Here are three strong responses to Pope Francis’ willingness to explore the history of women deacons in the church:
First from ncronline.org
“3 Ways Pope Francis Opening to Women Deacons Can Change Catholicism” by David Gibson, National Catholic Reporter
From Religion News Service:
“When Pope Francis suddenly agreed, during an off-the-cuff chat last week with nuns gathered in Rome, to explore the idea of ordaining women as deacons he touched off what has by now become a typical Francis-like media storm:
Some conservatives ran around with their hair on fire, deploring Francis’ willingness to open controversial debates and to take steps down what they saw as a slippery slope to ordaining women as priests, while some liberals did a happy dance over Francis’ willingness to open controversial debates and take steps toward what they saw as reforms that could elevate the role of women.
A day later, on May 13, the Vatican stepped in with a fire hose to douse the wilder speculations and reiterated that Francis had not said women could be ordained deacons or that this could lead to ordaining women as priests. He simply agreed to set up a commission to find better answers to what has been a longstanding and important question for theologians, scholars and church historians.
But whatever does come out of this potentially historic opening — and the outcomes range widely, from maintaining the status quo to actually ordaining women as deacons — the move will have at least three other concrete effects that could be just as important:
1. It will launch a genuine exploration of the “theology of women”
Francis has frequently called for greater roles for a women in the church — and did so again last Thursday in the meeting with hundreds of sisters from the International Union of Superiors General, a global umbrella group for leaders of women’s religious orders.
He has also regularly called for a “deeper theology of women,” without, however, providing much in the way of that theology or indicating what it really means or how it would work on the ground.
As papal biographer and Vatican expert Austen Ivereigh tweeted, such a commission would “quickly become a discernment about the role of gender in church leadership roles.”
Indeed, wherever the discussion of women deacons winds up, it would help clarify exactly what areas are open to women, and why, or why not.
The reality is that in the past few decades, there has been enormous growth in the participation of women in ministry and church life, a growth that has gone hand in hand with the explosion in role for lay people. But many of those roles — especially when it comes to participation in the liturgy — remain contested and somewhat ad hoc and not at all universally accepted.
2. It will launch a deeper theology of the diaconate (and ministry)
The other gray area that the “deaconess” debate illuminates is the unsettled question of what exactly a deacon is.
The role of the deacon was created, as recounted in the New Testament, by the Apostles so that they could deploy ministers specifically dedicated to doing charitable works and thus freeing them to focus on preaching.
In the Catholic tradition, the role of deacon was eventually subsumed into the priesthood and hierarchy, until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s revived the diaconate as an ordained order open to “mature married men” over 35 who can be married.
But in essentially recreating an order of ministry after more than a millennium there were bound to be ambiguities about not just what women deacons were in the New Testament, and what they could be now, but what deacons themselves are and how they are distinct, or not, from other ordained clergy, namely priests and bishops.
As Deacon William Ditewig, a theologian at Santa Clara University and a leading expert on the diaconate, wrote at the Catholic blog site Aleteia, “this is ultimately a question, not simply about women in the diaconate, but about a theology of the diaconate overall.”
Ditewig’s fellow deacon and Aleteia colleague Greg Kandra also noted that a few years ago, in seeking to distinguish the order of deacons from that of priests and bishops, the Vatican — and in particular Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the doctrinal traditionalist who later became Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — may have made it easier for the church to decide to ordain women as deacons.
That’s because the 2009 tweak to canon law made it clear that deacons were not equivalent at all to priests who act “in persona Christi,” or in the place of Jesus in performing all the sacraments, and that deacons simply “serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.”
The clarification would both ease any concerns about ordaining women deacons as a stepping-stone to women priests, and it also eliminates a gender requirement in that deacons don’t have to be men because Jesus was a man.
3. It will push the pontiff’s dynamic of dialogue and discernment
If there’s one thing about Francis that drives Catholic conservatives crazy, it’s that he wants to open up conversations among the faithful instead of shutting them down with blanket directives.
“He never says all that he has in mind, he just leaves it to guesswork,” Sandro Magister, an Italian Vatican-watcher and regular critic of the pope’s, fumed in a recent column. “He allows everything to be brought up again for discussion. Thus everything becomes a matter of opinion, in a church where everyone does what he wants.”
Well, Francis really doesn’t want everyone to go off willy nilly, not by a long shot.
But as Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote about the women deacons story, “what is most significant in Pope Francis’ response is the way it shows how open he is to discussion in the church of ideas and how he wants discernment to be the process by which the church makes decisions.”
“In the past, the clerical establishment would discuss church matters behind closed doors so as not to ‘confuse the faithful.’ With Francis, that day is over,” Reese wrote. “It is clear he hates anything that smells of clericalism.”
