A comment on deaconesses

The Holy Father, following up on a promise he made in a Q&A to some nuns or some such, established a commission to study the question of deaconesses or women deacons, particularly the role of deaconesses in the early Church. Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, S.J., the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the president of the commission, and its members are frankly a mixed bag. For example, American Professor Phyllis Zagano has been appointed to the commission, and she has been a longtime advocate for ordination of women as deacons. However, other members are allegedly somewhat more traditional in their mindset.

The argument—which can be seen at some length in the 2002 International Theological Commission study of the diaconate—is that there were deaconesses in the early (i.e., patristic-era) Church, though there remains some question about the nature of their ordination and their duties. Thus, the argument goes, notwithstanding Ordinatio sacerdotalis, the Church can return to the practice of the early Church by blessing or ordaining women to serve as deacons. Of course, in Mediator Dei, Pius XII warned us about the archaizing mindset—an “exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism”—so often adopted by progressives in the Church:

The same reasoning holds in the case of some persons who are bent on the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately. The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world. They are equally the resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of man.

Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.

Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas. No more can any Catholic in his right senses repudiate existing legislation of the Church to revert to prescriptions based on the earliest sources of canon law. Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation.

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) Of course, Good Pope Pius’s argument, despite its evident authority, has not uniformly carried the day in the Church, especially since dear Archbishop Bugnini and his industrious Consilium relied on its understanding (or, occasionally, as in the case of Eucharistic Prayer 2, what it claimed as its understanding) of the antiquities of the Church to justify so many of its most egregious quote-unquote reforms. Indeed, since 1947 there has hardly been an enormity or outrage propounded by the progressives in the Church, many of whom so obviously yearn to make of the Church an ecclesial community as vibrant as the Anglicans and liberal Lutherans, that is not justified by some or other practice of the early Church.

All that having been said, we wish to contribute in a small way to the discussion by rescuing the meat of a lengthy post we had written once commenting and expanding upon a series of fascinating posts by Fr. John Hunwicke about the true nature of the diaconate. The thrust of the post was that Amalarius of Metz (Liber officialis 2.12), citing a letter of St. Jerome to Evangelus (No. 146, PL 22:1192), points out that the Levites of the Old Testament were the forerunners of the deacons of the New Testament. Amalarius then goes through the Book of Numbers at some length to outline what the duties of the Levites were, coming finally to the point that the deacons of the Church of the New Testament are responsible first for guarding, bringing, and arranging the vessels to be used on the altar during the Mass. Amalarius even views the evidence of Acts 6 as evidence that the diaconate was constituted primarily for service at the altar. Of course, there are other roles of the deacon, such as the reading of the Gospels and service as a servant in the Church, but Amalarius, citing the earlier evidence of Jerome, focuses on the deacon as a liturgical assistant to the bishop and the presbyter. St. Jerome, of course, lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, and Amalarius in the eighth and ninth. Thus, if we are being exaggerated, senseless antiquarians, we ought to be consistently so and consider their evidence, too. If we wanted to be especially polemical we would ask whether there were female Levites and whether tradition is also a means of revelation, leading you inexorably to a certain conclusion.

Once upon a time, if we wanted to be especially polemical, we would have remarked about the unity of the orders of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, but, as we learned to no small chagrin and even mild horror today, among the canon law changes implemented by Benedict XVI’s Omnium in mentem was a change to canon 1008 severing, to a greater or lesser extent, the diaconate from the episcopate and presbyterate, implying strongly that deacons do not act in the person of Christ the Head. (What precisely the deacon does when he proclaims the Gospel, thus, is somewhat mysterious to us.) Therefore, we will refrain from discoursing upon that subject, though with perhaps a haunted look over our shoulder to the older tradition of the Church.

And we have no wish to be hugely polemical on this subject—in part because others will play that part better than we could, in part because every time questions have been asked under the Holy Father, the discussion always seems to tend, as if by magic, to a particular conclusion—only to point out some interesting resources that might inform you, dear reader, as you grapple with these changes. Also, we did not want to lose forever our work with the resources of Jerome and Amalarius on the question of deacons. We are not without our vanity, it seems.

