This may (or may not) be a significant development; either way, context matters
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The big Church news this morning was the announcement made by Pope Francis that he is going to create a commission to examine the question of women in the diaconate. Immediately opinions came flying from all quarters, from “it’s about time” on the one hand to “the sky is falling” on the other. Everyone: take a nice big breath, hold it a bit, and let it out. As our British cousins have been saying since 1939, “Keep calm and carry on.” While this is a very significant development, it nonetheless needs to be seen in proper context.
First, this is not really that new. The International Theological Commission (ITC) is a body of theologians charged by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to research a variety of theological questions of concern. The Prefect gives the ITC is agenda for a five-year term. For two consecutive terms (that’s ten years) then-Cardinal Ratzinger assigned the topic of women as deacons to the ITC. While no document was released following the first term, a research document was released after the second term in 2002. While hesitant about the question of women as deacons, it concluded that, “in the light of these elements which have been set out in the present historico-theological research document, it pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.” This document itself is not statement of the magisterium, and there has been nothing authoritatively decided about the question.
It seems that the pope would like to move the process along and perhaps arrive at an authoritative response, although – particularly in view of the pope’s warnings about clericalism and the fixation on women clergy working against the move to empower the laity—no one at this point knows what form that authoritative response might take.
Second, as the discussion goes forward, remember that this is ultimately a question, not simply about women in the diaconate, but about a theology of the diaconate overall. Since its renewal by the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI nearly 50 years ago, a growing body of work on the theology of the renewed diaconate has been generated. The diaconate, although an ancient order, is being lived and exercised in a new context in the 21st century, just as the presbyterate and episcopate have continued to evolve. This new commission will have great significance on this fundamental theology of the diaconate itself, a question which will need to be examined prior to the specific questions about women in the diaconate.
Third, the emerging theology of the diaconate distinguishes two “modes of participation” in the one Sacrament of Orders: the priestly (priests and bishops) and the diaconal. In other words, although all orders are ordained and in the clerical state, deacons are not priests. The question will be: does this distinctiveness permit the possible ordination of women as deacons even though, according to existing authoritative teaching of the papal magisterium, women may not be ordained to the presbyterate. Note well: all the prior magisterial teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women has focused only and specifically on ordination to the priesthood, and not on the diaconate. This is why it remains an open and unresolved issue.
Fourth, if women are ordained deacons, it is not a “slippery slope” to ordaining women as priests. I say this based on almost 50 years of a renewed diaconate which is largely exercised by men who are married. We have not seen a run on chanceries demanding that these married deacons be ordained to the priesthood. Remember: the diaconate and the priesthood – while certainly related – are two distinct vocations in the Catholic Church. A vocation to one does not mean a vocation to the other and, since Pope Francis mentioned “Deaconesses,” this study may be resurrecting yet another distinction of duty.
Keep calm, deep breath, raise a prayer, and carry on.
[Editor’s Note: Today’s release of Pope Francis’ full remarks seems to challenge initial reports, and are worth reading in full.]
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – The Deacon Debacle]