On the other hand, Francis may see a step to ordain women as simply a way to “clericalize” them. But it’s clear that he’s happy to have the debate, even if many are not.”
Bridget Mary’s Response: The international Roman Catholic Women Priests Movement is hopeful that Pope Francis will open a dialogue with us and lift the Vatican excommunication in recognition that we are following our consciences in loving service to the people of God in non-clerical, egalitarian, empowered and inclusive communities of faith where all are welcome to receive sacraments. We don’t need a theology of women, but, rather policies, practices and ministries that treat all the baptized as”in Persona Christi”, equal, beloved images of Christ called to live Jesus’ message of compassion and love in our world. Roman Catholic Women Priests are changing the church we love now, one inclusive community at a time.
Bridget Mary Meehan, ARCWP, email@example.com, http://www.arcwp.org
And Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP notes :WE ARE ALREADY HERE!
AND From University of Southern California RD/ Religious Dispatches religiondispatches.org
Female Deacons….Women Clergy Weigh In
“The recent flurry of headlines over the possibility of women deacons in the Catholic church may be good for news, but it’s also good for a question: what does women’s ordination really mean today, at a time when more and more Americans are moving away from belonging to Christian denominations?
In light of the fact that some American Christian denominations have ordained women for over a hundred years (Antoinette Brown was ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1852, and Julia Foote was ordained a deacon in the AME Zion church in 1894), some conservative pundits’ claim that women’s ordination will drive people away from the Catholic church bears examination.
As of today, among Protestant denominations, women are ordained in the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America. Women are also ordained in Buddhism as well as in Reform and Conservative Judaism.
The Roman Catholic Church, however, is not the only American religious denomination to deny women’s ordination: the Mormons, the Orthodox church, Orthodox Judaism, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, Islam, and the Southern Baptist Convention have all-male clergy. Some signs of change may be afoot in at least one of those religions, with the first Orthodox female rabbirecently hired by an American synagogue, but the Mormon excommunication of Kate Kelly, an advocate for opening the Mormon priesthood for women, unfortunately mirrors a familiar pattern for American Catholic advocates of women’s ordination.
In the most high-profile case, peace activist Father Roy Bourgeois was dismissed by his religious order in 2012 for participating in the ordination of a Roman Catholic woman. Last year, Father Jack McClure was sanctioned by San Francisco Archbishop Cordelione and prevented from saying mass for appearing at a women’s ordination gathering. Any Roman Catholic woman who pursues ordination in an independent Catholic Church (not considered to be in communion with Roman Catholic Church) is considered automatically excommunicated for breaking church law; members of the Roman Catholic Women Priests, who consider themselves in apostolic succession with Rome, are also excommunicated when ordained.
In the case of Georgia Walker, the first Roman Catholic Woman Priest ordained in Kansas City, she was informed of her excommunication by certified letter in 2015 because of her participation inwhat the diocese referred to as a “simulated ordination.” In spite of the advocacy of groups like theWomen’s Ordination Conference, little progress has been made on the issue.
It’s understandable, therefore, why many people initially reacted to the idea of Catholic women deacons with enthusiasm. If Pope Francis was willing to explore the issue, that felt like the possibility of an incremental step.
However, the Vatican was quick to emphasize that this was not the official beginning of progress toward full ordination; when the transcript of Pope Francis’ remarks was released, it was clear he was stating this off the cuff, and he even repeated the idea that only a male priest or bishop could preach in persona Christi—only a male body, in that thinking, can be the body of Christ on earth.
“Doom was forecast. Doom didn’t happen.”
Knowing that women have been ordained as priests and pastors in other Christian denominations, though—often after years of contention and threats of splitting denominations—I felt this was a good time to talk to women clergy, see how they interpret this latest Catholic kerfuffle. In the American Christian denominations that do ordain women, most of the clergy I spoke to were excited about the idea that Catholic women might see an opportunity to join their ranks.
The Rev. Wil Gafney, an Episcopal priest first ordained in the AME Zion Church, told me that “Roman Catholic women deacons would mark a significant advance for women to live out their vocations more fully and for the church to experience the grace it is lacking by silencing the voices of half of its members.” She added that this would be “returning to a historic pattern in part,” since historical evidence shows the existence of female clergy even to the extent of women deacons being mentioned in the Bible, but that the Roman Catholic Church would still be stopping at full ordination of women, “counter to the historical record.”
The Rev. Laura Brekke, who works in campus ministry at a Catholic college and is ordained in the Presbyterian Church, notes that
working at a Catholic university, I have met multiple young women who have had a unique call on their lives to serve as priests, and yet feel that they are faced with the choice to leave the church home that they love, or deny this calling God has on their lives.
