Earlier this week, Pope Francis answered questions at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, a gathering of 900 women religious leaders. He was asked about the ordination of women as deacons. His response was that he would call for a commission to study of the historical role of deaconesses and whether women could be ordained to this role today. This is a far cry from the usual resounding NO GIRLS ALLOWED response that is the stock answer whenever the words ordain and women appear in the same sentence and that fact alone was enough to send the internet into a frenzy. Supporters of women’s ordination cheered the idea as a baby step forward. I was tagged in multiple posts and comments on social media. Did you see this? This is awesome! Finally!
But I’m not super excited about the statement for a number of reasons. First of all, this was one of the pope’s infamous off-the-cuff remarks, which is Vatican slang for doesn’t mean a darn thing. Secondly, if one read below the fold, the pope was also asked about a woman delivering the homily at Mass. The response was the customary NO GIRLS ALLOWED. Finally, the Church has been committed to ‘studying’ the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate since the Second Vatican Council, a.k.a before I was born. Leading Church historians and theologians have used the exact same evidence to argue completely opposite positions.
Historically speaking, yes women served as deaconesses in the early Church. There is not only reference to this in scripture but also in records of early Church councils where there is discussion about the rite of the ordination of women deaconesses, specifically the Council of Chalcedon in 451. What has been refined and passed down to us is that deaconesses assisted with the baptisms of other women during a time when full immersion baptism would have required baptismal candidates to be naked. Scriptural references, however, speak of women preaching in the synagogues alongside the men. So what happened? The question centers around whether these women were merely given a blessing or whether there was an imposition of hands as there is in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The practice of ordaining women as deaconesses was eventually ‘clarified’ and the role of women was eliminated altogether. That clarification came at a later Church council, later being defined as 1000 years later so hardly eyewitness apostolic kind of stuff. Be that as it may, the silt of centuries of Church teaching builds upon earlier layers of deposit and, right or wrong, it becomes solidified as tradition.
Could the Vatican reinstate the order of deaconess? Yes, absolutely. The foundation is there both in scripture and in tradition. More and more highly placed archbishops and cardinals are starting to raise that possibility. While this generates a lot of excitement for supporters of women’s ordination, the reality is that a women’s diaconate would likely look nothing at all like the men’s diaconate we have now. Our deacons can proclaim the gospel and preach the homily at Mass. Pope Francis clearly restated the Church’s position that while a woman may offer a reflection at a prayer gathering, at Mass the priest or deacon delivers the homily in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and thus must be a man. Sadly, this means that any hope that reinstating the order of deaconess will lead to us hearing a woman preach at Mass is decidedly misplaced. The only way that will happen is if, and only if, the Church revises its definition of what it means to operate in persona Christi and, since such a revision would also open the way for women to be ordained not only to the diaconate (as we now know it) but also to the priesthood, it is highly unlikely to occur in my lifetime.
Do I hope the Church might take a step, any step, even a tiny one, toward ordaining women? Yes, very much so. But hope has to be tempered with reality. The reality is that the Church would have to reexamine more than a millenia and a half of teaching before a woman could ever be allowed to preach at Mass. While the world looks at progressive changes in terms of years, the Catholic Church looks at progressive changes in terms of centuries. Change may come, but at 43, how long am I willing to wait for it? I’ve been told that younger women in the Catholic Church need women like me, women with passion, education, and most importantly a big mouth, to stay in the Catholic Church and push for change. But sometimes the only way to effectively create a change is to create a vacuum.