Just when I thought that the discussion on women deacons in the church was historically being shelved once again, a few discussions have taken place in the past month or so that seem to open the door to serious discussion once again. Many of the Christian churches with similar ministry structures to our own have been ordaining women as deacons for years. In fact, even the Orthodox churches, whose sacramental life is recognized as valid in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, have had some form of women deacons since ancient times. There is a much clearer window into the past within the Orthodox history of the function of women deaconesses involved in assisting at baptism and Chrismation when it came to the physical handling of women during these sacred rites.
At the conclusion of the Vatican’s gathering of Catholic bishops from the Amazon region they asked Pope Francis to consider the ordination of women to the diaconate to help address a lack of ministers in their part of the world. In a section of the final document at this Synod of Bishops, the bishops said they considered it “urgent” for the church to “promote and confer ministries for men and women in an equitable manner.” They added, “It is the church of the baptized men and women that we must strengthen by promoting ministeriality and, above all, the awareness of baptismal dignity.”
Pope Francis responded by commenting on the need to reform a commission that he had gathered to study the issue of women’s ordination to the diaconate. He said, “I am going to reconvene this (commission) with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and appoint new people in this commission and take up the challenge. What is said in the document (formulated by the commission) falls short of what the woman is; in transmission of faith, in the preservation of culture.”
This past October, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy responded to Pope Francis’ remarks at the synod on reconvening the commission to study women’s ordination to the diaconate. He said that he hoped this action by the pope would lead to “a conclusion that it is not prohibited to ordain women to the diaconate.” When he was asked if he approved of the ordination of women to the diaconate, Bishop McElroy said, “I am in favor of it.”
“My view on it is that women should be invited into every ministry or activity we have that’s not doctrinally precluded. I’ve talked with a couple of bishops I know who are very careful on these questions, but have done some research on it, who believe it’s not precluded, I think if it’s not precluded, it would be good to do.”
One of the bishops who was a participant in the Amazon Synod, Bishop Ebaristo Pascoal Spengler of Brazil, said at an interview after the synod in October that Pope Benedict XVI may have opened the door canonically for women deacons. He explained that Pope Benedict in 2009 issued a document or “motu proprio,” on the pope’s initiative, titled “Omnium in Mentem” or “Everything in Mind” revising several canons/laws concerning holy orders and marriage. According to Bishop Spengler, Pope Benedict added to canon 1009, stating that “those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the people of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.” In other words a deacon does not have to be a man since they do not minister “in persona Christi” or “in the person of Christ.”
Bishop Spengler went on to tell journalists that he believes that not only is there now a canonical path for women deacons but he also believes there is a scriptural path as well with the presence of women as prophets and judges in the Hebrew Scripture and as deaconesses in the Christian Scripture, such as Phoebe, as Saint Paul described her ministry. He added that while there may be some doubts concerning the historical and scriptural precedence of the ordination of women as deacons, there is no doubt that “the presence of women in the history of the church is important,” adding, “we have more women saints than men.”
Given the fact that many in the church still doubt the traditional and scriptural precedence of women as deacons in the history of the church, Pope Francis said at the end of the Synod, “Some say there are doubts, well then, let’s study some more. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.