She adds that “it’s time for the Roman Catholic Church to re-evaluate the theology that prohibits females from sacramental authority in the church.”
The Rev. Jordan Ware, also an Episcopal priest, mentions that the Roman Catholic Church is a “sister church” to the Anglican Communion of which she’s a part, and adds that deacons in the Episcopal church “remind the Church what’s going on in the world and what the Church ought to be doing to serve the needy. Deacons also read the Gospel during worship “because they’re the ones who keep reminding us of the Gospel in action.”
The Rev. Josephine Robertson adds that diaconal ordination would “simply acknowledge what has been already done by God in the life of many faithful Roman Catholic women,” and that many Catholic sisters she’s met already have a ministry “that is absolutely diaconal in all but name.”
When I asked these clergy members about the notion that the ordination of women was part of the reason for the decline in population in many American Christian denominations, they all disagreed.
They also pointed out that women’s ordination is not the way to bring disaffected Catholics-turned-Nones back to the church either. Rev. Gafney points out that “Roman Catholic churches are experiencing the same membership losses as other mainline churches in the West,” and that she has never seen a study linking that loss to an egalitarian clergy. Rev. Brekke says any Catholic who thinks women’s ordination would bring back disaffected young Catholic Nones “will be disappointed. Women’s ordination to the Diaconate should be about a calling form the Holy Spirit to review doctrine and renew it under God’s guidance.”
Rev. Ware adds that the connection between inclusive churches and a loss of people is a “red herring,” and that “if the reason you’re ordaining women is to chase an elusive population, you’re probably going to be frustrated, because that’s a bad reason.” Rev. Robertson points out that when the Episcopal church began ordaining women, “churches left, clergy left, doom was forecast. Doom didn’t happen.”
The same conversations occurred around inclusion of LGBTQ clergy and same sex marriage, which Robertson describes as “issues of justice, of welcoming as Jesus did.” The deeper issue of decline, she says, “is that Christianity, done properly (which it rarely is) is hard as hell. And Christianity done poorly (as it so often is) isn’t worth the bother.”
Jennifer O’Malley, a member of Roman Catholic Women Priests, says that her initial enthusiasm about women deacons faded as “it has become evident that the Pope’s intent is to have a commission that looks at what the role of deacons has been historically,” and as it also became clear that Pope Francis is potentially thinking of women deacons not having the same role as male ones.
While the ordination of women is an important step in ending sexism in the church it is not the only issue that needs to be addressed. About the number of people who’ve left the Roman Catholic church, she says that “while many who are leaving may affirm the adding women to the current structure, more will need to be done to make the church relevant in the lives of people.” For her, that includes the inclusion of the voices of the non ordained, LGBTQ people, and the divorced in discussions of the church’s role in society.
All of the ordained women agreed that even if Pope Francis’s commission to study the role of women deacons in the church eventually leads to diaconal ordination, Roman Catholic women with a vocation to the priesthood still face an uphill struggle. Rev. Robertson notes that it took the Episcopal church almost a hundred years from the first diaconal ordinations until the regularization of priestly ordination for women. Rev. Brekke adds that her Catholic campus ministry students are “psyched and don’t know what the church is waiting for. They have seen lay women in action and can’t reconcile the ministry they’ve experienced with lay women and not being ‘good enough’ for the priesthood.”
Rev. Gafney adds that
Roman Catholic women have been living out their vocational calls as lay and vowed religious women, providing pastoral care, religious education, preaching, administrating parishes and in a host of other ways and they will continue to do so.
And she urges Roman Catholic women to “find places in your context where you can use your gifts, outside your church if necessary. Maintain an appropriate standing with your church so that if ordination becomes a possibility you won’t be disqualified.”
Given the church’s history when it comes to the idea of women being ordained, most Roman Catholic women aren’t holding their breath after Pope Francis’ remarks. Many RC women who have priestly vocations have left for other denominations where they could live them out; others have risked excommunication by being ordained as Catholic priests anyway. And there’s little evidence that ordaining women would either cause people to leave the church in droves or bring them back to it.
But, as women ordained in other denominations point out, change in any religious tradition is slow, and in the Roman Catholic Church, it may be the slowest of all. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. We wait in hope.”
And Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP adds:
Like the first courageous Episcopal women who were ordained as priests, we in Roman Catholic WomenPriests stepped out in faith and in conscience. We did not sit and wait, we led, risking it all like our Episcopal sisters of the 1970’s. In the Episcopal church the leadership of those first women opened the door to ordination within the church. Eventually we will see this in the Roman Catholic Church, but now is not the time to sit and wait, it is the time to act in conscience. We are breaking man-made law but are validly ordained nonetheless. Perhaps the most important thing is that we are already serving as Deacons, Priests and Bishops. Serving with the people of God according to our call is what it is all about.