Throughout history, women have served the church in many ways and have taken on a variety of roles. Women’s roles were restricted and redefined as the definitions “deacon” and “ordination” were developed and society changed. Recent scholarship supports a reexamination of these definitions in order to understand the role women deacons served in the early church. Women proclaimed the good news, served at the Eucharistic table, and ministered to the sick and impoverished. Thus the Church has a long and constant teaching and tradition of female deacons.
The Second Vatican Council redefined the role of deacon again returning the diaconate to a permanent order. Today about 40,000 men throughout the world are ordained deacons. Knowledge of the historical presence of women who served as deacons raises the issue of their ordination. Thousands of women are ministering in the U.S. and around the world. Many already have the formal qualifications to be ordained deacons. Restoring the tradition of female deacons in the Catholic Church would a) help fill many unmet ministerial needs, b) bring the richness and experience of women in preaching homilies to the Eucharist, and c) begin establishing a 21st century standard of gender balance representative in decision making and in the ministerial leadership of our Church.
The First Year in Review
In the first year, of his papacy, it has been reported only once, and without much fanfare, that Pope Francis was asked whether he could open the diaconate to women. The question came up during the in-flight press conference held on the papal journey from Rio to Rome on July 28, 2013. Le Figaro religion editor Jean-Marie Guénois asked the question, You said that the church without women loses its For instance, the female diaconate or a woman at the head of a dicastery?”
Francis did not directly answer the question, but instead, spoke more generally about the need for the Church to go further than Pope Paul VI had gone on the understanding of womens roles.
Later in the same press conference, when journalist Anna Ferrierra asked specifically what womens roles might be, he replied, You cannot be limited to the fact of being an altar server or the president of Caritas, the catechist … No! Further he acknowledged the need to shape a current theology of women that would help build a foundation for concrete developments. (CNA, 08/5/13).
We cannot extract Francis’s viewpoint viewpoint on women deacons from his comments over the his first 365 days, But we can examine his commentary on women’s roles overall to look for clues about the future.
A Short Recent History: Pius XI to Benedict XVI
We’ve come a long way from the day when Pius XI in 1930, seeking to defend the church against a burgeoning women’s rights movement, wrote Casti Conunubii lambasting false teachers who were trying to assert that the rights of husband and wife are equal (74). By the time of Vatican II the stranglehold of sexism began to loosen its grip on the Church. And as the notion of women’s equality began to take hold, the church had to develop a framework for both accommodating women’s equal rights and dignity while reinforcing historical gender divisions. Thus, the “equal but different” view of women’s roles developed.
Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (1963) did not speak of women’s equality, but began to take note of women’s human rights stating, “[women] are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons (41).” Lumen Gentium (1964), did not specifically contrast women’s roles but, referring to the laity, spoke generally of the equal privilege in faith and equality in dignity (32). Gaudim et Spes (1965) defined women’s place in relation to men using the language of “equity” while limiting them to “proper roles in accordance to their nature (60).” At the end of the council Pope Paul VI in his Address to Women (1965) spoke of women’s basic equality to men while, more than a decade later, made clear his intent to limit that equality to hierarchically prescribed roles in Inter Insigniores (1976).
John Paul II wrote more forcefully and explicitly of the “fundamental and essential equality between women and men (6,10)” in Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) but later introduced harsh measures to squash all discussion of women’s ordination in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994). Benedict XVI followed suite.
In the span of eight decades the universality of women’s rights and equality gained ground creating a conundrum for a church steeped in traditions that legitimized male power. Since women’s inferiority could no longer be considered a credible argument for a male only priesthood, sexual complementarity developed as the argument grounding the all male priesthood in sexual difference rather than sexual inequality. In short, sexual difference determined which roles women and men could follow.
To what degree will Francis align himself to his predecessors or depart from their framework of complementarity? Some Catholics see the Pope Francis diverging from his predecessors while others argue that his reform agenda dries up at the gender divide.
“You [women] cannot be limited to the fact of being an altar server or the president of Caritas, the catechist … No!” (Pope Francis-07/28/13)
Francis has noted the need to include women in more expansive ways in Church life. He has stated, “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures (EG:103).”
“We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church (EG: 103).”
Further, he acknowledged the complexity and urgency of the issue stating, “demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded (EG:103).”
“The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion (EG:104).
Yet, like his predecessors, in the first 365 days Francis has also reaffirmed the silence imposed by John Paul II regarding the discussion of womens ordination. “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion (EG: 104).” The inconsistency of Francis’s position, on the one hand, exhorting Catholics to “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” while, on the other, restricting dialogue when it comes to women’s roles in the Church is not lost on the many Catholics looking for reform.
“I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not “clericalised (Vatican Insider, 12/14/13)”.
Beyond ordination and given his repeated call for greater roles for women in the Catholic Church, some speculated Pope Francis would appoint women to the College of Cardinals. El Pais speculated that under canon law, allowing women to become deacons would open the door to them becoming cardinals and quoted an unnamed Jesuit priest who said he believed Francis might do such a thing. But in an interview on December 14th he squashed those hopes stating, “I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not ‘clericalised.’ Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.” This is a tragically flawed point of view. We agree that clericalism is a distortion of power, but that is not what reform minded Catholics want. What is necessary is to open up decision making structures within the Church so that women have a place at the table.
Whether Catholics argue for a new openness under Francis or an alignment with his predecessors depends on how much emphasis they place on the broader scope of his reform agenda.
Many wonder if his Gospel-centered vision for economic justice, his overtures for dialogue, and his exhortation to service, humility and compassion will ultimately include fresh understandings of women and their potential for leadership and ministry within the Church.
Dissatisfied with any call that continues to uphold the injustice of sexual complementarity such as the call for a “profound theology of women,” or claims that, “Mary is more important than bishops (EG: 104)”, reform minded Catholics seek nothing less than a church where women take up their full and equal roles as leaders, decision makers and ministers.
We invite you to start your own discussion circle reflecting on Pope Francis’s leadership in his first year. Use the questions below as a starter or create your own.
Who should Pope Francis seek when it comes to advice about women’s roles in the Church?
What makes you feel most hopeful when it comes to Pope Francis’s words about women?
What makes you feel most discouraged?
To what degree do you think womens roles will be expanded under Pope Francis? If they are expanded,how will it occur?
Five Ways to Advocate for Women Deacons
Download an educational/organizing packet
Why Not Women? By Bishop Emil Wcela
Eight Reasons to Restore the Tradition of Female Deacons in the Catholic Church by FutureChurch
Did the Pope Say Yes to Women Deacons? by Phyllis Zagano
Inching Toward a Yes by Phyllis Zagano
Pope Francis, Gender Equality, and the Idea of Machismo by Michelle A. Gonzalez
Women resistant to Pope Franciss call for a Theology of Women by Megan Fincher
Much Work to be Done: A Reflection on the Strategy of Working for Women Deacons as the First Step
Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future by Gary Macy (Author) , William T. Ditewig (Author) , Phyllis Zagano
Women Deacons in the Early Church: Historical Texts and Contemporary Debates Paperback by John Wijngaards
A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity by Carolyn Osiek, Margaret Y. MacDonald with Janet H. Tulloch
Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church Paperback by Phyllis Zagano
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