Is it time for the Catholic Church to welcome women deacons? Pope Francis says let’s talk about it.
In May 2016, Pope Francis met with the Union of International Superiors General, a world congregation of more than 900 Catholic women leaders. During this meeting, the group asked Pope Francis why the Church did not allow women deacons, citing the history of women deacons in the early Church. They then proposed he consider instituting a commission to research the matter.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, Pope Francis responded to the question posed to him with more questions. He asked, ‘What were these female deacons? Did they have ordination or no?’ Pope Francis concluded, ‘Constituting an official commission that might study the question? I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point.’
A few months after he made these remarks, the pope announced the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, a 12-member team made up of six men (all priests) and six women (four lay and two religious). Pope Francis also named a President of the Commission, Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer SJ, who is also the Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Views on female deacons
The commission’s members hold a wide range of views on female deacons. From Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who has been vocal in his views against ordaining women to the diaconate, to Phyllis Zangano, who has written books on reinstating women deacons in the Catholic Church.
This isn’t the first time the Church has explored the possibility of women deacons. In 2002, the International Theological Commission released its findings on the possibility of women deacons in a larger examination of the diaconate entitled From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles. Although the commission decided to support the exclusion of women from the diaconate, they did not rule it out.
So 14 years later, the question has resurfaced, but for Pope Francis, the task has narrowed. The dilemma really isn’t if there were female deacons, but what was their role? This is for the commission to find out.
The Catholic Diaconate
If you flip through your Bible to the back end and head towards the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, you’ll find the deacons of the early Church, such as St Stephen the first martyr. After around 500 years, the diaconate of the early Church eventually fell out of ‘fashion’, only serving as a stepping stone to the priesthood. A permanent (male only) diaconate was reinstated at Vatican II and according to Vatican Statistics, now there are more than 40,000 deacons worldwide. Today’s deacons receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, but they aren’t priests. They can baptise, officiate at wedding ceremonies, bring communion to the ill and elderly and give homilies at Mass, but they can’t preside over the Liturgy of the Eucharist, nor can they hear confessions or administer the Sacrament of the Sick.
Many church historians note that women did serve as deacons in the early Church, pointing to the most well-known reference to female deacons in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
‘I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a benefactor to many and to me as well.’ (Romans 16: 1 & 2)
But to some it’s unclear whether female deacons had the same ministry as male deacons, and it’s been the official stance of the Catholic Church that they did not. As Pope Francis stated, the main hurdle towards reinstating women into the diaconate is ordination.
So why don’t we just allow women to be ordained deacons?
According to Canon Law, ordination to the priesthood and the diaconate is reserved only for men. If committee members who believe women were ordained to the diaconate can prove it and persuade their committee members to agree, this would be a huge change for the Catholic Church. Although in our modern society some may see allowing women to become deacons as a no brainer, others disagree, fearing it would be a slippery slope towards opening the door to women priests.
Expectations for the commission
What are the expectations for the commission? No one is sure. It may be unrealistic to expect that the commission will recommend the inclusion of women in the Catholic Church’s diaconate in its current form. The main goal of the commission is to deepen the Church’s understanding of the role of female deacons.
Although there may be no shift in the Vatican’s teaching on the gender of deacons, Pope Francis is hoping to expand women’s role within the Church.
In an interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ from America magazine, Pope Francis said, ‘We must, therefore, investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.’