Seeking the background to “Vultum Dei quaerere”

Has anyone figured out what the Holy Father’s intention behind his Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei quaerere was? The Vatican Press Office has an informative summary of the document. But it is not a difficult—or even a hugely lengthy, at just shy of 40 pages—read,  so a summary may not be hugely necessary. When we first read it, we remarked to some sharp young Catholics of our acquaintance that it seemed like walking in on a conversation that was both hugely important to the participants and utterly unintelligible to outsiders. To put it another way, the Holy Father is plainly addressing concrete situations, though what those situations are is a mystery to us.

A Catholic News Agency report, which is for the most part a summary of the document, contains this information:

During the July 22 presentation of the constitution, Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo O.F.M., secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, told journalists that the constitution was “a gift” from Pope Francis to the Church.

The process started two years ago with a questionnaire the congregation sent to cloistered communities around the world, he said, explaining that the answers they got back were “rich” and useful, so a synthesis was compiled and given to the competent authorities so that the constitution could eventually be written.

He said there are no plans to issue a similar constitution for cloistered male religious, given the fact that the majority of contemplative communities are composed of women.

Although there is a vocational crisis throughout across the globe, the archbishop noted that there are 4,000 contemplative communities in the world, with the highest numbers being “in Italy and Spain.” 

Carmelites “singularly possess…the most numerous” contemplative community in the Church, he said, noting that others such as Benedictines, Dominicans, and Augustinians are also high in number.

(Emphasis supplied.) However, this does not seem to match the tone of the document, which seems to want to impose a very specific vision of contemplative life on cloistered communities. A very sharp young canonist of our acquaintance was very enthusiastic about the document and thought it was a necessary tonic to some of the ongoing problems with women religious. On the other hand, there has been some criticism, notably from some traditionalists, of the document’s prescriptions. So we are left wondering if there are specific situations that the document was intended to address.

Not being a contemplative nun ourselves, we do not have a huge investment in the constitution; however, it appeared suddenly, receiving apparently very great importance from the Holy Father (indeed, having been given the form of an apostolic constitution, which is reserved for important things, indeed), and it seems to have a definite intent in mind. Accordingly, it is awfully curious that the media coverage does not seem to delve too deeply into that intent.

“Come una madre amorevole” now available in English

Francis’s Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio data “Come una madre amorevole” is now available in English as “As a Loving Mother.” Article I of the Letter is rendered as:

§ 1. The diocesan Bishop or Eparch, or one who even holds a temporary title and is responsible for a Particular Church, or other community of faithful that is its legal equivalent, according to can. 368 CIC or can. 313 CCEO, can be legitimately removed from this office if he has through negligence committed or through omission facilitated acts that have caused grave harm to others, either to physical persons or to the community as a whole. The harm may be physical, moral, spiritual or through the use of patrimony. 

§ 2. The diocesan Bishop or Eparch can only be removed if he is objectively lacking in a very grave manner the diligence that his pastoral office demands of him, even without serious moral fault on his part.

§ 3. In the case of the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults it is enough that the lack of diligence be grave.

§ 4. The Major Superiors of Religious Institutes and Societies of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right are equivalent to diocesan Bishops and Eparchs.

(Emphasis supplied.) Imagine the possibilities!

You know and I know that we wouldn’t be satisfied

The Holy Father, on June 4, issued the Apostolic Letter in the form of a Motu Proprio Come una madre amorevole. (“Like a loving mother.”) The text is in Italian, and, so far, an English version has not been made available. One anticipates that an English translation will be made available in due course—though, recall that Mitis iudex Dominus Iesus was not made available in English for quite some time after it was promulgated—and one can always obtain a machine translation ad interim. Edward Pentin, of course, has some coverage at the National Catholic Register, where he reports:

In a new Apostolic Letter, issued motu proprio, entitled “Come una madre amorevole” (As a Loving Mother), the new norms provide for the removal of bishops (or those equivalent to them in Canon Law) from their offices in cases where they have “through negligence, committed or omitted acts that have caused grave harm to others, either with regard to physical persons, or with regard to the community itself.”

