By Sharon Tighe-Mooney in an article for The Association of Catholic Priests (Ireland) website
The Vatican commission studying the issue of women serving as deacons in the Catholic Church has been unable to find consensus on the questions they were given to investigate. On his return from Bulgaria and North Macedonia on 7 May last, the pope said that the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women has yet to give a ‘definite response’. The Commission, which has been deliberating for over two years, has, he said, different views. There is no plan on how the situation might be progressed.
The issue of female deacons was raised by Canadian Archbishop, Paul-André Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, at the second Extraordinary Synod of the Family held in 2015. The following year, at a meeting with the women’s International Union of Superiors General (UISG), who are leaders of women’s religious orders, the idea of an official commission to study the matter was raised.
Pope Francis responded by setting up the Commission on Women and the Diaconate, with 12 members; six male and six female (a first for a church commission), and led by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who is Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The questions the Commission was asked to investigate were as follows: What did female deacons do? What were their functions? And, the crucial question, it seems; were they ‘ordained’ in the same way as male deacons?
The discerning reader will note that the questions do acknowledge the fact of women deacons – the evidence can no longer be dismissed. The questions also establish, in advance of the investigation, that female deacons had different roles or functions from their male counterparts. This assumption ensures that in the event of the diaconate being restored to women, the Church can impose either limitations or a separation of tasks to ensure that the distinction between male and female is retained to some degree. We should not underestimate the importance of this distinction in the Vatican mind-set. On meeting the members of the UISG again, on 10 May last, the pope explained that he had passed on the Commission’s report to their leader, which contained, he said, ‘the result of the little that they were all able to agree on’.
The use of the word ‘little’ here clearly signals the limitations on any scope for progression from the current standpoint.
The inclusion of the issue of ordination is also troubling. Ordination in the Catholic Church is completely bound up with the male gender. Consequently, it signals the supposition that there were differences between male and female deacons in terms of their perceived status in the Church. This, in turn, supposes that ordination was understood in the early Christian movement in terms of status in exactly the same way as it is understood today. This, of course, is not the case.
In The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination, historian and theologian Gary Macy explains that a primary objective of the reform movement in the church, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, was to set out the specialness and distinctiveness of the ordained man from other men. Before this, Macy notes, ‘ordination was fundamentally a dedication to a particular role or ministry, not the granting of a special power linked to the liturgy of the altar’.
This ‘dedication to a particular role or ministry’ ties in with St Paul’s description of his call to serve. He claimed his apostolic mission to be directly from the resurrected Jesus, and, notably, he was not sanctioned by one of the apostles.
Additionally, St Paul’s letters, which include his greetings to the various men and women in the communities he had established, reflect this manner of participation – people were drawn to the message of Jesus and wanted to help spread the Good News. That was the primary motive. As theologian Linda Belleville writes: ‘With few exceptions, believers assumed a ministry role in the church not because they were appointed, nor because they had received professional training, but because they possessed the appropriate gift(s) to handle the task.’
Phoebe, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, is an example of this. Paul writes: ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.’ (Romans 16.1–2) Here, Paul is clearly telling the community that Phoebe, ‘a deacon of the church’, is not only his emissary but also that she holds a recognised leadership role. He lauds her help to him and others as a ‘benefactor’. Thus, Phoebe, who is also entrusted with carrying Paul’s letter, an important task at the time, performs a range of duties. It is a situation that contrasts with the modern church in which women do not have any official ministerial role at all.
Not only did the role of deacon evolve over time, diaconate tasks varied, and roles and functions varied in different settings and regions. Thus, whatever the specific tasks or functions carried out by the people who ministered in the early church, both women and men served to fulfil the needs of the Christian communities to which they belonged. In contrast, the focus today appears to be on gender rather than on ministry and on historical practice rather than on current needs.
In the wake of the Third and Fourth Lateran Councils, taking place in 1179 and 1215 respectively, Church deliberations, reflecting the cultural mind-set of the times, determined that the women in the Bible and in St Paul’s letters were not properly ordained and were, therefore, an anomaly. Furthermore, it was agreed, women could not possibly have been in leadership roles, given their gender. Consequently, as Macy writes, ‘only the ceremony empowering a priest or deacon would be a true ordination, and anything called an ordination in the past that was not an ordination to the priesthood or diaconate was not an ordination’.
