Reply to Francis Mannion, “Advancing the Role of Women”

by Jane Coll

As a very recent author of a book “Handmaids of the Lord: Women Deacons in the Catholic Church,” I take an interest in any blogs and their comments on the subject. This can be a distressing experience as the comments can be decidedly lacking in Christian charity. I also find it frustrating to see the same arguments repeatedly presented without actually getting anywhere. I want to shout at the computer “Read my book – I have answered this point already!”

So it made a pleasant change to come across Msgr. Mannion’s article at Pray Tell. The article itself is well informed and thought-provoking. It stressed that many of the barriers to women holding senior positions are man-made and could be changed. Specifically, the rule that certain positions must be held by a priest or bishop could be relaxed.

The comments on the article were polite and one of them gave me a snippet of information that I had not come across before. I did however come away with the feeling that everyone was fumbling around in a fog of uncertainty. I found myself thinking that what is needed is a set of guidelines for judging whether or not any one suggestion is feasible. This would mean that a list of ideas, such as those in Msgr. Mannion’s article, could be measured against set criteria and classified as “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” While my writing had not specifically set out to do so, it did in fact use several techniques for just this purpose. It occurred to me when reading the article that it might be useful to identify and summarize these techniques.

When I started writing my book, I genuinely did not know what my conclusions were going to be. Instead, I simply followed where the evidence led. I needed to be sure that I was not missing any vital evidence and that my conclusions did not contradict official Church teaching. So I structured my research around the three pillars of Church teaching – Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Under each of these headings, I studied what they had to say on priesthood/ordination, Our Lady and women in general. I then looked at some of the best known theological arguments on the role of women. Finally, I pulled together all the arguments that did not contradict the teachings of Scripture, Tradition or the Magisterium. As I was writing at the time that Cardinal Newman was canonized, I tried applying his seven “notes” for discerning whether a doctrine was a valid progression or an invalid digression.

The result was a conclusion that was entirely loyal to the Church and could be implemented after only a slight rewording of the relevant sections of canon law. This conclusion was tha, while women could not be ordained as priests, they could be ordained as deacons. Just to prove that my writing was indeed entirely loyal to Church teaching, I applied for, and got, an imprimatur (a statement from my bishop that the writing was free from doctrinal or moral error).

Msgr. Mannion is also anxious in his article not to suggest anything that might contradict Church teaching. Much of the article is taken up with suggestions for roles that women could have that would avoid the controversial topic of ordination. He points out that women can hold senior positions in the administrative life of the parish, diocese and even Vatican departments. He proposes that, in order to find a place for these roles within the institutional hierarchy of the Church, the ancient order of canonesses could be reintroduced.

Here, I find myself disagreeing with him. A minor point is that I am not sure of the accuracy of his description of the role. Canonesses also lived in community with the dual role of singing the Divine Office in the cathedral and ministering to the community. They resembled the “active” orders of women religious. Gradually, they were replaced by the enclosed contemplative orders.

In my book, I discuss the role of lay women who are given titles such as “Lay Pastoral Assistant” when they are being asked to administer parishes. This simply causes confusion – they are neither part of the congregation nor the clergy. Vitally, they are being asked to do the work of a deacon without the grace of the sacrament to strengthen them. I was also not sure whether to be amused or insulted by the Msgr.’s comment that the office could “involve ceremonial insignia and dress”!

The various comments on Msgr. Mannion’s article concentrated on the idea of women as deacons and cardinals. Much of this was familiar ground. Some of the comments were very learned, others based more on wishful thinking and emotion. There was a lack of a sense that there were guidelines that could be used to judge ideas. Even Scripture was seldom quoted. People outside the Church, and indeed some inside it, complain that the idea of a Magisterium and infallible teaching stifles debate and limits academic freedom. I have found the opposite to be the case. Knowing where the boundaries are liberates one to investigate the possibilities and ignore blind alleys and time-wasting side tracks. These boundaries can be identified by using my first and most fundamental diagnostic tool – does the suggestion comply with the teachings of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium? I also used Newman’s seven “notes”. These are clear and specific diagnostic tools which may be appropriate for some topics but not for others. Even using just one or two of them can help to clarify a point. On the specific topic of the role of women in the Church, I identified two more principles that could be used as guidelines to test suggested roles.

The less controversial principle came directly from my investigation of the phrase on bishops having the fullness of the sacrament of ordination. Having traced the history of the theology behind the phrase, I found that it referred to a centuries-old debate “Does the grace of the sacrament of ordination build up from deacon to priest to bishop or flow down from God (or perhaps the pope) to the bishop, who then delegates, through the sacrament of ordination, some of his powers to the priest and some to the deacon?” Vatican II ended this debate by teaching that the grace of the sacrament was given in its fullness to the bishop, directly from God. The bishop could then delegate some of his powers to priests and deacons.

