Female Deacons: Pope Francis Walks It Back, Women Clergy Weigh In

In a historic first, the Anglican Communion's 11 female bishops joined about 750 colleagues at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. (Episcopal News Service photo by James Solheim)

The recent flurry of headlines over the possibility of women deacons in the Catholic church may be good for news, but it’s also good for a question: what does women’s ordination really mean today, at a time when more and more Americans are moving away from belonging to Christian denominations?

In light of the fact that some American Christian denominations have ordained women for over a hundred years (Antoinette Brown was ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1852, and Julia Foote was ordained a deacon in the AME Zion church in 1894), some conservative pundits’ claim that women’s ordination will drive people away from the Catholic church bears examination.

As of today, among Protestant denominations, women are ordained in the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America. Women are also ordained in Buddhism as well as in Reform and Conservative Judaism.

The Roman Catholic Church, however, is not the only American religious denomination to deny women’s ordination: the Mormons, the Orthodox church, Orthodox Judaism, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, Islam, and the Southern Baptist Convention have all-male clergy. Some signs of change may be afoot in at least one of those religions, with the first Orthodox female rabbi recently hired by an American synagogue, but the Mormon excommunication of Kate Kelly, an advocate for opening the Mormon priesthood for women, unfortunately mirrors a familiar pattern for American Catholic advocates of women’s ordination.

In the most high-profile case, peace activist Father Roy Bourgeois was dismissed by his religious order in 2012 for participating in the ordination of a Roman Catholic woman. Last year, Father Jack McClure was sanctioned by San Francisco Archbishop Cordelione and prevented from saying mass for appearing at a women’s ordination gathering. Any Roman Catholic woman who pursues ordination in an independent Catholic Church (not considered to be in communion with Roman Catholic Church) is considered automatically excommunicated for breaking church law; members of the Roman Catholic Women Priests, who consider themselves in apostolic succession with Rome, are also excommunicated when ordained.

In the case of Georgia Walker, the first Roman Catholic Woman Priest ordained in Kansas City, she was informed of her excommunication by certified letter in 2015 because of her participation in what the diocese referred to as a “simulated ordination.” In spite of the advocacy of groups like the Women’s Ordination Conference, little progress has been made on the issue.

It’s understandable, therefore, why many people initially reacted to the idea of Catholic women deacons with enthusiasm. If Pope Francis was willing to explore the issue, that felt like the possibility of an incremental step.

However, the Vatican was quick to emphasize that this was not the official beginning of progress toward full ordination; when the transcript of Pope Francis’ remarks was released, it was clear he was stating this off the cuff, and he even repeated the idea that only a male priest or bishop could preach in persona Christi—only a male body, in that thinking, can be the body of Christ on earth.

“Doom was forecast. Doom didn’t happen.”

Knowing that women have been ordained as priests and pastors in other Christian denominations, though—often after years of contention and threats of splitting denominations—I felt this was a good time to talk to women clergy, see how they interpret this latest Catholic kerfuffle. In the American Christian denominations that do ordain women, most of the clergy I spoke to were excited about the idea that Catholic women might see an opportunity to join their ranks.

The Rev. Wil Gafney, an Episcopal priest first ordained in the AME Zion Church, told me that “Roman Catholic women deacons would mark a significant advance for women to live out their vocations more fully and for the church to experience the grace it is lacking by silencing the voices of half of its members.” She added that this would be “returning to a historic pattern in part,” since historical evidence shows the existence of female clergy even to the extent of women deacons being mentioned in the Bible, but that the Roman Catholic Church would still be stopping at full ordination of women, “counter to the historical record.”

The Rev. Laura Brekke, who works in campus ministry at a Catholic college and is ordained in the Presbyterian Church, notes that

working at a Catholic university, I have met multiple young women who have had a unique call on their lives to serve as priests, and yet feel that they are faced with the choice to leave the church home that they love, or deny this calling God has on their lives.

She adds that “it’s time for the Roman Catholic Church to re-evaluate the theology that prohibits females from sacramental authority in the church.”

