Earlier this month, Pope Francis announced that the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women had failed to reach a consensus on the history of women deacons. Although the Commission agreed that “there were women deacons at the beginning,” they disagreed on whether “it was an ordination with the same formula and the same finality of men’s ordination.”
Searching for definitive resolution, Francis encouraged all members of the Commission to continue studying this question on their own. The answer was not “no,” but “we don’t know yet.”
But Francis’ response to the Commission’s stalemate clearly implies that the future of the women’s diaconate depends upon how the church ultimately answers this question. If the church concludes that the women’s diaconate lacked a sacramental character, then the modern day diaconate must remain an all-male institution.
Thus, the debate about the women’s diaconate proceeds according to a largely unspoken assumption: that Catholic teaching does not change, cannot change, and, in this case as in many others, should not change.
What did not exist in the past cannot exist in the future. The women’s diaconate can be restored, but it cannot be introduced anew.
This framing undoubtedly places proponents of ecclesial change at a rhetorical disadvantage. While those who favor the ordination of women have to clear an unfixed and potentially limitless set of rhetorical and evidentiary hurdles, those who oppose it only have to prove that the diaconate’s past was different than its proposed future.
But the opponents of the women’s diaconate only appear to occupy the rhetorical higher ground. Magisterial immutability is just a story the church tells itself.
Catholic magisterial teaching has changed; it can change; and, sometimes, it should change.
I can prove it.
Consider the following list of topics about which the Catholic church has changed its mind:
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of religion
- The equality of women to men
- Natural Family Planning
- The death penalty
- Whether marriage is a Sacrament
- The relative value of the unitive and procreative ends of marriage
- Episcopal celibacy
- Whether one can have sex in order to express love
- Salvation outside of the Church
- The status of Jewish people as God’s Chosen People
Implications for the Debate About Women Deacons
Number eleven obviously proves especially relevant to the ongoing debate about the women’s diaconate.
To many Catholics’ surprise, the church did not celebrate matrimony as a Sacrament until the twelfth century. The Sacrament of Marriage therefore is relatively new: less time has passed since marriage became a Sacrament than had passed before it did.
What happened? Marriage didn’t change as much as the church’s understanding of it did. The church came to this new understanding over time, in pieces, and through conversation with surrounding cultural practices.
Is it not possible that something similar has happened with respect to our understanding of women’s capacity to sacramentally stand in persona Christi as ordained deacons?
The myth of magisterial immutability blocks our view of this possibility. It makes the potential newness of the women’s diaconate seem like a liability rather than an unsurprising result of longstanding magisterial misogyny.
After all, the Catholic magisterium did not recognize the equality of women to men until the 1970s, after two waves of feminist agitation gave it a much-needed push.
Surely, it takes more than forty years to fix a nineteen hundred year-old mistake, especially when the church has been working at a rate of incremental change.
What matters most is whether we should.
In order to find out, we would have to consult our theology rather than simply hide behind an uncertain history.
Of course, the church can not leave its history behind. Let the history of the women’s diaconate inform its future, but not decide it.
Fidelity to Catholic Tradition sometimes requires us to break with our past, accept new ways of being, and admit that we were wrong. It’s not just that the Catholic Tradition has changed, but that change is a part of the Catholic Tradition.
The magisterium changes its mind. Thank God.