OXFORD, England — A German church spokesman denied the country's Catholic bishops are divided after the bishops' conference president, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, provoked controversy by advocating a form of diaconate for women.
"There are no new facts – Archbishop Zollitsch has declared himself in favor of a specific deaconry for women, which means without ordination," said Robert Eberle, spokesman for Germany's southern Freiburg Archdiocese.
"The bishops want more women in positions of responsibility in the church on the basis of Catholic doctrine. So there's no division over reform issues like this," Eberle said in a May 8 statement to Catholic News Service.
Archbishop Zollitsch made his proposal April 28 at the close of a Freiburg archdiocesan assembly on church reforms, at which 33 separate recommendations were debated by 300 participants.
He said he supported "a further deepening of the common priesthood of all baptized persons," and would promote "a variety of services and ministries." He also said both men and women "should be respected and taken seriously in the church," adding that he believed work posts should also be offered to people with "different lifestyles."
The archbishop added that he was also "committed to new ecclesiastical services and ministries open to women," including "a specific deaconry for women."
Eberle said Archbishop Zollitsch was speaking only "in his capacity as local archbishop" and referred to a similar Feb. 20 proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, during the German bishops' spring plenary at Trier.
The German bishops' conference press office declined to answer questions about Archbishop Zollitsch's remarks.
The archbishop's remarks generated reaction in Germany.
Ute Hucker, spokeswoman for the German Catholic Women's Association, said a "specific deaconry" would "not be enough" when women made up 80 percent of the country's "engaged Catholics."
"It's good he said something about women – but Catholic women's organizations want more than just a special, second-rank position," Hucker told CNS May 8.
"We don't want women as priests, since we recognize this isn't possible theologically. But we want women to have the same rights as male deacons, to be trained and ordained for work in the same office."
The Catholic Church permits only men to be ordained as deacons. Permanent deacons can preach and preside at baptisms, funerals and weddings, but may not celebrate Mass or hear confessions.
Some historians say women deacons existed as a special category in the early church.
However, in a general audience talk in February 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said the New Testament reference to Phoebe as a "deacon" was an indication of her important responsibility in the community at a time before the title took on a "hierarchical" meaning, implying ordination.
A 2002 study by the International Theological Commission concluded that the role of women deacons in the early church cannot be considered equivalent to that of ordained male deacons. It also concluded that the permanent diaconate belongs to the sacrament of orders – which the church says is limited to men only.
Archbishop Zollistch's suggestion was not to go against that opinion, but rather to open up a new role in the church, a form of diaconate for which they women would be blessed, but not ordained.
Irmentraud Kobusch, deputy chairman of the 550,000-member Catholic Women of Germany, said her organization would reject a "special office for women," and predicted anything less than "sacramental ordination" would "be seen by women as depreciation and discrimination."
However, at an April 29 "Day of Deacons" in Koblenz, the archbishop's remarks were welcomed by many female Catholics, including Julia Klockner, a regional head of Germany's governing Christian Democratic Union. She told the Catholic news agency Kathpress that women deacons would offer "a great opportunity for the church to regain credibility."
At their February plenary, the German bishops' conference approved a report setting targets for women to be better represented in church "management positions," while Cardinal Kasper also called for a sacramental office for women "with its own profile," which would be distinct from the ordained diaconate.
Hucker told CNS she hoped the new pope's "welcoming of women in various fields" would have practical consequences, adding that there were now "really good contacts" on reform issues between bishops and lay Catholics in many of Germany's 27 Catholic dioceses.
"People have come together on the points set out in the bishops' February report, and I hope work will start on implementing them as soon as possible," she said. "Engaged Catholics are asking their bishops to do something and coming up with their own concrete ideas, so it will be good news if reforms are now really in motion."
Catholics make up 30 percent of Germany's population of 82.3 million, around the same proportion as Protestants, with 2 percent belonging to Orthodox denominations, according to federal government figures.

Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden at the Vatican.