Last Thursday, Pope Francis agreed to set up a commission to study the history and potentiality of women serving as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.
The pontiff’s proposal was an off-the-cuff response to a litany of questions about women in Church leadership during Thursday’s meeting with the International Union of Superiors General, an international group of hundreds of thousands of nuns. When one member asked, “What impedes the church from including women among permanent deacons, just as it happened in the early church?” the pope responded,
“Why not construct an official commission that might study the question? …It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement.”
The role of the deacon dates back to the early Christian church, when the title was given to men and women alike—notably, to figures such as Phoebe, who is explicitly referred to as a deacon in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The prominence of the deaconate dwindled in the 5th century and did not have its revival until the 1960s, when a series of reforms by Pope Paul VI reestablished the ordination of deacons and vastly expanded their sphere of authority. While only priests can hear confessions, permanent deacons can now preach and run parishes—without having to remain celibate. Religion News Service reports that, since the reforms, the number of deacons in the Roman Catholic Church has boomed from 800 to 18,000, while the number of priests has dropped by 35 percent in the same period.
Because the role of the “permanent deacon” is relatively new, the Roman Catholic Church looks to the early Christian church for clues on structure, responsibilities, and prerequisites for the position. The deaconate, like the priesthood, is currently open solely to men, under the justification that Jesus only had male apostles. The Church’s forthcoming study will likely focus on female deacons’ specific functions and role in the early church.
Some dismiss the pope’s willingness to study the issue as a symbolic gesture that will ultimately uphold the Church’s ban on ordaining women. Italian Archbishop Angelo Becciu posted news of the pope’s announcement on Twitter with the caveat, “Let’s not rush the conclusions!” Indeed, the pontiff remarked that he would begin his study by consulting with the church’s doctrinal office, which is led by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller. Müller, a German theologian, closed a 2002 study into the question of women deacons with the claim,
“The relation between man and woman contains in itself a symbolism that presents and represents in itself a prior condition to express the salvific dimension of the relation of Christ and the Church…. It is obvious that only a man can represent this relation of Christ with the Church.”
Others, however, see even Pope Francis’s willingness to investigate the issue as a sign of progress—and perhaps even a sign of further reforms. “I can’t underscore enough how groundbreaking this is for the Church,” Boston College theologican James Bretzke told The Washington Post. “If women can be ordained as deacons, then this is going to weaken…the argument that women absolutely are incapable of being ordained as priests. So this is opening more than a crack in the door.”
Those in favor of women deacons contend that their reform efforts will actually align the Church more closely with its history. “There are 1,000 years of saying women’s leadership never happened. Part of [the work] is lifting up scriptural references that have been glossed over and moving the church along to accept it,” Sister Simone Campbell, an American nun who leads the domestic social justice lobbying firm NETWORK, told The Washington Post.
“You know how it is for human beings—we see what we expect and don’t see what we don’t want to see. I think that’s what’s opening up…the effort to look at the deeper truth.”
While the outcome of Pope Francis’s study is anyone’s guess, the pontiff reaffirmed his commitment Thursday to increasing women’s recognition in the body of the Church. “We must go forward,” Francis said.
For the women in the Church who have spent years petitioning for such recognition, such a study is only worth the actual changes it engenders. The Women’s Ordination Conference said in a statement released after the pope’s remarks, “While WOC celebrates this step from the Vatican, until women are included in all decision-making structures and as priests and Bishops of the Church, equality remains painfully denied.”
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Pope Francis Visits Korea. Photo by Republic of Korea via Flickr Creative Commons.