FRIBORG, Switzerland (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a historic first, a high-ranking clerical position which canon law reserves exclusively for a priest, has been been conferred on a lay woman in Switzerland.
Bishop Charles Morerod of the diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Friborg, has appointed "lay minister" Madame Marianne Pohl-Henzen "episcopal vicar" for the German-speaking part of the canton of Friborg from August 1, 2020, changing her job title to "episcopal delegate" or "episcopal manager."
"A lay woman is now hierarchically superior to all priests in the territory governed by her. For any layman or laywoman to be placed hierarchically in such a manner against all canonical custom and written law is an aberration," an expert in canon law told Church Militant.
"The appointment is invalid and gravely illicit as canon 478, paragraph 1 of the Code of Canon Law (CIC) requires that vicars episcopal be priests, with a whole assortment of other criteria which Mrs. Pohl-Henzen does not have," the canonist categorically stated.
According to canon 478, 1: "A vicar general and an episcopal vicar are to be priests not less than thirty years old, doctors or licensed in canon law or theology or at least truly expert in these disciplines, and recommended by sound doctrine, integrity, prudence, and experience in handling matters."
An episcopal vicar is the bishop's representative for a specific area within the diocese according to canon 479, paragraph 2 CIC. It is administratively equivalent to the vicar general, but has a jurisdictional restriction to a specific territory within a diocese or to a clearly defined area of responsibility.
"This development and abuse is very dangerous for the hierarchical constitution of the Church because an episcopal vicar is what is called in canon law an Ordinary, sharing in the full executive power of the diocesan bishop for that territory or area in which the bishop grants it," the Rome-based canon lawyer explained.
Even though Pohl-Henzen will not have "episcopal vicar" as her official title, "the play on words 'manager' or 'delegate' in lieu of 'vicar' is taking the Catholic faithful for fools: it is nothing less than nominalism to say that this new office is not an episcopal vicariate because the title is different," he stressed.
A press release from the diocese states that Pohl-Henzen "will succeed" the previous episcopal vicar Fr. Pascal Marquard, which makes her position identical to that of her predecessor, the canon lawyer explained.
"Her title is 'episcopal delegate' — which is exactly what an episcopal vicar possesses that constitutes his office: 'delegation' from the diocesan bishop," the canonist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
"The diocesan press release has an 'explainer' in the footnote of the announcement: 'Qu'est-ce qu'un vicaire épiscopal?' ('What is an Episcopal Vicar?'). There is none defining 'What is an Episcopal Manager?'" he observed.
"The same thing can be said for the innumerable offices of 'Tribunal Director' found frequently in the American Catholic Church, when according to canon law, the only director of a tribunal is the judicial vicar," he added.
A campaigner for women's ordination to the priesthood, Pohl-Henzen told the Swiss Catholic Church's official media she "no longer climbs the barricades and calls for the female priesthood, even if I think that is fundamentally good."
"We have to take small steps for the good of the Church, otherwise there will be a split in the Church. First, we need the women's diaconate," she affirmed.
"I am not an episcopal vicar, that is clear," Pohl-Henzen clarified. "I will not do confirmations, I will not bury priests — those were previously the specifications of the episcopal vicar. I probably won't install parish priests in their churches either."
"I can do a lot in practice: I am in charge of personnel management, including that of priests. I lead various committees and am the contact person for the body in the canton of Friborg. In the future I will also be represented on the Bishops' Council and the Priests' Council," she said.
When asked what she would say to a priest if he came to her and challenged her authority saying "You have nothing to say to me," Pohl-Henzen replied: "I will answer: Please go to the bishop. But the bishop will probably send him back to me and say: You have to discuss this with the person in charge."
Pohl-Henzen conceded her appointment was motivated by the equality agenda. "The bishop does what he can to promote women in the Church," she remarked.
According to the diocesan press release, Pohl-Henzen studied philology at Friborg University. The diocese does not specify what her qualifications in theology are but states that she has "theological training."
The "episcopal delegate" has worked for 18 years as catechist and lay pastor in the Lac district, in particular in Courtepin and in the bilingual parish of Murtenas.
She later worked for two years with different pastoral teams in the canton of Vaud and as lay pastor in a French-speaking pastoral unit in the city of Friborg.
Marianne Pohl-Henzen is married with three children and grandmother of four grandchildren.