The Rev. Jordan Ware, also an Episcopal priest, mentions that the Roman Catholic Church is a “sister church” to the Anglican Communion of which she’s a part, and adds that deacons in the Episcopal church “remind the Church what’s going on in the world and what the Church ought to be doing to serve the needy. Deacons also read the Gospel during worship “because they’re the ones who keep reminding us of the Gospel in action.”

The Rev. Josephine Robertson adds that diaconal ordination would “simply acknowledge what has been already done by God in the life of many faithful Roman Catholic women,” and that many Catholic sisters she’s met already have a ministry “that is absolutely diaconal in all but name.”

When I asked these clergy members about the notion that the ordination of women was part of the reason for the decline in population in many American Christian denominations, they all disagreed.

They also pointed out that women’s ordination is not the way to bring disaffected Catholics-turned-Nones back to the church either. Rev. Gafney points out that “Roman Catholic churches are experiencing the same membership losses as other mainline churches in the West,” and that she has never seen a study linking that loss to an egalitarian clergy. Rev. Brekke says any Catholic who thinks women’s ordination would bring back disaffected young Catholic Nones “will be disappointed. Women’s ordination to the Diaconate should be about a calling form the Holy Spirit to review doctrine and renew it under God’s guidance.”

Rev. Ware adds that the connection between inclusive churches and a loss of people is a “red herring,” and that “if the reason you’re ordaining women is to chase an elusive population, you’re probably going to be frustrated, because that’s a bad reason.” Rev. Robertson points out that when the Episcopal church began ordaining women, “churches left, clergy left, doom was forecast. Doom didn’t happen.”

The same conversations occurred around inclusion of LGBTQ clergy and same sex marriage, which Robertson describes as “issues of justice, of welcoming as Jesus did.” The deeper issue of decline, she says, “is that Christianity, done properly (which it rarely is) is hard as hell. And Christianity done poorly (as it so often is) isn’t worth the bother.”

Jennifer O’Malley, a member of Roman Catholic Women Priests, says that her initial enthusiasm about women deacons faded as “it has become evident that the Pope’s intent is to have a commission that looks at what the role of deacons has been historically,” and as it also became clear that Pope Francis is potentially thinking of women deacons not having the same role as male ones.

While the ordination of women is an important step in ending sexism in the church it is not the only issue that needs to be addressed. About the number of people who’ve left the Roman Catholic church, she says that “while many who are leaving may affirm the adding women to the current structure, more will need to be done to make the church relevant in the lives of people.” For her, that includes the inclusion of the voices of the non ordained, LGBTQ people, and the divorced in discussions of the church’s role in society.

All of the ordained women agreed that even if Pope Francis’s commission to study the role of women deacons in the church eventually leads to diaconal ordination, Roman Catholic women with a vocation to the priesthood still face an uphill struggle. Rev. Robertson notes that it took the Episcopal church almost a hundred years from the first diaconal ordinations until the regularization of priestly ordination for women. Rev. Brekke adds that her Catholic campus ministry students are “psyched and don’t know what the church is waiting for. They have seen lay women in action and can’t reconcile the ministry they’ve experienced with lay women and not being ‘good enough’ for the priesthood.”

Rev. Gafney adds that

Roman Catholic women have been living out their vocational calls as lay and vowed religious women, providing pastoral care, religious education, preaching, administrating parishes and in a host of other ways and they will continue to do so.

And she urges Roman Catholic women to “find places in your context where you can use your gifts, outside your church if necessary. Maintain an appropriate standing with your church so that if ordination becomes a possibility you won’t be disqualified.”

Given the church’s history when it comes to the idea of women being ordained, most Roman Catholic women aren’t holding their breath after Pope Francis’ remarks. Many RC women who have priestly vocations have left for other denominations where they could live them out; others have risked excommunication by being ordained as Catholic priests anyway. And there’s little evidence that ordaining women would either cause people to leave the church in droves or bring them back to it.

But, as women ordained in other denominations point out, change in any religious tradition is slow, and in the Roman Catholic Church, it may be the slowest of all. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. We wait in hope.