Pope Francis Dithering About Women, Skittish About Cops

Why are many Catholics so disgusted with Pope Francis as he continues to resist women deacons? Why are survivors of sexual abuse so unimpressed by his new guidelines that let the same bishops deal in-house with the same crimes and criminals? For all of the Catholic right-wing’s worry about Francis going rogue on them, sad to say these two recent decisions should allay their concerns.

Perhaps there’s no Italian word for “change,” but change is what reasonable Catholics expect given the dismal state of church. Neither the massive loss of credibility nor huge payouts (lots to lawyers) for clergy sex crimesmuch less victims’ lives ruinedchasten Francis and colleagues. They shamelessly trot out the same old arguments to shore up their exclusive control over the institution, or what remains of it.

The ordination of women, whether as deacons, priests, or bishops, is the persistent nightmare of pope after pope who seem to prefer a wizened little church over a robust religious community. Women’s ordination would signify intellectual and spiritual acceptance of gender equality and the end of centuries of discrimination. With a little bit of luck, it might hasten a move in the direction of new, democratic, participatory forms of church. Likewise, turning clergy sexual abuse cases over to law enforcement would be an admission that the church cannot police its own, that thousands of children and vulnerable adults have suffered because church leaders refuse to give up power. Alas, the hierarchy rejects change, manically swatting it away at every turn while Catholics exit in droves.

Even so timid a move as ordaining women deaconsthat is, sacramentalizing and acknowledging that the bulk of the church’s ministry is now done by womenis too much for these men. Asked about the work of the commission he set up to study the question of allowing women to be deacons, Francis dipped and dithered in one of his airplane pressers, this time en route back to Rome from North Macedonia. The matter is apparently so trivial that it can be handled off-the-cuff with reporters and not dignified at the outset with a proper report, document, or even press release. Any wonder women feel dissed?

Francis reported that the members of the commission agreed on some matters and not on others. Presumably he set it up that way to get a full airing of the historical materials. Disagreements among theologians are the coin of the realm. How many papal commissions were unanimous about anything? Even some that had a majority favoring change, as in the case of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that outlawed the use of most forms of effective contraception, the reigning pontiff simply ignored the consensus and went with the minority which was his prerogative as a monarch. In a hierarchy, the pope makes a judgement and sets policy. It’s not my preferred way of doing business, but it is how the system works. In the case of women deacons, Francis just cannot bring himself to do anything but embrace the conveniently sexist status quo. He chooses the equally convenient clerical mode when it comes to abuse cases.  

Francis admitted what many of the best scholars have long argued: namely, that women deacons in the early church helped women and children (for the sake of modesty) who were baptized by immersion. They also examined women victims of domestic violence for bruises as part of the process of seeking ecclesial dissolution of their marriages. Whether and how male deacons or priests dealt in any way with perpetrators is left unexplored. But what weighs on this pope is whether said women deacons were sacramentally ordained like their male counterparts, or whether they were just women being helpful in situations ordained men would find awkward. Heaven forfend anyone confuse women’s work with real ministry. Still more experts line up the liturgies of ordination for women and men and conclude that there isn’t much, if any, difference.

In subsequent conversation with the International Union of Superiors General, leaders of women’s religious orders worldwide, Francis said, according to the transcript from the National Catholic Reporter, “I can’t make a sacramental decree without a theological, historical foundation.” The reasoning is if something like women deacons were not revealed by God from the beginning of the faith tradition, it cannot be implemented now. Three guesses as to who gets to decide what God revealed. It’s a patriarchal redux that contributes to women’s crying foul on the whole process. To his credit, Francis did share with the nuns the points on which the commission members agreed because it was this group of women who formally requested the study. It’s not clear whether this or another group of scholars will continue the work, or whether the work will continue at alland if so when.

Francis allowed as to how revelation is in “continual movement to clarify itself….it is in continual growth.” However, he also said, “If I see that this, what we think now, is in connection with revelation, good. But if it is a strange thing that is not according to revelation … it doesn’t work. In the case of the diaconate, we have to see what was there at the beginning of revelation. If there was something, let it grow, let it live. If there was not something … it doesn’t work.”

Would millions of women feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, celebrating the Eucharist, lobbying for justice, tending the sick, teaching children, writing theology, preaching the Gospel over millennia resemble something like what Francis is looking for in terms of historical continuity? If not, there is no hope for change. If so, let’s talk intelligently about it and find ways to let women use their talents as they see fit.

Circular thinking protects the status quo: something has to be revealed in order for it to be done; we don’t do it so it must not have been revealed. A cursory examination of change on Catholic views of the death penalty and usury make quick mincemeat of that argument. Church teachings change and mature as it becomes obvious that contemporary needs for justice resonate with ancient insights. We have learned that killing people who act badly only results in more evil; charging sky-high interest rates offends the common good. Male-only deacons (priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes while we’re at it) contradict postmodern norms of gender equality and limit the pool of those who are enabled and empowered to engage in ministry. Revelation provides direction toward increased justice; it’s not a checklist of historical givens.

