Perennial Hope

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I had the opportunity this past week to attend a lecture given by Dr. Phyllis Zagano. In fact, it was her last public appearance before leaving for Rome in November to serve on the papal commission convened to examine, yet again, the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. She will not speak publicly again until the commission’s work is concluded.

Dr. Zagano spoke in great detail about the history of women in the diaconate. This has been her passion and her life’s work and, as she quipped, every word is not only researched but footnoted. She spoke of rights, of justice, and of mercy. She stressed repeatedly that no one, male or female, has the right to be ordained. Thus, ordaining women to the diaconate is not about a woman’s right to be ordained. There is no such thing. Rather it is about the right of the community to be ministered to by women who have been called to serve.

In addition to preaching, baptizing and officiating at weddings, women ordained to the diaconate would be able to serve in offices reserved for those in the clerical state. It is the right of parishes, dioceses, and the entire Church to be ministered to by women in these ways, women who bring with them the unique gifts and perspectives of womanhood. This isn’t just about positions in the Curia, but also about looking much closer to home where it could mean women serving as an canonical judges. Under the new guidelines for annulments, a single judge may issue a decision without the need for a second trial. While women currently serve on tribunals as canon lawyers and judges, their work is overseen by ordained men and cases overseen by a single judge must be decided by clerics. Ordained women would be able to fill this role.

She spoke of justice in the Church and how that carries out into the world. One of the arguments that has long been championed as the central reason for the all-male clergy is the maleness of Jesus. This flawed line of reasoning holds that women don’t match Christ’s image. This carries an implication that women, simply based on their gender, cannot image Christ or do so in away that is fundamentally flawed. It runs counter to the understanding that all people are made in the image of Christ. That is an injustice and one that radiates out into the world. Indeed, the long history of the subjugation of women is based entirely on the view of women as being less than a man. The Church has the opportunity and the responsibility to correct that worldview.

Finally, she spoke of mercy and the role of the Church to recognize and touch the suffering within the community. Women within their communities are often willing and able to be ministers of mercy but are limited by the roles they are currently permitted to hold. Whether that means a woman serving as a deacon in Latin America, traveling to the remote villages where the priest can rarely visit or a woman serving as a deacon in a suburban parish down the street, preaching the gospel and touching the lives of those around her in service and charity.

Ultimately, there is a wealth of historical evidence, including rites of ordination, that women served as deacons. The topic of reviving this role for women was raised at the Second Vatican Council and at the close of the council, it was slated as a topic that warranted further study but was largely neglected. In 1997, a commission studied all of the evidence and created a detailed report which concluded that yes, women could be ordained to the diaconate. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time served as President of the International Theological Commission, refused to sign it. In 2002, a new commission was convened to study the same question. It subsumed the entire 1997 report into its own 78-page report, which concluded that there was no conclusion. Dr. Zagano summed up the discussions of the last 50 years in one succinct statement: They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes.

They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes. 

 

Now, Pope Francis has handpicked a new commission made up of twelve highly respected scholars. There are six men and six women. Dr. Zagano said she has no idea what the outcome will be. And she refused to entertain questions on women serving in the priesthood. She did, however, state that Benedict XVI defined the diaconate as a ministry entirely separate from the presbyteriate and the episcopacy.  In simple English, ordaining women to the diaconate poses no theological challenge to maintaining an all-male priesthood. There are some who argue that the diaconate, presbyteriate, and episcopacy are inextricably entwined.  If that were ever determined to be an inviolable theological truth, then women would have to be ordained to the priesthood based in the historical evidence of women serving in the diaconate for many centuries in the early Church. But that is not the role of the current commission to determine nor to consider. Their role is solely to determine whether women can be ordained to the diaconate. Dr. Zagano plainly stated that all of her work leads to a clear yes, they can. They were in the past and should be again.

