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Home Op-Ed Theologians split on issue of women deacons

Theologians split on issue of women deacons

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Theologians split on issue of women deacons
by Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo


Photo Caption: In this 15th Century painting by Fra Angelico, St. Peter is depicted consecrating St. Stephen as a deacon in the early Church. Despite canon laws and the opposition of many popes, modern theologians cannot agree on whether or not women can be ordained as deacons in the same context as men.

The members of the new commission created by Pope Francis to study whether women might serve as deacons in the Catholic Church have expressed a very restricted range of views on the subject.

Some are clearly supportive of the possibility, while others say there is no firm historical precedent to follow.

Some have written extensively, quoting books referring to the men’s permanent diaconate, such as that of the Jesuit priest, Father Bernard Pottier, a theologian at the Institut d’Études Théologiques in Brussels who wrote a book on the diaconate in 1998 entitled La Grâce du Diaconate: Questions actuelles autour du diaconat Latin. But of course, this is not the subject we are examining.

Another French author in 2001 published a summary indicating that historical evidence of women serving as deacons in the early Church pointed to their being ordained to the diaconate in a way similar to their male counterparts.

Roger Gryson, also a Frenchman, wrote a book The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, saying: “Women deacons indisputably did make part of the clergy. They received an ordination conferred by the imposition of hands and a prayer of the bishop.” However, no reasonable proof is presented.

In our last article, we absolutely rejected this opinion, which was also rebuffed by canon law: “Sacram Ordinationem valide recipit solus vir baptizatus” (“Only a baptized man can receive sacred ordination”) (Canon 1024).

No wonder the French authors criticized Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which said the Church had “no authority” to ordain women.

One member of the new commission, Father Karl-Heinz Menke, a theologian at Germany’s University of Bonn, has argued the opposite case – that historical evidence shows women in the early Church did not fill a “sacramental office.”

Father Menke stated: “There is clear evidence that from the third century onwards there were deaconesses. But it is equally incontestable that they were never regarded as having a sacramental office.”

Father Menke also cited the late German theologian Hans Jorissen, who was pro-women’s ordination: “Even where women deacons are ordained by the laying of hands and epiklesis (an invocation of the Holy Spirit) analogous to the ordination of men deacons as in the Apostolic Constitutions and above all in the later Byzantine rite, the historical findings do not allow one to speak of the two ordinations as the same.”

A Franciscan sister, Mary Melone, member of the commission and the first woman president of the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome, spoke about the possibility of women deacons in an interview with the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera. She said: “I believe it would be an important sign even beyond the diaconate itself. Francis’ affirmation expresses yet again his serious desire to guarantee women an effective decision-making role in the Church ... For example, make it possible for women to become vicar-generals and to take on other senior Church offices, and involve women decision-making at all levels, even cardinals. Why not!”

“It is not a question of power,” she continued, “Francis does not understand the ordained ministry in the sense of power, but as service to the community … When we women say it is important to be at the decision-making level, where the Church consults about itself, it is not to occupy spaces of power. Being present in the Vatican congregations is an important objective, but it is not the only result that women desire. The essential thing is the awareness that women’s authority helps the Church grow.”

Sister Melone added: “I do not think that the ordained priesthood must be the only condition to guarantee a significant role to women. On the other hand it is clear that ministry guarantees forms of power precluded from others.”

Other Church historians have said there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the Church. Nevertheless, many popes, for example Pius XII, Paul VI, and St. John Paul II, who were very clearly opposed to the ordination of women, have declared the Church has no authority to ordain women to the diaconate, the first grade of the priesthood, the one who acts as the Persona Christi.

Canon 1024 states: “Only a baptized man can validly receive sacred ordination,” and the diaconate is the first of the three orders of the Catholic Church.

 

Last Updated on Friday, 16 June 2017 10:34  

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