Pope Francis Has Painted Himself into a Corner on Women Deacons

Talk of Roman Catholic women deacons threatened to push Donald Trump off center stage for a nanosecond. Pope Francis’ seemingly spontaneous remarks in Rome on May 12, 2016 at the triennial meeting of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) about setting up a commission to study women deacons sparked wide ranging responses but no promises of equal treatment of women.

Some clerics got their chasubles in a twist, their stoles in a knot, over the horrifying thought of women becoming deacons. Can a woman pope be far behind? No, in all likelihood, gentlemen, probably not. Some longtime proponents of women’s ordination cheered as if it were a done deal and they just needed to be measured for their vestments. Not likely, friends, and be careful what you pray for.

Let me offer a perspective that casts the whole question in a very different light.

First, there is precious little clarity as to what constitutes a deacon of the female variety. While there is widespread agreement that women have functioned as deacons when needed by the church, the issue is whether they were ordained or not, and if they were, if their ordination meant the same thing as men’s ordination. The term ‘deaconess’ is bandied about, a clearly feminine diminutive that might eventually, God forbid, give Francis a way out of a tough situation. All this before the bathroom wars. Who knew?

In the early 1970s Pope Paul VI asked the International Theological Commission (ITC) to study the question of women deacons. Decades later, bits and pieces of their work saw the light of day, then were suppressed, and now are being brought back for scrutiny. Women deacons are obviously a theological hot potato since they involve ordination.

Even Pope Francis confessed recently to the nuns that he was a bit foggy on the question. During his U.S. visit, he noted that the role of deacons was essentially made up by the church to fulfill certain needs. Women were allegedly involved in the baptism and care of other women and children when baptism was by immersion. Someone had to help women on and off with their clothes and deal with their naked bodies, hence the presence of women deacons. But as sprinkling holy water replaced the bath-like approach, women’s role shrunk like jeans in hot water.

Phyllis Zagano, a tireless researcher and lecturer who promotes the diaconate as an inside-the-box strategy for changing the Church, has parsed the various arguments and has recently published translations of some of the scholarly articles that ground this work.

According to Dr. Zagano:

“While ITC member Cipriano Vagaggini published research on the diaconate in an Italian journal in 1974, the ITC didn’t produce its own work on that subject until about 1997. Along with Vagaggini, that ITC document affirmed what Bishop Imesh had denied years earlier: history supports the argument that women could be sacramentally ordained. Yet while news reports appeared about the document, it was never published by the Vatican. Rumors abound that it had even been assigned a Vatican document number when publication was stopped.

Some years later, a new, longer version of the study document was published: “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.” Its conclusions are rather different. Here the ITC concluded that “deaconesses” are not the same as deacons, that the priesthood and episcopacy are distinct from the diaconate and, finally, that the question of women deacons should be left to the “ministry of discernment which the Lord has left to his church.”

In other words, women are welcome to serve per usual, but not become priests or bishops with decision-making responsibility. The whole matter was left to “discernment” which is to say it was left for the clerics to decide.

While the Eastern Church has kept a fairly consistent line on deacons including women in some cases, the Western Church had a change of tune over time. After centuries of the diaconate as one of the major orders, namely deacon, priest, bishop in ascending rank, what is called the transitional diaconate, Pope Paul VI instituted something called the permanent diaconate. In a 1967 Apostolic Letter entitled “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem: General Norms For Restoring The Permanent Diaconate In The Latin Church,” the same pope who nixed birth control responded to the shrinking clergy pool by calling for the ordination of men, many of them married, to preach, baptize, preside at marriages, etc., but not to celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions. They were invited to be part of local committees but jurisdiction, that is, decision-making, was still reserved to priests.

Women were mentioned in the document only insofar as they pertained to their husbands’ fitness for ministry, a patriarchal ploy writ large. Married men are “not to be admitted unless there is certainty not only about the wife’s consent, but also about her blameless Christian life and those qualities which will neither impede nor bring dishonor on the husband’s ministry.” (par. III. 11.).

Moreover, only married men “who while living many years in matrimony have shown that they are ruling well their own household and who have a wife and children leading a truly Christian life and noted for their good reputation.” (par. III. 13) are eligible. In practice, this has resulted in many women participating in the very same diaconal training as their husbands. However, when it comes to the finale, they are permitted only to carry their husbands’ stoles in the processions leading to the men’s ordination. The notion that women with or without “blameless Christian” husbands would become deacons was never on the table.

The permanent diaconate has evolved in fifty years with 40,000 plus men (many of them in the U.S.) engaged in ministries of Word, liturgy, and charity. In real terms, this ranges from deacons as glorified altar boys in some places (for example, Argentina where Francis showed less interest in deacons than he appears to have now) to deacons running parishes, albeit not usually with the title of pastor. The functions necessary to be fulfilled seem to determine the role of the male deacon. Where there are still plenty of priests, deacons are relegated to decidedly second-class status. Where there is a priest shortage, they and women who cannot be ordained are put to work.

The pope’s “feminine genius” conundrum

Parallel to the diaconal growth is the steady increase in the number of women engaged in ministries of all sorts. Whether in campus ministry or prison work, in parishes where they now outnumber priests in the U.S., in religious communities or religious education, women around the world do an increasingly large share of the Roman Catholic Church’s ministry without being ordained or having decision-making power. No wonder it occurred to the nuns to mention this contradiction in conversation with the pope.

When Pope Francis met with the superiors general of thousands of women’s religious groups, he was faced with a reality that many in his institution prefer to ignore: rank sexism without reasonable explanation. The women raised rational and respectful questions with regard to their work and status. It is unclear if they spoke also on behalf of women not in religious communities, though one hopes so. Since they are doing ministerial work of the diaconal sort (prevented from priestly work by Canon Law), it was logical that the women would inquire about the obvious differences between their role and status and those of men, especially as it affects their ministerial effectiveness. What surprised some people was the frankness of the discussion. The tone, perhaps more than the content, is what is new. Women expect to be taken seriously and even popes have to listen.