The sheer volume of historical evidence she traced out for us was nearly overwhelming. And for me, just being in that space, surrounded mostly by women of a certain age, women who really know how far we have come, was an amazing experience in and of itself. There was an air of excitement and hope, not optimism or wishful thinking but a true, deeply held, rarely displayed, soul level hope. It was the kind of perennial hope only progressives, and maybe lifelong Cubs fans, would truly understand. Maybe this is our time. The Cubs finally had their year. Will we?

The People-Watching of a Catholic Cynic

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The past few weeks have been heaven for those of us who are shameless people-watchers. I’m not sure what was more interesting: watching Catholics watching the Pope, watching non-Catholics watching the Pope, or watching Catholics watching non-Catholics watching the Pope. A personal favorite was the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We watched half of it in the local diner. Everyone there was exceptionally quiet, watching and listening to the Mass. We got home in time to watch the end of it. After the Mass was over, as the Pope making his way through the crowd, the commentator stated, “We heard the Pope at the end of Mass say ‘Go in peace.’ Very much keeping with his message throughout this visit…”

My younger son laughed. “Obviously he’s not a Catholic. They say that at every Mass. That’s Jesus’ message not the Pope’s.”

And as if all that wasn’t enough fun to watch, now that Pope Francis is back in Rome, we have the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I’m curious to see what will come out of it all. So much talk about divorce, remarriage and annulments certainly pricks up my ears. My longtime Twitter nemesis, Fr. Paul is in Rome observing the Synod from the outside. I asked him if he knew if the topic of domestic abuse was on the agenda for discussion. He hadn’t seen anything at that point and at his suggestion, I read through the Instrumentum Laboris (working document of the synod) and found not a single mention.

***sigh***  Why am I not surprised that a room full of celibate men wouldn’t even think to include an issue that effects 1 in 4 women, 1 in 7 men, and certainly impacts the entire family. I have searched periodically for the last eight years and I have yet to find any official Vatican document of any sort that deals with violence in the home. Plenty to say about what is or is not acceptable in the bedroom but abuse of a spouse is never mentioned.

Yes, I know, I’m a cynic. And yes, I know, the Church in no way condones violence. But if you’re going to gather to discuss the pastoral issues facing families, particularly divorce and remarriage, don’t you think it might be common sense to discuss WHY people get divorced in the first place? Domestic abuse is certainly high on the list of reasons.

Then the bombshell hit. Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec proposed discussion of ordaining women the diaconate. I almost dropped my tea when a friend texted me that newsflash. Finally! Someone with a little authority making the same argument I’ve been making for the last few years. Now the people-watching gets really interesting. The traditionalists immediately started howling that women can “just go be nuns” and “they don’t need to priests to serve”, even though the discussion was clearly about the diaconate not the presbyeriate. The moderates hemmed and hawed and clucked their tongues while making the usual patronizing, non-committal statements about the need for the “feminine genius” and “expanded roles for women”, neither of which are ever defined. Then there are the liberals, who went wild with hope that there was finally a real discussion of women having a role in liturgical ministry and some sort of real voice in the Church.

From the cynical outsider perspective, I see a whole lot of posturing. And it makes me wonder which message these men are keeping to: their own or that of Jesus. Because Jesus was certainly talking to the women about their situations rather than telling them that this is how it was going to be. Jesus addressed the pastoral realities of the people he met, not just the theological ideal. It seems like the Vatican forgot that centuries ago and is too entrenched in its own traditions to admit that it may need a course correction. The Catholic Church is missing half the of the voices and half of the reality. The theologically ideal Catholic woman is a either nun or married (once, forever) with children. That is not the pastoral reality. And let’s not forget that a woman’s perspective on the Gospel is not heard from the pulpit on any Sunday, ever.

Finally, I ventured into the online debate on women’s ordination and the anger, hostility, insecurity and general nastiness of some of the Catholics I encountered was really sad to see. The Vatican has firmly established in the laity, and a majority of the clergy, an accept-everything-or-get-out mentality.  I suppose that seemed wise in light of the Reformation, but with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaching, I have to wonder if that mentality isn’t going to eventually suffocate the Catholic Church.