The Letter also clarifies in cases of “abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, it is sufficient that the lack of diligence be grave.”

The director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, said in an explanatory note that the apostolic letter “insists on the importance of vigilant care for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, calling for a ‘particular diligence.”

Therefore, he continued, “it clarifies that negligence regarding cases of sexual abuse committed against children or vulnerable adults are among the ‘grave causes’ that justify removal from ecclesiastical offices, even of bishops.”

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink omitted.)

For our part, we note that Come una madre amorevole will undoubtedly be represented as establishing a mechanism by which bishops negligent in sex-abuse cases can be removed; however, it is by no means limited to that circumstance. It seems to us that, under Article I, § 1, of the motu proprio, almost any very grave negligence (Art. I, § 2) having a physical, moral, spiritual, or financial effect could result in an a process being initiated (likely in the Congregation for Bishops, Art. II, §§ 1–2).

Imagine the possibilities!


The Rotal Subsidium on “Mitis iudex”

A while back, we heard that the Roman Rota had prepared a lengthy guidance on Mitis iudex Dominus Iesus, intended for diocesan tribunals. In fact, we had heard about the document in the context of its general unavailability: it could be purchased at only the Vatican bookstore in Rome, or something like that. However, after a canonist of our acquaintance recently made some comments about it, we checked the Roman Rota website again. And the Subsidium for the Application of the Motu Proprio Mitis iudex Dominus Iesus is now freely available in PDF format. Much of it deals with some of the administrative reforms of Mitis iudex, including the expectation that diocesan bishops will constitute their own tribunals, ceasing to rely upon inter-diocesan tribunals, for example. However, it includes lengthy guidance on the processus brevior, especially article 14 § 1 of the Procedural Norms, which has been the subject of much concern and debate.

Of great interest: the Subsidium emphatically declares that article 14 § 1 does not articulate new grounds of nullity, and that the situations mentioned therein have long been “enucleated” by the jurisprudence “as symptomatic elements of the invalidity of matrimonial consent” (emphasis in original). That is not quite what we remember some eminent canonists saying, but we’ll take the Rota’s word for it.

A problem confronting the builder of bridges

News has broken in the last several days that Fr. Franz Schmidberger, former superior general of the Society of St. Pius X and rector of the Society’s “Herz Jesu” seminary in Zaitzkofen, Germany, has written a lengthy memorandum for the consideration of other Society leaders regarding the (increasingly likely) prospect of full regularity in its relations with Rome. (We say “full regularity” for lack of a more euphonious term: it is plain that the Holy Father does not view the SSPX as schismatic, though he acknowledges some canonical irregularity.) Richard Chonak, at New Liturgical Movement, has prepared a translation of Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum. While Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum was originally prepared as a private brief, Chonak’s translation has been approved by Fr. Schmidberger. Rorate Caeli has provided the French original.

There has already been some media coverage of Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum. At the National Catholic Register, a news story notes that Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum comes in the wake of Archbishop Guido Pozzo’s extraordinary recent interview, in which the secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei suggested in very strong terms that complete acceptance of the various documents of the Second Vatican Council was not a precondition for full union. And, of course, Bishop Fellay recently met privately with the Holy Father in Rome. Plainly, things are happening.

For our part, the collapse of negotiations in 2012 was a bitter event, not least since full union—or full regularity—between Rome and the Society was plainly a project of immense personal significance to Benedict XVI. However, it certainly appears that Pope Francis has picked up where his predecessor left off, and made a commitment this time to take concrete steps to regularize the Society one way or another.

