms. 

The Pope had said during the inflight interview that it is a “curious thing” that in the period of the early Church “there were so many pagan priestesses, the female priesthood in pagan cults was ordinary in that day. As it is understood as a female priesthood, a pagan priesthood in women, it was not done in Christianity. This is being studied also.”

About female deacons in the past, the Pope suggested that they “helped in liturgy, in Baptisms by immersion, when the woman was baptized the deaconesses helped, also for [unclear] the woman's body.”

Menke distanced himself explicitly from the Pope’s above comments, stating: “And if it is correct that the Pope spoke about a baptism of women by female deacons in the Early Church, and purportedly also about 'priestesses', then certainly not because of the information that was handed to him by the special commission.”

The German theologian said that there is no possibility in the Catholic Church to ordain female deacons since the diaconate is part of the three-fold ordination rite that is only open to men. 

“Since the Second Vatican Council, one cannot anymore deny that the diaconate is part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders,” he explained. He also referred here to the new 1983 Code of Canon Law, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“There is only one Sacrament of Holy Orders, which can be received in three different forms (bishop, priest, deacon). Therefore, a woman has no access to any of these three forms.” This unity of the three forms of this sacrament, “cannot be questioned.”

When asked about the fact that Professor Phyllis Zagano – another member of the female deacon commission – already went to the public a while ago and made supportive remarks about female deacons, Professor Menke commented that Zagano “has dedicated her whole life to the topic 'women in the Church.'”

She also “published, next to gender studies and multiple books on meditation, some texts on the topic 'female diaconate.'” “Without judging this,” Menke continued, “it is safe to say that the author's personal interest in the acceptance of  the ordination of [female] deacons is influencing her textual analyses.” 

Menke also criticized Zagano for having “departed from the rule not to speak about the work of the commission until the Pope has made his own public comments.” 

Here, Menke pointed out that Zagano, together with Father Bernard Pottier, hosted on January 24 of this year a conference “which was less of an informative event than a plea for the introduction of a sacramental female diaconate.”

“This initiative,” Menke concluded, “does not find my approval, neither formally nor in its substance.”

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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.