One cannot help but notice the bit of papal snark with which Francis closed his remarks to the nuns on the topic: “We are Catholics. If someone wants to make another church, they are free to do so.” I think what he meant was, we men are the Catholics in charge and women who want to participate equally are free to form their own church. I can assure him on good authority that the process of forming new models of church is well underway with Catholic women serving the needs of the world. I can also brief him on the fact that some of the nuns with whom he was speaking lead orders that include members who have lost so much respect for the institutional church that they barely acknowledge their relationship to it.

The great irony of the diaconate discussion is that it’s not about power but service. Wait until we get to the power part!

Phyllis Zagano, arguably the most progressive member of the study commission on women deacons, is a well-respected scholar who has researched the question exhaustively. She insists that historically women deacons were unrelated to women priests. Today, for men, there is a transitional diaconate that leads to priesthood, and a permanent diaconate that does not. Dr. Zagano argues that early women deacons were ordained in a form unrelated to the presbyterate so the ordination of women as deacons is not a prelude to the ordination of women priests or bishops. This might calm some men’s fears though many conservatives wring their hands about the diaconal Trojan Horse they fear will get its nose under the clerical tent.

If Dr. Zagano were the liberal outlier on the study panel, Francis had even less to worry about than he thought. If he’d been smart enough, he would have embraced women deacons as per the Zagano interpretation. He may not get too many more softball opportunities as ways of thinking theologically evolve beyond the merely patriarchal historical. With a more robust theological approach, one can make a good case for simply leaving gender out of criteria for qualified, well trained ministers as most other Christian denominations have done with good results.

My own deep reservations about the women’s diaconate come from its very nature as a recipe for a woman’s job in a patriarchal culture. Surely it shores up the current system to have women handling all of the everyday work—visiting the sick, caring for children, helping the abused, teaching religious education, which they do already—so that the men can get on with the preaching, teaching, sacramentalizing, and decision-making that they reserve for themselves and handle so poorly in the main. But if Phyllis Zagano and other women want to be this kind of deacon, I say ordain them.

I caution the women not to be surprised when they realize they are being used, however unwittingly, to reinforce structures that subordinate women and prohibit them from being priests. I notify them in advance that once ordained they will be officially working for and not just with male colleagues who see them as apt for service but essentially unfit for leadership. Priesthood, and not diaconate, comes with jurisdiction or decision making. I insist that even with all of these caveats, it is women’s choice to be deacons and their right to make it. Only egalitarian, democratic communities will save all of us from these pitfalls, but for now the matter is a woman’s right to choose.  

I understand women’s anger about not being allowed to be deacons. But many women who have no such inclination are also outraged that women are not allowed to serve and have their service recognized (yes, ordained). Sadly, telling women ‘no’ this time with such pitiful reasoning only makes well intentioned people want women deacons all the more. This almost guarantees, my deep reservations notwithstanding, that women deacons in some form are coming to a church near you in the not too distant future, further cementing the patriarchal structure, this time with women tucked in as service providers and not decision-makers. A way out of this conundrum is beyond my ken at the moment.

At issue here, as much as blatant sexism, is a failure of theological imagination and method. Pope Francis operates as if the sources for theology were still only scripture and tradition as interpreted by people like him. But the gold standard for theology has evolved to a far more differentiated set of sources: contemporary human experience; data from the social and biological sciences; insights from the arts; history read from the underside not from the perspective of those in power; analysis of interstructural forms of oppression that now reveal morally hideous human actions, of which sexism and racism form a part. These and other materials are input for theological decisions.

To say to postmodern Catholics that something as benign as the ordination of women to a truncated form of diaconate is impermissible because it is not rooted in revelation is an insult to our intelligence. It’s a way of retarding social, and in this case, ecclesial change simply because Francis can by virtue of one-sided power. If one is unable to see the symbolic and real value of highlighting and reinforcing women who seek to minster in a troubled world with species going extinct and people dying for lack of basic access to clean water and health care, then all is lost for Catholics.

Similarly, in Francis’ recent Motu Proprio about how to handle sexual abuse cases entitled “VOS ESTIS LUX MUNDI” (“You are the Light of the World”), the lack of theological imagination is evident. There are some improvements particularly in those who must report abuse, in how whistleblowers will be safeguarded, in shortened timelines for handling cases. But the bottom line remains the same: church leaders will police their own. Apparently Francis and his advisors missed the multiple memos from survivors of clergy sexual abuse who insist that only referring cases to lawful civil authorities will be sufficient to stem the tide.

The Vatican counters that in some countries police will treat accused priests unfairly, even putting them in danger. The Washington Post nailed it in an editorial: “The Vatican maintains that mandating reporting to civilian authorities would imperil Catholics in some countries where they already face oppression. In fact, the pope could have made exceptions for those countries while imposing tough protocols elsewhere.” The U.S. is a case in point where law enforcers in Pennsylvania, for example, have shown themselves quite capable of doing their jobs while church officials have manifestly failed at theirs. When secular newspapers show more theological imagination than church officials, there’s a lot of room at the top.

Women’s disgust and survivors’ on-going disillusionment are not feelings to be acknowledged and passed over. Rather, they present a strong message that Francis and his colleagues have missed the boat again in an effort to conserve what ought to be jettisoned. Unless these matters are corrected in a hurry, there is a lot of blame to assign for collateral damage to a world sorely in need of every shoulder to the wheel.