VATICAN CITY Pope Francis has announced he will create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic church, signaling an historic openness to the possibility of ending the global institution’s practice of an all-male clergy.
Cyber-space has been humming and buzzing with this announcement. My initial excitement was tempered as I read past the head-lines. Pope Francis’s words, in response to questions given during an assembly of the International Union of Superior Generals (IUSG) in Rome, are simply promises of possibilities.
No, we are not going to have women deacons over-night. At the current rate of reform in our church, I wonder if we will have them in my life-time. With the current ideological divide, in the hierarchy and in the pews, I wonder if women will ever be “allowed” to take their rightful place beside men in church leadership.
What Francis has promised, seemingly on the spot, is to create a commission to study the possibility of women deacons.
Commissions are only as good as their members. Will this commission consist of a well-balanced group of lay and ordained, women and men? Will Francis invite theologians who have spent their lives studying the historical and biblical evidence of women deacons in the early church? Will the voices of those in the pews, whom deacons are called to serve, be included in the dialogue?
If this commission concludes that the permanent diaconate should be opened to women (in its current ordained role, not merely as “lady auxiliaries” without ordination), will the recommendation for reform be accepted by the more stridently conservative members of our church?
Recommendations from commissions have been ignored in the past. Remember the report from the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1966? It proposed that artificial birth control was not intrisincally evil, suggesting that women and men should be allowed to discern which methods of birth control are best for them. Married couples around the world let out a sigh of relief. The relief was short-lived with the publication of Humanae Vitae shortly after.
In answering the questions at the IUSG assembly, Francis humbly admitted that he was unsure of the the role of deacons in the early church. NCR’s Joshua J McElwee reports,
“It was a bit obscure,” said Francis. “What was the role of the deaconess in that time?”
“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked aloud. “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.”
“I accept,” the pope said later. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
While we shouldn’t read too much into off the cuff statements, seeking “clarification” doesn’t necessarily imply that a change in teaching or reform in practice is around the corner.
For doctrinal types, “clarification” often means digging in their heals into existing teaching; bold-facing the arguments that have rationalized a male-only priesthood while putting a gag-order on any dissenters. Clarifying, for them, equals reiterating.
“You still don’t understand why women can’t be priests? You poor dear. It’s really clear, after all. I’ll quote you the part of the Catechism that proves that only men can act in persona Christi” !
I hope that Francis is proposing “clarification” as a means to go beyond catechism based teaching to explore the good works already done by many theologians and historians who have been, and are studying the role of women in the church for many years now. Sadly, these works have too often been ignored or silenced in the past.
The windows have been opened a crack. We need Francis to courageously fling them wide open for a new and far-reaching dialogue on the full and equal inclusion of women in our church.