Pope Francis has said he’ll create a commission to study the possibility of females serving as deacons the Church. What does this mean for Catholics?
Pope Francis hugs Sister Carmen Sammut after a meeting of superior generals, or the leaders of women religious orders, at the Vatican on Thursday.AP
EMMA GREEN MAY 12, 2016 GLOBAL
This week, the leaders of female Catholic religious orders from around the world came to the Vatican for a meeting with the pope. During a question-and-answer session Thursday, they asked him why the Church bans women from serving as deacons—a kind of Catholic clergy. Why not at least study the question? they asked.
Francis said yes.
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It is big news that the pope will create a commission to study the possibility of female deacons. For centuries, at least in the West, women have not served in this kind of leadership role in the Catholic Church. The Church has ruled definitively that they cannot be admitted to the priesthood; in 1994, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this ban in his apostolic exhortation Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he wrote that the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” Although women around the world, and particularly in the United States, have pushed for their ordination as priests, it is unlikely that this will change.
The diaconate, though, is different. “The Church has every right and possibility of restoring women to the ministry of deacon to our churches,” said Phyllis Zagano, an adjunct professor at Hofstra University who has written extensively on this question. Historically, women have been part of the diaconate—they served the Church in this way until at least the 12th century in the West, she said, and can currently be part of in some Eastern churches, such as the Orthodox Church of Greece. In the West, “over the years, the ministry of women as deacons outside the monastery fell away,” she said. But “the Church has never overruled the need for women deacons.”
Currently, women who want to take vows in the church can become women religious—an umbrella term that includes nuns. They serve as everything from missionaries to teachers to hospital administrators, or sometimes they live a cloistered life of prayer.
If the Church were to allow them to serve as deacons, they would be able to have a more formal leadership role in Catholic parishes. Deacons are one of three kinds of ordained ministers in Catholicism—the position is one of the “major orders” in the Church. These people can preach and lead worship; conduct weddings and funerals; and baptize people. They can’t offer communion, hear confessions, or administer confirmation. Since the 1960s, “mature married men” have been allowed to serve as permanent deacons—people who wish to take a vow to serve the Church, but who do not wish to ascend to the priesthood.
Even though the pope’s announcement—like so many other things he does—seemed a bit off the cuff, a number of recent events have laid the groundwork for this kind of conversation in the Church. Only a few months into his papacy, he said in an interview that “it is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.” And during his recent travels, Francis has taken pains to talk up the important roles women serve in the Church. Returning to Rome on the papal plane in the summer of 2013, he told reporters, “We need to develop a profound theology of womanhood. That is what I think.” During his historic visit to Cuba in September, he celebrated the role and life of Mary and praised the women who find their vocations in the church.
In April, Francis released Amoris Laetitia, a document about his views on family life known as an apostolic exhortation, that was the culmination of more than two years of study and discussion among Catholic bishops from around the world. During one of two synods, or gatherings of bishops, last October, Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Quebec pressed the Church to allow the possibility of female deacons. Ultimately, that idea didn’t catch on. The apostolic exhortation that came out of these two synods primarily focuses on the importance of family life, but the pope paid special attention to issues that affect women like domestic abuse and violent conflicts. “If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women,” he wrote.
For those who would like to see women restored to the diaconate of the Catholic Church, there’s reason to look to the Bible. As Zagano pointed out, “In the gospels, the only person with the job title of deacon is Phoebe.”
Pope Francis is proving to be God’s Gift – not only to the Roman Catholic Church, in which he is recognised as Supreme Pontiff, but also to the whole of Christendom, of which his Church is a major part.
Like Good Pope John XXIII, in whose footsteps he is travelling (rather than those of his immediate predecessors – especially Popes John Paul II and Benedictr XVI) Pope Francis is following the Gospel Options for the Poor, as identified in Jesus and in his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi.
As Supreme Pontiff , Francis is keen to free his Church from past errors, and to bring `back into the eirenic era of the Second Vatican Council, presided over by Pope John XXII, whose efforts to modernise the Church have, sadly, been thwarted by successive battles in the Roman Curia to maintain the pre-Vatican II ‘status quo’.
Like a fresh breeze (a breath of the Holy Spirit?) Pope Francis has cast aside many of the trappings of monarchical papal dignity – beginning with his taking up residence in the St. Martha’s Guesthouse, rather than the papal apartments at the Vatican. He has disdained the papal red shoes – beloved of his immediate predecessor – and the use of the papal limousine, in favour of getting around by more humble forms of transport. One cannot imagine this Pope ever making use of the traditional ‘sedia gestatoria’ (the papal throne) and being carried around by liveried footmen. Nor will he wear the bejewelled papal tiara!
From this report, Pope Francis is now instituting a special commission into the possibility of ordaining Women as Deacons in the Church – a step of ecclesiastical ordination hitherto unknown in the current Roman Tradition – despite the fact that women deacons were mentioned in the New Testament accounts of life in the early Church.
Whether this will become a natural stepping stone to the further ordination of women as priests in the Roman Catholic Church remains a conundrum. However, the fact that previous Popes have pronounced this possibility to be null and void in the R.C. Church, this might take longer to become even a possibility.
Pope Francis has already proven that the Church cannot always be bound by past tradition, thereby preserving the possibility of Divine Intervention into the life of the Church through the fresh inspiration of the Holy Spirit. On this Eve of the Feast of Pentecost, one can only pray the the will of God may become known to all of us, in ways that surprise us!
“Come, Holy Spirit; fill the hearts of your people with the fire of your Love, through Jesus Christ our Risen and Ascended Lord. AMEN!” – Pentecost, 2016