In May, at the triennial gathering of the International Union of Superiors General, a meeting at the Vatican of over 900 leaders of Catholic Women Religious, some participants posed a question to Pope Francis during the question and answer portion of the gathering. They asked, “In the church there is the office of the permanent diaconate but it is open only to men, married or not. What prevents the Church from including women among the permanent diaconate, as was the case in the early Church? Why not construct an official commission to study the matter?” In Francis’ approachable and responsive style, he told the gathered women that he agreed with this idea and promised to set up such a commission. True to his word, Pope Francis declared in August that he appointed six male and six female theological experts to form the “Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate” in order to reflect upon and make a declaration on this important question for the Catholic Church. This comes at a pivotal moment in the church. Many women, especially younger generations, are walking away from the church institution, believing it is out of step with the concerns of women. Few educational and leadership opportunities exist within the church to attract modern women. Homilies that emphasize archaic Church theology and practices that are overly dogmatic and exclusive do not seem like good news to them. Could this be a golden opportunity for Pope Francis to recognize the need for renewal regarding women’s potentiality within the church?
Pope Francis now has the opportunity to address and restore the Church’s history of ordaining women to the diaconate, as followers who are called from within the community. The study of women deacons involves the resurfacing of ancient texts that mention their existence in the developing church. The first mention of a woman deacon comes from Romans 16:1-2 when the Apostle, Paul names Phoebe a deacon of the Church at Cenchrea. In the book, Women Deacons, Gary Macy, co-author with William Ditewig and Phyllis Zagano, ably presents numerous sources referencing women deacons over several centuries. He notes that 3rd century theologian, Origen, recognized the apostolic authority by which women are “appointed to the ministry of the church, in which Phoebe was placed in the church.” In the Western Church, there are many references made to women who were deacons spread over 7 centuries, including the famous Queen Radegund in 550ad. Mention is made too, of Benedict VIII’s conferring upon a Cardinal Bishop the right to ordain a male or female deacon in 1018. In the Eastern Church, there is evidence that shows guidelines for women deacons. Forty such women deacons were specifically named in these documents. Further, there is in existence liturgical books up through the 12th century, outlining liturgies for the ordination of women as deacons in both the Eastern and Western Churches.
Women were called deacons, named by Bishops as deacons and served in diaconal capacities based on the needs of the community. From recorded evidence, it is clear that women served in the diaconal roles of teaching, preaching, ministering and reading the Gospels, participating in liturgical activity in the sanctuary up until the 13th century. It was at this time that the understanding of ordination began to change: from one called within the community to one given power to be exercised within the community. This changing understanding of ordination, coupled with the increasing focus on Hebrew purity laws surrounding women’s menstruation, pushed the tradition of ordaining women deacons towards extinction.
Secondly, Pope Francis has an opportunity to heal and correct harmful theology underlying some liturgical practices in the Catholic Church. One such damaging notion is the veiled superstition of menstruation. Though this belief is rarely spoken out loud, the perceived uncleanliness of women’s blood is a driving influence for their lack of participation in the sanctuary. As Macy and Zagano point out, there was an emerging belief in the 13th century that childbirth and the “monthly affliction” were unclean and thus were barriers to women approaching the altar. Over time, the idea of women’s impurity grew and women were viewed as unworthy to be associated with the Divine. How different might theology look if menstruation and fertility were seen as a holy and natural process created by God to bring forth new life? Is not the mystery of a women’s cycle an affirmation of the complexity and wonder of God’s creative process? Could the apprehension surrounding a woman’s cycle instead be viewed with reverence for God’s ongoing creation in the world? Jesus himself came through the birth canal surrounded by the sacred blood of Mary’s womb.
A second corrective Pope Francis could make in harmful Church theology is the singular distinction of a male deacon as a person serving, “in persona Christi Servi”, that is, they are serving in the person of Christ the servant. This is an empowering proclamation that gives voice and credibility to a man who feels called to service through the diaconate. Women, however, are excluded from being identified as serving in the person of Christ the servant. This distinction is reserved for men who feel called to a life of service and denies the possibility for women who feel a similar call to a life of service. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus continually challenges followers to serve others, as in1 Peter 4:10, “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” Was Christ’s message and invitation to a life of service meant for men only or are women included in this invitation? First and foremost, God entered the world as a human, calling humanity towards himself, with an appeal for all people to follow him and serve the world’s wounded and hurting people.
Pope Francis has the opportunity to attentively listen to the signs of the times during the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate. How is the Holy Spirit at work in the modern Church at this time? Prayerfully and attentively seeking the movement of God’s spirit can allow abundant graces to flow in our time. This honors and gives freedom to the varied graces by which God blesses the world. Perceiving and acting upon the signs of the times occurred in consideration of the renewal of the permanent diaconate for men. The church recognized the growing needs of service and outreach within its membership. The ordination of both men and women disappeared in the 13th century and as Ditewig observes in Women Deacons, it reduced to being available only on the way to priestly ordination. Vatican II paved the way for restoration of the permanent diaconate for married men. It was proposed that some married and non-married men were already carrying out the functions of a deacon in works of service and that it was only right to recognize and strengthen their work by conferring upon them the sacramental grace of the diaconate. The conclusion was that the church deserved to benefit from all the graces given by God, including deacons as signs of the servanthood of Christ, in persona Christi Servi.
In the same vein, the signs of the times need to be addressed regarding consideration of the permanent diaconate for women. There is a continual and growing need for outreach and service in the church. If women are already serving in diaconal roles such as catechists, chaplains and charitable workers, why should they (and the Church) be denied the grace of the sacrament? Should not women also be strengthened in their work? This type of service, if not rooted in identification with a life lived in prayer, loses its sense of call and threatens to become merely functional. At present, there is no sacrament that recognizes a woman’s call to service. If grace is a Divine gift, is the Church standing in the way of grace that God may wish to share with the people of God through women? The bottom line is that there is a desperate need in the church and world for the diaconal ministry of service from both men and women. As Ditewig notes, if the church at Vatican II could revitalize understanding of the diaconate, making adjustments for this order as distinct from the priesthood, so too could adjustments be made to accommodate women who feel called to serve in the diaconate.
Finally, with the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, Pope Francis has a tremendous opportunity to welcome and bring good news to the many disenfranchised women who recognize centuries of injustices directed at women in the church and wonder if the good news is for them. In 2008, the General Social Survey found that men and women of the millennial and Gen X practice religion much less frequently, if at all. The surprising statistic was that the decline in participation was steepest for women. Though there are many reasons for this drop, one of the top reasons given was that women feel a greater sense of personal voice and function at work outside the church, than they did within church walls. Another factor is the lack of leadership roles for women in the church. Women are not allowed to hold office, make leadership decisions or become sacramentally recognized for service and they wonder where their place is in the church. The upcoming commission and Pope Francis’ willingness to seek out the Holy Spirit and the signs of the times may sustain and support the many disillusioned women to find an answer to their question. Pope Francis has before him a golden opportunity to affirm loudly and clearly to the world that Christ’s message of service was meant for all people: men and women. Will he seize it?