dare we hope for women deacons?

women deacons

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.

Source: Francis to create commission to study female deacons in Catholic church | National Catholic Reporter

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.

5 thoughts on “dare we hope for women deacons?

  1. I am having a harder and harder time even looking at photos of priests and bishops, knowing that they, by their silence, are allowing this nonsense to continue.
    Francis needs to establish a commission to consider if it might be possible to have women deacons! To be frank, I’m not quite sure why it should make such a difference what the role of women deacons was in the early days of the Church. Society was completely different then. We no longer make women go into hiding during menstruation or pregnancy. Despite Paul’s insistence, women are allowed to speak in church. I don’t think that any rational person believes any longer that women are incapable of the same level of intellectual achievement as men. Surely, no one would try to insist that women are not capable of achieving the same level of spirituality as men. So, where is the problem???!!!???? Why the need for yet another commission, for heaven’s sake? Unless, of course, the intent is to mollify the little woman and make her believe that something just might come to pass, if only she can be patient for just a (long) while longer…..

    1. Hi Alexandra. It’s true that we shouldn’t place so much emphasis on history. And yet, the official argument for the male priesthood rests on the claim that Jesus chose only the twelve, and only men to be his apostles. How many times have we heard it said, “Because it was so in the beginning?” I think that being able to prove that women deacons were part of the early church is a way to “fight fire with fire”.

      As I tried to share in this post, I am also sceptical about another commission. There is a lot of general euphoria circulating on the internet today. It’s justified, I think. After all, we’ve suffered for so long from imposed silence and gag orders surrounding the issue of women and ordination. Any dialogue is a good step forward. So, I’m trying hard not to be too pessimistic. Call me a cautious optimist! 😉


  2. My husband is a permanent deacon, and he is definitely open to the Church giving careful consideration to the possibility of including women in the diaconate.

    I, however, have some concerns…

    Yes, I absolutely agree that women’s voices need to be heard more in the Church, and need to be taken seriously. Also, women generally speak a different “language” than men, and this should be welcomed. BUT, I worry that, with the proposal to allow women to be deacons, that once again society is communicating that women must adapt to the traditional roles of men in order to be acknowledged and included.

    Also, the word “deacon” means “servant”. It’s not supposed to be some sort of hierarchical position. Many women already take on the roles of servants (e.g. all the tasks that a mother must do). Maybe it’s good for more men to embrace serving.

    As a deacon’s wife, I know that my husband is gone A LOT (my health issues, such as multiple chemical sensitivities, prevent me from being able to minister alongside him). Women are already so busy. Would it be a good idea to add even more to what women are expected to do?

    If the Church did allow women to be deacons, I would accept that. I’m just expressing some concerns. And I am wondering if there are other ways for women to be heard and taken seriously.

  3. Again, please forgive me for the late response…

    Thanks so much for sharing your first hand experience. It’s too true that women are already in many traditional service roles in the church. It’s easy to imagine the tremendous loss to the church if all women suddenly withdrew their time and energy! (One wonders if the church would exist at all!) I think that a big issue is that of recognition. And, of course, the issue of gender equality in church leadership. There are many leadership roles that need not depend on ordination. And, if ordination continues to be held out as a prerequisite for leadership, then ordination must be open to women. It’s a matter of simple justice.

    When I was busy (overly busy!) with leadership work in the Marianist family, many kind friends used to thank my hubby for the sacrifice he and the family made so that I could do the work I did. I hope that you receive the same gratitude and appreciation for the sacrifices you must make so that your husband can fulfill his ministry. After all, it takes two!


    1. Hi Isabella,
      I apologize for my late response! We have been having some computer (router) issues for a little longer than I think we realized. Hopefully things will go better with our new router. I just found several of your responses by actively looking for them — the computer didn’t notify me.
      I love your blog. You address such fascinating issues with passion and clarity. And your style invites dialogue. Bravo, Isabella!!
      May all of Jesus’, Mary’s, and your Guardian Angel’s dreams come true for you and your blog. 💜☮

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