Ordaining Women to the Diaconate: a small step forward?

(CNN)Pope Francis said the Vatican should study the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, answering a call that women, particularly in the United States, have been asking the church to address for decades.
The Pope’s potentially groundbreaking remarks came, as they often do, in an off-the-cuff response to a question — and it was not altogether clear exactly what he meant.
This time, the question came from the heads of women’s religious orders, who met with Francis at the Vatican on Thursday and pressed him for tangible ways in which women might play a larger role in leading the Catholic Church. To date, Francis has praised the “feminine genius” but has not carried through on vague promises to appoint more women to leadership positions.
In a series of pointed questions — the Pope joked that he felt like a goalie taking shots — the women called him out, asking why they can’t preach at Mass or be ordained as deacons.
Women can give “reflections” at Catholic worship services, but only priests should preach homilies at Mass, the Pope answered, according to Vatican Radio, because they are acting “in persona Christi,” or, in the person of Christ. Church leaders have used a similar argument to prevent women from being ordained as priests, saying that Jesus’ disciples were all men.
But in the Bible, St. Paul mentions least one woman, Phoebe, who served the early church, possibly as a deaconess.
Asked about Phoebe on Thursday, the Pope said the role of Phoebe and other women wasn’t clear, and he would ask the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to look into it.
“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked, according to National Catholic Reporter. “I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”
It is not clear, however, whether the Pope meant that the Vatican will study the role of women deacons in history or the possibility that women could be deacons in the future. The Vatican press office declined to comment, saying they are awaiting a full transcript of Francis’ remarks.
Vatican Radio, however, which is run by the church, portrayed the Pope’s remarks as a broad call “to set up a commission to study the possibility of reinstating female deacons.”
The question is controversial because it would open the door for women into the Catholic Church’s all-male clergy.
Since Vatican reforms in the mid 1960s, “permanent deacons” — those who do not plan on becoming priests — can perform many of the same functions as priests, including preach, celebrate marriages, lead funeral services and run parishes. They cannot hear confessions or consecrate the Eucharist, and only married men or celibate men over age 35 are eligible for the diaconate. There are about 13,000 deacons in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Opening a commission to study the diaconate for women would be a great step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history,” The Women’s Ordination Conference said in a statement.
“While WOC celebrates this step from the Vatican, until women are included in all decision-making structures and as priests and Bishops of the Church, equality remains painfully denied.”
Pope Francis Says Panel Will Study Whether Women May Serve as Deacons
L’Osservatore Romano, via Associated Press
ROME — Pope Francis said on Thursday that he would set up a commission to study whether women can serve as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church, revealing an openness to re-examining the church’s long-held insistence on an all-male clergy.
His move was hailed as a breakthrough by Catholic women who have clamored for years to be given a more prominent role in the church, and who cite research showing that women in the church’s early history served as deacons.
But the idea will face stiff resistance from some who believe that ordaining women as deacons is the first step toward ordaining female priests — which recent popes have ruled out, citing church doctrine.
The pope’s comments were made during an assembly of leaders of women’s religious orders, and were consistent with his style: a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that opened a broad horizon of possibilities.
During a discussion at the Vatican on Thursday, which at one point touched on the role that female deacons played during the early years of the church, Francis was asked about the possibility of an official commission to study the issue. His response was, in essence, “Why not?”
“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” Pope Francis mused out loud, according to the National Catholic Reporter. “I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement.”
“I accept,” the pope said later. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
Deacons are ordained ministers in the Roman Catholic Church, and in many parishes they perform the same roles as priests. They are permitted to preach at Mass, perform baptisms, witness marriages and conduct funeral services. Deacons must be men over the age of 35, and they may be married (though if a deacon’s wife dies, he is expected to remain celibate).
The church in the United States has for decades been actively encouraging men to become deacons to assist priests stretched thin because of a shortage of priests. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says more than 13,000 men are now serving in what is called the “permanent diaconate.”
This is not the first time the issue of female deacons has come up. In 1995, an American group of canon law experts said that ordaining women as deacons in the church would be in keeping with Catholic theology and past practice, though the Vatican never acted on that recommendation. The topic has continued to be discussed, however: Just last week, scholars met at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto for a conference titled: “Women, the Diaconate and the Future of Ministry.”
Groups that have pushed for women to play a greater role in the church welcomed the pope’s declarations, as an important — if embryonic — step.
The Rev. James Bretzke, a professor of theology at Boston College, said in a statement, “I can’t underscore enough how groundbreaking this is for the church.”
Father Bretzke, who, like Pope Francis, is a member of the Jesuit religious order, added, “If women can be ordained as deacons, then this is going to weaken — not destroy, but weaken significantly — the argument that women absolutely are incapable of being ordained as priests. So this is opening more than a crack in the door.”
The Women’s Ordination Conference, an American organization that supports the idea of female deacons, priests and bishops, said in a statement: “Opening a commission to study the diaconate for women would be a great step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history.”
Pope willing to set up study into possibility of women deacons
Pope Francis made the remarks during a meeting with members of women’s orders
Pope Francis says he is prepared to commission a study into whether women can enter the Catholic clergy at the rank of deacon – one below a priest.
He was making the remarks in a closed-door meeting in Rome with senior members of women’s religious orders.
Deacons are ordained ministers who can preach or preside over weddings and funerals, but can not conduct Mass.
However Vatican media reported that the Pope did not consider the possibility of ordaining women priests.
‘I accept’
During a 75-minute conversation on Thursday the Pope was asked if he would be willing to create a commission to study whether women could serve as deacons.
According Vatican media, Francis said he was open to the idea: “It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree.'”
The pope gave his blessing to the idea of setting up a study into female deacons
Currently all Catholic priests and deacons are male. Priests must be celibate, but deacons can be married men.
Groups advocating women’s ordination have long argued that there have been many female deacons in history.
The BBC’s James Reynolds in Rome says the remarks do not constitute a formal Vatican announcement. But they do signal the Pope’s willingness to examine a greater official role for women within the Church.

