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Question about female deacons not cut and dry

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Question about female deacons not cut and dry
Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo

Photo Caption: The memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, portrayed here by Guido Reni, was raised to the Church's liturgical calendar. (

Last year, Pope Francis agreed to form a commission to study the question of whether women should be admitted to the diaconate. “It would be useful for the Church to clarify this question,” he said.

But once the commission was created, the wider world began to ask the inevitable – is the Pope paving the way for women deacons or even women priests?

Francis has insisted that he is not and that the media is spinning the story. Journalists asked the Pope during his flight to Armenia – “Is the Church opening the door to deaconesses?” He replied: “Really? I am a bit angry because this is not telling the truth of things.”

The media argued: “If the purpose is not to introduce female deacons, then why hold it at all?” And they persisted, saying that if the commission judges the evidence as supporting the historicity of the female diaconate, it would naturally present the argument for including women now in what was an ancient ministry. The question then, would be – “If then, why not now?”

The question is wrong, because the reality is that the Pope is not obliged to follow the conclusion of the commission. Even if the study finds out that there were women deacons in the early life of the Church, he can decide that the time is not right for this now.

Such a situation has happened before. In 1963, Pope John XXIII appointed a commission on population and family life, and this was inherited by Pope Paul VI who confirmed its work but was soon confronted by a controversy as to its findings. The world press, especially in the United States, played up the dissent of members who advocated rescinding the Church’s teaching even though the original mandate did not include a provision for a reversal of policy.

A delay followed the report of this commission, and in the end, Paul VI remained steadfast to the Church’s traditional teaching. The response was contentious and the result disappointed the proponents of contraception. Since 1968, Humanae Vitae has been the subject of endless debate but its core instruction has not been altered and even served as the foundation of stronger denunciations of contraception by John Paul II.

This could happen again. The commission created by Pope Francis could conclude women were never actually ordained, and the matter will end. If on the other hand it finds the ordination of women as deacons in the early Church is historically true, the Pope can judge it is not opportune to re-establish the diaconate for women. He is not obliged to follow the commission’s conclusion even if he understands the frustration which many women today have with the Church.

Some members of the commission include those who support, or who at least seem sympathetic to, the ordination of female deacons. One of them is theologian Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University (New York), who said recently: “Many major scholars have opined that women were in the past truly ordained, and that given the cultural conditions today, there is no activity, task or duty of a male deacon that cannot really be performed by a female deacon.”

She added: “I think anyone who argues that restoring women to the ordained diaconate paves the way for the innovation of women priests not only seriously ignores history and tradition, but does not agree with the teaching of the Church.”

It is significant Pope Francis has created the commission so soon after his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI addressed the question. In 2001, a commission charged with looking into the term “deacons” concluded that there was no basis for ordaining women to this role.

Vatican analyst Father Mark Drew observed: “Whether he wants to or not, Francis is sending the signal that the decisions of his two immediate predecessors cannot be trusted and that they are effectively up for grabs. A commission established by Wojtyla or Ratzinger was bound to be weighted in favor of the status quo, it would seem, and only Bergoglio can be relied upon for an honest appraisal and an impartial judgment of the historical and theological facts. He represents openness and honesty; they represent obscurantism and closed-mindedness.”

Whether Francis intended that impression or not, that’s how some will receive it “by re-opening the question so soon,” said Father Drew.

But papal biographer Paul Vallely says Pope Francis’ view of the matter is different than his predecessors. He said: “This Pope understands the frustration which many modern women have with the Church in a way which goes beyond the instincts of Benedict XVI or John Paul II.”

At the same time that “he understands the question, he also knows he does not have the answers,” said Vallely. The elevation of the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene to a feast on the Church’s liturgical calendar last year was “a key indicator of his instincts. So was his increasing the number of women on the International Theological Commission.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 21 June 2017 14:32  

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