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So, What’s the Deal with Women Deacons Now?

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The interwebs today don’t lack for opinions about this issue, now that Pope Francis has decided it needs to be clarified. 

Let’s take a deep breath. A couple points need to be made.

First, Pope John Paul’s definitive document on Holy Orders refers exclusively to ordaining women as priests.  It concludes:

In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

Secondly, after that, the issue of women as deacons remained unresolved. That became clear —or more murky—after the Vatican’s International Theological Commission released its report on the diaconate in 2002, noting:

With regard to the ordination of women to the diaconate, it should be noted that two important indications emerge from what has been said up to this point:

1. The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons;

2. The unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the Magisterium.

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. (Emphasis added.)

That “ministry of discernment” has been going on for a while now. A leading agent in that discernment, and an outspoken advocate for women deacons, has been Dr. Phyllis Zagano, who has written endlessly about this subject in books and essays.  She even spoke bout a brief encounter with then-Cardinal Ratzinger some years back:

The most recent discussion coming from the Vatican about this topic is a 72-page study document by the International Theological Commission, which had one conclusion: It’s up to the magisterium, the teaching authority of the church, to decide.

In New York in the late 1980s I was at a meeting with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and discussed the issue with him briefly. He said, “It’s under study.”

And so it is, and so it has been. But maybe now the study period is coming to an end.

An important point to be made about today’s development is summarized well in the CNS report, which indicates that what Pope Francis wants, above all, is clarity:

Asked if he would establish “an official commission to study the question” of whether women could be admitted to the diaconate, Pope Francis responded: “I accept. It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree.”

Asked about deaconesses in the New Testament and the possibility of the modern church admitting women to the permanent diaconate, Pope Francis had said his understanding was that the women described as deaconesses in the Bible were not ordained like permanent deacons are. Mainly, he said, it appeared that they assisted with the baptism by immersion of other women and with the anointing of women.

However, he said, “I will ask the (Congregation for the) Doctrine of the Faith to tell me if there are studies on this.”

So, this issue is far from settled. No imminent change is on the horizon, and no one should think the pope’s comments today indicate a radical shift. It’s not. Mostly, he himself seems to be asking the question, “What’s the deal with women deacons, anyway?”  He’d like some answers. So would all of us. Something definitive might finally put this issue to rest, one way or another.

Let’s see where all this goes.

Image: Wikipedia

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