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  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    That’s a great case of being at the right place and asking the right questions (relying on a previous case to incite the dialogue – Phoebe).
    Your pleas will be heard.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    It would be interesting to see what kind of support this would rally. Could it be fought with the constitution of Ireland as its legal underpinning?
    Article 40 states : “The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen.”
    Keeping society free from gender bias and discrimination must be at the top of any society’s agenda, you would think?
    Culturally, Canon Law doesn’t readily fit in to most progressive societies. We all know that. It certainly doesn’t add up in Canada.
    A great task would be to find the most vigilant woman in Ireland to take on this cause as spokesperson. Who and where is she. Every army needs a general, I guess.

  3. Lloyd if you are looking for a woman to take this case on then look no further than Sr Brid liston FCJ. She is a woman of principle and has been silently and prudently advocating this cause for many year. She is a woman of great integrity and is not afraid to tackle difficult issues. She is not afraid to take on the conservative generation of this era and we need a woman like this on board if this cause is to be heard fairly.

  4. Anne Aubrey says:

    This is an issue that myself and a group of sixth form friends tried to promote in the diocese of Westminster in 1968. We visited as many parishes as we could with a petition advocated female altar servers, but also discussing the possibility of women deacons and priests. Most of the clergy we met with privately were supportive of our ideas. This was at a time when the Church was in a period of change and turmoil, after the conclusion of Vatican II, at its most open and inclusive since the earliest days of Christianity.
    Most were convinced that change must come, but it would be a slow process, – they weren’t wrong! I would suggest that ex-president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, would be the perfect person to head up a campaign for the ordination of women as deacons in the Catholic Church. She is a distinguished academic as well as a high profile stateswoman. She has a commitment to the development of the Church as a living institution, working out God’s plan for his people. Pope Francis is showing himself to be a breath of fresh air, willing to take brave decisions, in an open -minded way, guided by the Holy Spirit. We live in hope.

  5. Adam Peter Conroy says:

    Equality does not necessarily imply sameness. Women and men have different roles in the Church. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that. Saying that women or laypeople in general ought to be priests in order to be equal is just another form of clericalism surely? I thought that was what we were trying to get away from…the idea that the priest is the be all and end all. There are many roles for laity, both men and women, in the church and they are much needed.
    In any case I wouldn’t hold my breath for ordained female Deacons.

  6. Thank you Paddy for the link above. The key statement as I see it in Manson’s article is the following: “Francis’s theological imagination makes it impossible for women to achieve equal decision-making power and sacramental authority in the Church.”
    The theological imagination that she is referring to for those who did not read her summary of the meeting Pope Francis had with the superiors of women religious orders, is that Christ can only be imaged by males, therefore, only the ordained male celibate is able to be what is called “in Persona Christi.” You must be considered in Persona Christi to preach and preside at Eucharistic Liturgies.
    Pope Francis is not likely to waver from this theological premise that ought to have disappeared with the Pre-Vatican II Church. Jesus Christ is not a mortal man. He is pure spirit and as such may fully manifest himself in a woman or man of His choosing. I suggest that this theological premise is a result of a shift in theological consciousness after Vatican II. It goes hand in hand with the new realization that “We” are the body of Christ, a Eucharistic people.
    Indeed, Pope Francis is not alone in his theological imagination. Unfortunately, he cannot exercise an innovative leadership when it comes to understanding that it makes no difference whether a perspective priest or deacon has male body parts, in terms of being able to speak and act in the name of Christ. His age-old position on this issue is unequivocally constitutive of clericalism and belongs to another era. Further Pope Francis does not have the “Eschatological Insight” to provide him with the truth. I dare say, only a genuine mystic would likely know the God’s truth about it all.
    Ms. Manson reports that Pope Francis refers to the desire of women to be a priest or deacon as feminism. No, Pope Francis, there are women who desire ordination because they are fully possessed by Christ, mind, heart, and soul. While this antiquated theological imagination persists, the Universal Church is robbed of the fullness of the Spirit of Christ, and that surely has dire consequences.

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