A Perspective on the Sacrament of Orders

At its annual assembly last month, the International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the topic of the diaconate.

In an interview with the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost, Professor Gerhard Ludwig Müller of the School of Theology of Munich University, summarized the results of the discussion. The results are included in a document given to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The following is an excerpt from Müller’s interview.

Q: Is the diaconate a sacrament in its own right?

Müller: The Church teaches clearly that the sacrament of orders is one of the seven sacraments of the Church; as the full exercise in the Holy Spirit of the mission, unique in its origin, of the apostles of Christ, exercised in its fullness by the bishop. According to its degree of specificity, the differentiated participation in it is called presbyterate or diaconate.

Q: Is it possible to separate the diaconate of women from the priesthood of women?

Müller: No — because of the unity of the sacrament of orders, which has been underlined in the deliberations of the Theological Commission; it cannot be measured with a different yardstick. Then it would be a real discrimination of woman if she is considered as apt for the diaconate, but not for the presbyterate or episcopacy.

The unity of the sacrament would be torn at its root if, the diaconate as ministry of service, was opposed to the presbyterate as ministry of government, and from this would be deduced that woman, as opposed to man, has a greater affinity to serve and because of this would be apt for the diaconate but not for the presbyterate.

However, the apostolic ministry all together is a service in the three degrees in which it is exercised.

The Church does not ordain women, not because they are lacking some spiritual gift or natural talent, but because — as in the sacrament of marriage — the sexual difference and of the relation between man and woman contains in itself a symbolism that presents and represents in itself a prior condition to express the salvific dimension of the relation of Christ and the Church.

If the deacon, with the bishop and presbyter, starting from the radical unity of the three degrees of the orders, acts from Christ, head and Spouse of the Church, in favor of the Church, it is obvious that only a man can represent this relation of Christ with the Church.

And in reverse, it is equally obvious that God could only take his human nature from a woman and, because of this, womankind has in the order of grace – because of the internal reference of nature and grace – an unmistakable, fundamental, and in no way merely accidental importance.

Q: Could the Pope say that in the future women will receive the diaconate?

Müller: Contrary to what many think, the Pope is not the owner of the Church or absolute sovereign of her doctrine. He is only entrusted with safeguarding Revelation and its authentic interpretation.

Keeping the Church’s faith in mind, which is expressed in its dogmatic and liturgical practice, it is all together impossible for the Pope to intervene in the substance of the sacraments, to which the question of the legitimate receiving subject of the sacrament of orders essentially belongs.