Thursday, May 12, 2016

Pope Francis and women as deacons

To much predictably ill-informed media fanfare, Pope Francis, in a seemingly impromptu response to a request that arose from his meeting in Rome with the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), a body of superiors of women's religious orders, agreed to create a committee to study the ministry of women deacons in the early Church. The results of the study would then presumably be used to help determine whether women might be instituted, or perhaps even be ordained, as deacons for the Church today. According to the National Catholic Reporter, in his response to this request, the Holy Father remembered speaking with a "good, wise professor" who had studied the ministry of female deacons in the Church's early centuries. According to the NCR piece, Pope Francis confessed that even after his discussion with the professor the role of women deacons remained unclear to him: "What were these female deacons?" he remembered asking the professor. "Did they have ordination or no?" "It was a bit obscure."

It bears noting that the International Theological Commission, which belongs to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, back in 2002 published a fairly comprehensive study on the diaconate that was five years in the making: From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles. Section IV of Chapter 2 of the Commission's study specifically addressed "The Ministry of Deaconesses." The concluding paragraph of that section echoes what Pope Francis said to the UISG:
The present historical overview shows that a ministry of deaconesses did indeed exist, and that this developed unevenly in the different parts of the Church. It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate. At the very least it was an ecclesial function, exercised by women, sometimes mentioned together with that of sub-deacon in the lists of Church ministries. Was this ministry conferred by an imposition of hands comparable to that by which the episcopate, the priesthood and the masculine diaconate were conferred? The text of the Constitutiones Apostolorum would seem to suggest this, but it is practically the only witness to this, and its proper interpretation is the subject of much debate. Should the imposition of hands on deaconesses be considered the same as that on deacons, or is it rather on the same level as the imposition of hands on sub-deacons and lectors? It is difficult to tackle the question on the basis of historical data alone
Along with the minor orders of porter and exorcist, the sub-diaconate was abolished by Bl Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Letter, promulgated in 1972, Ministeria quaedam. While the minor orders of lector and acolyte remain, neither is currently conferred by the laying on of hands. These minor orders are reserved to men preparing for ordination.

In addition to the International Theological Commission's study, there are are some other relatively recent books on this matter that bear noting: Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church, Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future, and Deaconesses: An Historical Study.

Despite having done what can be considered fairly serious academic work on the diaconate, which, if nothing else, allowed me to survey most of the literature available on the diaconate over a period of four years, I am not offering a personal opinion on the possibility of women deacons. But I would say, don't automatically assume women deacons means ordaining women. I laud the pope's decision to appoint a committee to study the singular issue of women deacons. By all means, let the conversation and discernment continue.

St. Stephen by Luis de Morales, 1575


The question of admitting women to holy orders is not a simple one, but is rather dense and complex. In short, the vast majority of the plenteous commentary now on offer, only one day after Pope Francis' seemingly impromptu announcement, no matter the view being expressed (i.e., for or against), with perhaps a few exceptions, is likely gravely deficient in one or more aspect. The blogosphere with its rush to comment on news tends to be very reactionary and the mainstream media tends to be as ideological and it is ignorant when it comes to ecclesiological matters.

Since I am on the subject of deacons, I have to say that I frequently marvel at how marginalized deacons and the diaconate remain. As a case-in-point, I offer the recent announcement of a diocesan synod for the Diocese of San Diego. Bishop Robert McElroy, who serves as bishop of the diocese, in announcing the synod, which will consider five "major challenges"- divorced Catholics, "witnessing to the Catholic understanding of marriage, Church resources for unmarried couples, raising kids, and spirituality within families" - described a synod as bringing "together the bishop, the priestly leadership and lay and religious representatives from throughout the diocese to wrestle with the most important questions that a diocese faces."

Notably missing from this discussion of the most important questions that local church faces are San Diego's permanent deacons, who number just under 150 according to the website Catholic Hierarchy. As with most dioceses in the United States and abroad, the vast majority of San Diego's permanent deacons are no doubt married with children. You'd think married clerics and their wives might be identified as having valuable inputs given the matters the synod is slated to discuss. I attribute no ill-intent at all to Bishop McElroy. In fact, I congratulate him for convening a diocesan synod. However, his omission of deacons strikes me as something still all too common more than 40 years after the restoration of the renewed diaconate in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

In my own local Church it is not infrequently that I still hear the phrase "Clergy and deacons." I also sometimes hear about "Clergy Convocations" that include only priests. Of course, there is nothing wrong with holding a Priests' Convocation or a Deacons' Convocation, but then there is a lot right with gathering the entire clergy of a diocese together on, say, an annual basis. There is certainly much to be said for not being unnecessarily, if unintentionally, reductive and exclusive. I do have to point out that both bishops under whom I have served as a deacon were remarkably appreciative of eager to include deacons in the life of the Church here in Utah.

What is the thread connecting these two seemingly disparate matters? Apart from yesterday's off-the-cuff announcement about appointing a committee to study the ministry of women deacons in the early Church, to the best of my knowledge, Pope Francis has said nothing to or about permanent deacons in his more than three years as Pontiff. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, as of 2012, again, according to Catholic Hierarchy, had only 11 permanent deacons. By contrast, the Diocese of Rome, as of 2014, had 122 permanent deacons. Bishop McEloy's omission of deacons from his statement about the upcoming diocesan synod, which I only use to serve as a recent reminder of a very deeply ingrained tendency to overlook deacons, may indicate that conferring the diaconate on women might not be the best way to bring them in from the margins.

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