In the last several days since Pope Francis spoke with the International Union of Superiors General on topics related to role of women in church leadership, conversation has circled around the possibility of Catholic women being allowed to pursue the diaconate.
While the conversation was positive and affirming in many ways, the excitement may be premature. Here is the relevant passage from the transcript published by Salt + Light Media:
The role of consecrated women in the Church
Consecrated women already do much work with the poor and the marginalised, they teach catechism, they accompany the sick and dying, they distribute the communion, in many countries they lead common prayers in the absence of priests and in those circumstances they pronounce the homily. In the Church there is the office of the permanent diaconate, but it is open only to men, married or not. What prevents the Church from including women among permanent deacons, as was the case in the primitive Church? Why not constitute an official commission to study the matter? Can you give an example of where you see the possibility of better integration of women and consecrated women in the life of the Church?
This question goes in the direction of “doing”: consecrated women already do much work with the poor, they do many things … “doing”. And it touches on the problem of the permanent diaconate. Some might say that the “permanent deaconesses” in the life of the Church are mothers-in-law [laughter]. In effect this exists in antiquity: there was a beginning. …I remember that it was a theme I was quite interested in when I came to Rome for meetings, and I stayed at the Domus Paolo VI; there was a good Syrian theologian there, who had produced a critical edition and translation of the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian. One day I asked him about this, and he explained to me that in the early times of the Church there were some “deaconesses”. But what were these deaconesses? Were they ordained or not? The Council of Chalcedon (451) speaks about this but it is somewhat obscure. What was the role of deaconesses in those times? It seems – I was told by this man, who is now dead but who was a good professor, wise and erudite – it seems that the role of the deaconesses was to help in the baptism of women, their immersion; they baptised them for the sake of decorum, and also to anoint the body of women, in baptism. And another curious thing: when there was a judgement on a marriage because a husband hit his wife and she went to the bishop to complain, deaconesses were responsible for inspecting the bruises left on the woman’s body from her husband’s blows, and for informing the bishop. This, I remember. There are various publications on the diaconate in the Church, but it is not clear how it was. I think I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to some studies on this theme, because I have answered you only on the basis of what I heard from this priest, who was an erudite and able researcher, on the permanent diaconate. In addition, I would like to constitute an official commission to study the question: I think it will be good for the Church to clarify this point, I agree, and I will speak so as to do something of this type.
Throughout the conversation, the Pope acknowledged that women should be more involved in leadership, not just “talked about” but listened to; he also stressed repeatedly that service and leadership do not require ordination. “We must not fall into the trap of feminism, because this would reduce the importance of a woman,” he said at one point; women’s and men’s perspectives and approaches to service complement each other and reflect the relationship of the Church (as woman) to Christ (as man):
The consecrated woman is an icon of the Church, an icon of Mary. The priest is not an icon of the Church; he is not the icon of Mary; he is an icon of the Apostles, of the disciples who were sent to preach. But not of the Church or of Mary. When I say this I want to make you reflect on the fact that “she” the Church is feminine; the Church is woman: it is not “he” the Church, it is “she” the Church. But she is a woman married to Jesus Christ, she has her Bridegroom, who id Jesus Christ. When a bishop is chosen for a diocese, the bishop — on behalf of Christ — marries that particular Church. The Church is woman! And a woman’s consecration makes her the very icon of the Church and icon of Our Lady. We men cannot do this. This will help you to deepen, from this theological root, a great role in the Church. I hope this does not elude you.
One day after the meeting, Vatican Radio issued a clarification on the Pope’s position regarding women and ordination:
During the hour and a half long conversation about the mission and ministry of women in religious life, the Pope responded to several delicate questions, including one where he was asked what prevents the Church from including women among the permanent deacons, just like during the early Church. In his reply, the Pope said understanding about the role of female deacons in the early Church remained unclear and agreed with the sisters that it would be useful to set up a Commission to study the question…
…Referring to the Pope’s much reported remark about setting up a Commission to study the question of female deacons, Father Lombardi said this was an issue that has been talked about within the Church in the past and arises from the fact that in the early Church there were women described as deaconesses who carried out certain tasks within the Christian community.
Kaya Oakes interviewed a number of ordained women in various denominations, including the Episcopal Church, for a reflection in USC Annenberg’s Religion Dispatches, “Female Deacons: Pope Francis Walks it Back, Women Clergy Weigh In.” Excerpts:
The Rev. Wil Gafney, an Episcopal priest first ordained in the AME Zion Church, told me that “Roman Catholic women deacons would mark a significant advance for women to live out their vocations more fully and for the church to experience the grace it is lacking by silencing the voices of half of its members.” She added that this would be “returning to a historic pattern in part,” since historical evidence shows the existence of female clergy even to the extent of women deacons being mentioned in the Bible, but that the Roman Catholic Church would still be stopping at full ordination of women, “counter to the historical record.”…
…The Rev. Josephine Robertson adds that diaconal ordination would “simply acknowledge what has been already done by God in the life of many faithful Roman Catholic women,” and that many Catholic sisters she’s met already have a ministry “that is absolutely diaconal in all but name.”
The story also explores the perceived impact of women’s ordination on more and less inclusive churches:
[Episcopal priest the] Rev. [Jordan] Ware adds that the connection between inclusive churches and a loss of people is a “red herring,” and that “if the reason you’re ordaining women is to chase an elusive population, you’re probably going to be frustrated, because that’s a bad reason.” Rev. Robertson points out that when the Episcopal church began ordaining women, “churches left, clergy left, doom was forecast. Doom didn’t happen.”
The same conversations occurred around inclusion of LGBTQ clergy and same sex marriage, which Robertson describes as “issues of justice, of welcoming as Jesus did.” The deeper issue of decline, she says, “is that Christianity, done properly (which it rarely is) is hard as hell. And Christianity done poorly (as it so often is) isn’t worth the bother.”
Crux sees hope in the fact that the conversation happened, if nothing else, in three outcomes: “One: It will launch a genuine exploration of the ‘theology of women’… Two: It will launch a deeper theology of the diaconate (and ministry)” and “three: It will push the pontiff’s dynamic of dialogue and discernment”:
But as Father Thomas Reese wrote about the women deacons story, “what is most significant in Pope Francis’ response is the way it shows how open he is to discussion in the church of ideas and how he wants discernment to be the process by which the church makes decisions.”
“In the past, the clerical establishment would discuss church matters behind closed doors so as not to ‘confuse the faithful.’ With Francis, that day is over,” Reese, a Jesuit priest and church analyst, wrote at National Catholic Reporter. “It is clear he hates anything that smells of clericalism.”
On the other hand, Francis may see a step to ordain women as simply a way to “clericalize” them. But it’s clear that he’s happy to have the debate, even if many are not.