On women deacons, is Pope Francis moving beyond rhetoric?

This week, Pope Francis agreed to create a panel to consider whether women should be allowed to be deacons – a position they once held historically.

L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP
Pope Francis hugs Sister Carmen Sammut, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa at the end of a special audience with members of the International Union of Superiors General in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Thursday. Pope Francis said Thursday he is willing to create a commission to study whether women can be deacons in the Catholic Church, signaling an openness to letting women serve in ordained ministry currently reserved to men.

Even to the casual observer, the tone of the Catholic Church has changed notably since Pope Francis became its leader three years ago. Yet despite a compassionate, outspoken style that has thrust the church into some of the most pressing issues of the day – from wealth inequality to climate change – Francis has done little to alter the actual structure or laws of the church.

With a few remarks Thursday, he indicated that he may be weighing whether to implement more permanent change. The issue – whether women should be allowed to serve as deacons in the church – would likely be one of the most controversial he has addressed.

Allowing women to serve as deacons would most likely require a change in church policy, which could bring Francis into conflict not only with the many Catholics who believe the priesthood should be reserved for men, but also those who favor a strict interpretation of Scripture over the pope’s calls for a more fluid and compassionate approach to the complexities of modern life.

“What [Francis] does is exhort more pastoral compassion and let people quietly work things out on the local pastoral level, but he’s very slow to actually change the official law or the official regulations,” says Bruce Morrill, a professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.

“That’s why a question like this one would be a big deal,” he adds.

An official commission

During a meeting with Francis, leaders of female Catholic religious orders told Francis “that women had served as deacons in the early church and asked: ‘Why not construct an official commission that might study the question?’ ” they asked, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

The pontiff replied: “It would do good for the church to clarify this point.” He later added, “I accept. It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”

In the Catholic church, women are prohibited from becoming priests, and in 1994 Pope John Paul II wrote in the “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” that the “Church has no authority whatsoever” to remove that prohibition. Deacons, also known as the diaconate, represent an interesting halfway position between the priesthood and the laity. Some experts say it is a position that could be used to give women – who already hold many lay positions in the church – a more active role in the church.

At the moment, women can take vows to become “women religious” – allowing them to fill roles such as missionaries, teachers, and pastoral administrators – but historically women have been part of the diaconate. There is even a reference in the New Testament: The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans was delivered by a woman called Phoebe, whom he referred to as “a minister” and “a presiding officer over many.”

“It’s not some conjecture. This existed historically in the Christian church,” says Father Morrill, who is also a Catholic priest. “What a deacon was historically has changed a lot over the years.”

The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s revived the role of “permanent deacon,” someone – usually a married man over 35 – who is a part of the diaconate but is not allowed to ascend the priesthood. The “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” may not restrict women from this position, Morrill argues.

“The issue of women as priests was definitely closed, but [John Paul II] did not say the issue of women as deacons was definitely closed,” he adds. “And that goes as a further challenge I think to lot of people’s imaginations, at least very conservative Catholics.”

Among more conservative Catholics, there are concerns that allowing women to serve as deacons would allow them to get a foot in the door of priesthood. And certainly, there are some priests and lay Catholics – particularly in North America – who are seeking that level of change.

“There certainly are priests out there championing this idea in the media, but there are also those who think that allowing women to be deacons is a slippery slope,” writes Candida Moss, a professor of the New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in an e-mail to the Monitor.

As deacons, women would not be allowed to preside over Mass, but would be able to give homilies and preside at baptisms, funerals, and marriages.

“Many in the Church hierarchy,” Morrill wrote in a follow-up e-mail to the Monitor, “would not want the people to begin seeing women in liturgical vesture and roles that would gradually lead them to ask, ‘Well, why can’t women also consecrate the Blessed Sacrament at Mass?’ ”

Caution within the church

Chad Pecknold, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, agrees. While he does not support the idea of women deacons, he believes the commission will “lead to different comments on how to heighten the dignity of women religious, which is what was the issue there in the meeting” on Thursday.

“That they have been mistreated in the church, that’s the real problem,” he adds, “and the solution isn’t to make them deacons or priests, but to address the suitability of their own office.”

During his tenure, Francis has appointed several women to senior positions in the church, but, if a commission were created and were to recommend allowing women to become deacons, that would go further than the pope has before. He appears to be handling the question with particular caution – his spokesperson clarified Friday morning that the pontiff did not say he supports ordaining women as priests.

Up to this point, his pattern has been to try to subtly steer the Catholic Church onto a more compassionate, less dogmatic path without rewriting church law, theologians say. Typical of this style would be his pronouncements urging a refocusing on caring for the poor rather than emphasizing culture war issues like gay rights and abortion, as well as greater compassion for all, exemplified by this year's pastoral exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love.”

“Francis has a reputation for being progressive but in many ways he is reiterating traditional church teaching in a compassionate way,” writes Professor Moss. “Francis’s theology is traditional but he is open to conversation and potential change. If Francis moves to allow women deacons that will be a historic moment for the church but it will only happen because there is historical precedent.”

Even if there is historical precedent, Morrill predicts that there would be “a lot of pushback” to allowing women to serve as deacons.

“This would be example of an actual change in church law and policy,” he adds. “That would be one of his more radical progressive moves for sure.”

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