Not until these Lateran Councils, therefore, did the idea take hold that a spiritual power was received in a particular sacrament, that of ordination. Before that time, and as is recounted in the Bible, men and women, married and single, carried out various functions, including celebrating the Eucharist.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI implemented the Second Vatican Council’s decision to reinstitute the permanent diaconate in the universal Church. In 1974, at the request of Pope Paul VI, who was considering the possibility of admitting women to the ordained diaconate at the time, Cipriano Vagaggini, an Italian theologian and member of the International Theological Commission, wrote a scholarly study about women and the diaconate in the Greek and Byzantine traditions. Concluding that women had been ordained to the diaconate across the regions of the Greek and Byzantine churches over many centuries, Vagaggini also discussed the liturgies used to ordain women. He determined that not only could women be ordained to the diaconate but that their ordination was, in every respect, the equal of male ordination, even if the work women did was different to the work undertaken by male deacons.
The stumbling block is, of course, the question of ordination. And, while technically irrelevant, as they are two separate ministries, ordination is central to the issue. Moreover, as ordination is strictly a male reserve, the word cannot be used in conjunction with females without centuries of implicit bias and pre-conceived ideas being attached to it. Commission member and senior research associate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Phyllis Zagano, who has written extensively on the topic of women and the diaconate, relates the following anecdote:
At least 25 years ago the late Archbishop of New York Cardinal John O’Connor told me there were secret discussions in Rome about restoring women to the ordained diaconate. The problem, he said, was that they could not figure out how to ordain women as deacons and not as priests.
This continues to be the ‘problem’. For instance, in the press conference aboard the flight back to Rome from Bulgaria and North Macedonia, Pope Francis said that the question of whether women who served as deacons were ordained in a manner similar to male deacons is the ‘primary question’.
The focus on ordination as the ‘primary question’ in relation to the diaconate and women is disappointing but not surprising. There has been little evidence of any willingness by the Vatican to actually address contemporary issues, whatever the rhetoric. In this instance, the fear that including women to any extent would lead to a call for admission to the priesthood, is, as the late Archbishop indicated, the ‘problem’. Fear, which is signified by the prioritising of the preservation of the self, has been the dominant feature in the Vatican’s response, both to the exposure of its faults as well as to the challenges that are a normal part of the human evolutionary experience. That is why a perfectly reasonable proposition, to restore women to a formal ministry within their own church, has floundered.
McElwee, Joshua. ‘Francis: Women deacons commission gave split report on their role in early church’, National Catholic Reporter(7 May 2019). Available athttps://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-women-deacons-commission-gave-split-report-their-role-early-church, accessed 9 May 2019.
O’Connell, Gerard.‘Pope Francis says commission on women deacons did not reach agreement’,America Magazine(8 May 2019). Available athttps://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/05/07/pope-francis-says-commission-women-deacons-did-not-reach-agreement?utm_source=Newsletters&utm_campaign=cc6d99a4fc-DAILY_CAMPAIGN_2019_5_7&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0fe8ed70be-cc6d99a4fc-58552141, accessed 18 May 2019.
McElwee, Joshua. ‘Francis: Decision on women deacons cannot be made “without historical foundation”’, National Catholic Reporter(10 May 2019). Available at https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-decision-women-deacons-cannot-be-made-without-historical-foundation, accessed 9 June 2019.
Mowczko, Marg. Website: https://margmowczko.com/, accessed 12 June 2019. See ‘Women in Ministry’ category of articles.
Madigan, Kevin. ‘Translations enlighten history of ordaining women to diaconate’, National Catholic Reporter(9 July 2014). Available athttps://www.ncronline.org/books/2014/07/translations-enlighten-history-ordaining-women-diaconate, accessed 31 May 2019.
Zagano, Phyllis. ‘What’s the problem with women deacons? Nothing, says this scholar of women’s ordination in the early church’, U.S. Catholic(26 February 2018). Available at https://www.uscatholic.org/womendeacons, accessed 9 June 2019.
Sharon Tighe-Mooney grew up in Co. Roscommon and now lives in Co. Meath. She has an MA in English, Sociology and Theology and a PhD in English from NUI Maynooth. She is co-editor of Essays in Irish Literary Criticism: Themes of Gender, Sexuality, and Corporeality (2008).