They asked Francis about women preaching, something that deacons do. He replied that in prayer services, or Liturgy of the Word, it is not a problem. But when the Liturgy of the Word meets the Liturgy of the Eucharist and they become a Mass, it is another question because then Jesus is the presider and only men can image Jesus. The Church is female, the priest male. It is sort of like egg meets sperm and sperm wins. He seems to believe that the symbols work that way, a kind of primitive anthropology in this day and age. Good heavens. No wonder the women suggested that he set up a commission to study the question.

Though the soccer-loving pope joked that he felt like a goalie fielding questions from all sides, it is a good bet that he had indeed seen the questions in advance. In fact, the latter part of the conversation was based on written materials, adding evidence that he had indeed probably thought about all of his responses. It remains to be seen if and when the commission will be set up, who will be on it, and when it will deliver some response. Francis has been to enough meetings to know that the fastest way to slow something down is to appoint a committee. So he did, knowing that this slippery slope to women’s ordination is virtually inevitable unless the church wants to persist in contradiction.

My guess is that this matter will get fast-tracked for several reasons.

First, the Vatican knows it has a huge market-share problem related directly to its treatment of women. Imagine this or any pope three years from now meeting with these 900 nuns, much less with 900 of their closest secular (that is, not nuns) friends, and being asked the same question about women deacons and having no substantial answer. A pope could get away with that in the last century, but today’s ease of communication allows no such luxury. Besides, even in Rome there is now a dim realization unto healthy fear of women’s growing confidence and expectations of justice.

Second, the research on women deacons is largely done. What remains is the theo-political wrangling over which way the administrative matter of ordination will go. Zagano et al have pored through the evidence and concluded that it’s a good bet that women were deacons. Scriptural evidence in Romans 16:1 and I Timothy 3:11 has been worked over thoroughly. Phoebe was not a Girl Scout but a deacon. Consensus is elusive, but church laws have been made on flimsier data. Further study is unlikely to yield new information, simply more opinions about history. As investment brokers say, past performance is no guarantee of future results. So it is in the Roman Catholic Church.

Third, the real question at hand is whether women deacons will be ordained as men are, both to the transitional and to the permanent diaconate, or whether women will be siphoned off into a spurious order of deaconesses who have a title but no authority. Think of it as parallel ladders, one of which, ordination to the diaconate, is a direct route to the presbyterate, episcopacy, and, de facto, the papacy. The other, naming women as deaconesses but giving them no authority or jurisdiction, is the ladder that goes nowhere.

My expectation—and I have longed to be proven wrong by the kyriarchal church but it has not happened—is that Pope Francis will steer women up the ladder that goes nowhere in terms of decision-making or jurisdiction. That would be consistent with his vapid statement about not judging LGBTIQ Catholics and his tinkering with annulment processes that have not led to substantive changes in teaching. In so doing, he will be seen to be acting kindly toward women when in fact he will effectively coopt women’s ministry in the name of a dubious “feminine genius” that he insists is so valuable to the church. He will succeed in keeping women busy doing the daily maintenance tasks of the community, thus freeing up men to preach, teach, and make decisions. The pattern is predictable.

It is highly probable that even these crumbs will be given only to women in canonical religious communities—that is to sisters—who have already signaled by their vow of obedience some willingness to cooperate with the current system in exchange for public status as religious. This is a nightmare scenario insofar as it will divide women from one another. I regret to say it is not out of the question, but I urge women to guard against it by rejecting any offers that come only to some and with strings.

Fourth, the Pope has painted himself into a corner from which he wants to escape. As recently as the meeting with the UISG, Francis warned against “the danger of clericalism in the Church today” which problem he would only exacerbate by adding women to the clerical ranks. Having raised the question and promised a study on women deacons, the pope is on thin ice to step back from some substantive reform related to women. I doubt it will come on birth control or abortion. If he names women deaconesses and does not ordain women to the diaconate and eventually presbyterate, he proves himself to be yet another Catholic patriarch bent on keeping women in their place. If he ordains women to the diaconate and presbyterate, he reinforces and reinscribes the very clericalism he disdains. This is the conundrum he faces.

In for a dime, in for a dollar

If he asked my advice, I would say in for a dime, in for a dollar, Francis. I would urge him to take a step back from the gender question and return to the matter of function. Ministry is a function, something every baptized Christian is expected to do by virtue of baptism, not by virtue of ordination. There is ample evidence that the current hierarchical structure of ministry and decision-making is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of a global church. The clerical sex abuse crisis and its cover-up is all one needs to examine to make that case. But everything from poor quality sermons to lack of pastoral care shows the need for change.

Francis would be well advised to put a moratorium on ordaining anyone, male, female or beyond the gender binaries. He would do well to set up a series of discussions on ministry and ecclesiology around the world. These would include well informed theologians, active ministers, committed church members a majority of whom would be young people, to imagine and construct together some new models of church to be lived out locally for a decade and then be evaluated. In the meantime, ministry, including Eucharist, would be the responsibility of the whole community.

Those churches could be linked virtually, governed democratically at the local level, and be seen as catholic in the fullest sense of the term. How ministry and decision-making are handled would be up to local groups according to their needs. The Vatican would find that many of its current functions are unnecessary so the institutional church could save precious resources on a bloated bureaucracy. Those could be redirected to feed, clothe, and shelter people with plenty left over for structural change work on a global scale.

To do so would bring about a new Pentecost and open a new chapter in catholic (lowercase “c”) history. Go for it, Francis. There is nothing to lose and a world of good to be gained.