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.

synod proposal for women deacons is a call to dialogue

Source: Synod should reflect on possibly allowing female deacons, says archbishop | CNS top stories

Archbishop Paul Andre Durocher, of Gatineau, Quebec, used his three minute intervention at the Synod on the Family to address the following section in the working document on the role of women.

A contributing factor in acknowledging the determining role of women in society could be a greater appreciation of their responsibility in the Church, namely, their involvement in the decision-making process, their participation — not simply in a formal way — in the governing of some institutions; and their involvement in the formation of ordained ministers. (Instrumentum Laboris, 30)

He offered several practical proposals.

  • Opening more opportunities for women in decision making curial and diocesan roles
  • Allowing married couples to give homilies
  • Welcoming women into the permanent diaconate

This last proposal has caused quite a stir within the media and on various Catholic web-sites.

I was excited to read the news, and doubly proud that this progressive proposal was made by one of our own Canadian bishops. A dialogue is good and necessary and, I believe, this is what Archbishop Durocher was proposing. A quick read of some discussion boards showed how far we are from civil and reasonable dialogue in our church.

An NCR online article quickly garnered over three hundred responses. What was surprising, at least to me, was the lack of enthusiasm from some progressive posters. Instead of supporting Durocher’s proposal, they vehemently insisted that opening the diaconate to women was a half measure and nothing less than full ordination would do.

Not surprisingly, zealous traditionalists were quick to attack not only the proposal, but Archbishop Durocher himself; even on his own blog. 

Meanwhile, the Women’s Ordination Conference published this statement,

We applaud Archbishop Durocher for raising the suggestion to the exclusively male-voting body, and furthermore, for highlighting the relationship between the “degradation” of women in Church and society and violence against women around the world…

Though restoration of an ordained women’s diaconate would not alone be a satisfactory progression to including women in all realms of Church leadership, governance, and sacramental ministry – only ordination to the priesthood and episcopacy could begin to accomplish this – WOW supports restoration of the diaconate.

This response acknowledges and affirms the common ground held by the Archbishop and WOW. It is a gracious statement of gratefulness and hope, not an angry demand for more.

Dialogue is impossible if heels are dug deeply into idealogical trenches with no intention of the slightest of movements. Simply reiterating our position as proof that the discussion is closed does not allow for genuine listening or the seeking of common ground. Taking an extreme position on either side of the trad-lib pendulum posits the risk of a fundamentalism that too often leads to judgmental diatribes and uncharitable words.

What Archbishop Durocher has proposed is one way to better include women’s voices in the church. It will not give women the full decision making authority that is currently within the exclusive domain of ordination. But, it is a step forward.

The diaconate is considered to be more a role of ministerial service; especially to the poor and those in need. And, it can be argued, countless women are already doing this service. But, the diaconate also includes administering the sacraments of baptism and marriage, presiding at funerals, proclaiming the Word of God and breaking open that Word in the homily.

Stop for a moment and picture a woman you know who would do a brilliant job in any of this tasks? Think of how different your parish life would be with a woman deacon?