We were particularly struck by a couple of points that Fr. Schmidberger made, which seems especially apt in the wake of Amoris laetitia, and the reactions in some quarters to some responses to that exhortation. First, Fr. Schmidberger emphasizes the distinction between the papacy as a divinely ordained institution and any particular pope:

The Church is infallible in her divine nature, but she is led by human beings who can go astray and also be burdened with failings. An office should be distinguished from the person in it at a given moment. The latter holds office for a certain time and then steps down—either through death or through other circumstances; the office remains. Today Pope Francis is the holder of the papal office with the power of the primacy. At some hour that we do not know, he will step down and another Pope will be elected. As long as he occupies the papal throne, we recognize him as such and pray for him. We are not saying that he is a good Pope. On the contrary, through his liberal ideas and his administration he causes much confusion in the Church. But when Christ established the papacy, He foresaw the whole line of popes throughout Church history, including Pope Francis. And nonetheless He permitted the latter’s ascent to the papal throne. Analogously, the Lord instituted the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar with the Real Presence, although He foresaw many sacrileges over the course of history.

(Emphasis supplied.) Setting to one side the tricky question of the extent to which the Holy Spirit participates in the selection of a particular man as pope at a particular time, Fr. Schmidberger’s second point there (or the second point we emphasized) is something that traditionally minded Catholics should repeat to themselves whenever they are troubled by this or that coming out of Rome. Fr. Schmidberger went on to note:

We have already pointed out the necessary distinction between office and officeholder. No doubt the current Pope has the God-given task of showing everyone plainly what the Council really was and what its ultimate consequences are doing to the Church: confusion, the dictatorship of relativism, setting pastoral concerns above doctrine, friendship with the enemies of God and the opponents of Christianity. But precisely because of this, people here and there are coming to understand the errors of the Council and to infer the cause from the effects. Furthermore, those who relied too much on Benedict XVI personally, instead of putting the papal office first and its holder second, were left out in the rain by the resignation of the Pope emeritus. Let us not make the same mistake again of relying too much on the specific person, instead of on the divine institution! Maybe, too, Pope Francis is precisely the one who, with his unpredictability and improvisation, is capable of taking this step. The mass media may forgive him for this expedient, whereas they would never ever have forgiven Benedict XVI. In his authoritarian, not to mention tyrannical style of governance, he would probably be capable of carrying out such a measure even against opposition.

(Emphasis supplied.) This, too, is a point that ought to be considered very seriously, especially as traditionally minded Catholics seem to be looking to other prelates than the Holy Father for guidance and reassurance.

New developments on the SSPX situation (Updated)

Rorate Caeli reports that the Holy See Press Office has confirmed that the Holy Father received in audience Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior-general of the Society of St. Pius X, at Casa Santa Marta on Friday, April 1.


The SSPX has released a communique covering the meeting. The SSPX communique reads, in full:

Pope Francis received Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X, accompanied by the Society’s Second General Assistant, Fr. Alain-Marc Nely, at Domus Sanctae Marthae, at 5 p.m. on Friday, April 1, 2016.

Bishop Fellay did not have an opportunity to meet Pope Francis since the Holy Father’s election in March 2013, other than exchanging very brief salutations at Domus Sanctae Marthae, on December 13, 2013 (see DICI no. 296 of 5-16-2014). However, some priests of the Society were previously received by the Supreme Pontiff, regarding certain administrative difficulties in the Society’s District of Argentina (see DICI no 314 of 4-24-2015).

Pope Francis had wanted a private and informal meeting, without the formality of an official audience. It lasted 40 minutes and took place under a cordial atmosphere. After the meeting, it was decided that the current exchanges would continue. The canonical status of the Society was not directly addressed, Pope Francis and Bishop Fellay having determined that these exchanges ought to continue without haste.

The next morning, Saturday, April 2nd, Bishop Fellay met with Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, in keeping with the normal relations of the Society with this commission following the 2009-2011 doctrinal discussions and the visits of several prelates in 2015-2016. (See DICI no. 307 of 12-19-2014 and no. 311 of 2-27-2016)

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlinks in original.)

Originally, it had been reported—at least, we thought it had been reported—that the meeting took place on Low Saturday. We noted that there were several important Curial officials who had been received on Low Saturday. The updated reporting seems to be that the Holy Father met with Bishop Fellay on Friday, April 1. The meeting does not show in the official list of audiences for April 1, though.

While the official list of Saturday’s audiences does not show Bishop Fellay, it does show a very busy morning for the Holy Father: Cardinal Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Cardinal Sarah, prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship; and Cardinal Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Religious.