We need to remember here that there was a time in the Church when the sacrament of ordination had seven levels. The unity of the sacrament resides in the bishop and this is not affected by the number of orders below him to whom he may delegate some of his powers. The bishop delegates some of his apostolic, juridical, power to loose and to bind to priests but not to deacons. Thus priests can hear confessions and give absolution but deacons cannot. Applying this principle to more general situations suggests that bishops and priests can act as judges but deacons, while they could be involved in the deliberative process, cannot be the final arbiters in a juridical situation.

The other principle occurred to me while investigating the women named in Matthew’s genealogy. I have often wondered why he chose these women and was delighted to have an excuse to examine this in some detail. Indeed, this was the only part of the book that I really enjoyed writing! My conclusion is that, in order to work out the message that Matthew is giving, we have to look at the men in the stories of these women. In each case, the men are not giving the will of God the priority that it deserves. It is the women’s actions that encourage, or even force, them to do the right thing. So Matthew is saying that the role of women is to provide the men with the conditions that they need to obey the will of God. The men act as leaders while the women stand behind them pushing them in the right direction.

As always, Scripture provides the most important proof-text for any argument. St. Paul had some very pointed things to say on the role of women, although he was not nearly as restrictive as many people argue. One of the joys of my two principles is that they allow us to interpret the teachings of St Paul as allowing for women deacons without having to resort to theories on misplaced verses or poor translations. Paul was perfectly happy for women to exercise diaconal roles – after all deacons are servants – but did not allow them to be in priestly roles. Women cannot be leaders at the Eucharistic assembly, partly because this would upset the natural order of things and partly to ensure that they did not usurp the role of the priest, who could only be male (for reasons that I discuss in my book but are too lengthy to repeat here. I will however remind the reader that ordination is a sacrament and must therefore follow the teaching and example of Jesus Christ). In general, it is better for women to allow the men to take up the leadership roles. Thus there will be no threat to the all-male priesthood.

In conclusion, I suggest that there are several basic principles that could be used to discern whether or not a proposed role for women in the Church was worth further debate or not.

  1. Is the proposal compatible with the teachings of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium?
  2. What is the result of applying Newman’s “notes”?
  3. Do they place women in a position where they are passing judgment on others or usurping the place of the male priesthood?

The proposal that we should reintroduce women deacons passes all of these tests. So do many of the other suggestions of Msgr. Mannion. My only caveat would be that prefects of Congregations must sometimes exercise juridical powers, so perhaps they do need to be either bishops or priests. On the other hand, perhaps the juridical powers are only required for strictly sacerdotal matters? That, I think, is a topic for another book, written by someone with more specialist knowledge than I have.

Whether or not reintroducing women deacons, or any of Msgr. Mannion’s other ideas, would actually be a good idea is another argument. Could we please move on to this and leave behind the rather stale debate on whether or not women could be ordained? Church teaching, based on Scripture and Tradition, is that women cannot be ordained as priests but could be ordained as deacons – “end of …”, as my children would say.

P.S. Just in case you are wondering what the “snippet of information that I had not come across before” was, it concerned Pope John XXIII’s instruction Cum Gravissima explaining the link between the College of Cardinals and the College of Bishops.

Jane Coll is the author of Handmaids of the Lord: Women Deacons in the Catholic Church, which was released last October. Readers might be interested in this biographical note about her.


  1. Your solution sounds similar to that of Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, a women psychologist and Orthodox theologian Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church: Called to Holiness and Ministry.

    She argues that the Ordination Rite for Women Deacons in the Byzantine tradition is a sacramental rite and is basically the same as that for a male deacon (i.e. they should be called women deacons not deaconesses). In a class at Notre Dame, Taft said he agreed with her liturgical interpretations.

    FitzGerald goes on to argue that it is correct to say that deacons are part of the “ordained priesthood” “a holy order” part of the “hierarchy “ just like presbyters and bishops. Women deacons were not lay people like widows and virgins.

    She claims the ordination to holiness and service of the deacons is different from the ordinations of presbyters and bishops which involved governance. However she says the three orders should not be seen as grades or stepping stones.

    I am hopeful that Francis will bring about an Eastern Orthodox Reform of Roman Catholicism by 1) emphasizing synods at all levels, 2) providing communion for the divorced and remarried, 3) married priests, and 4) women deacons.

    Such a reform would be a large step backward in time on issues that have identified Roman Catholicism for most of the last thousand years. However in addition to greatly increasing our similarity to the Orthodox, they would be a great step forward in evangelization by creating a more adaptable, family friendly, and woman friendly church.

    The bishops will need all the help they can get, including rural Scotland, to rationalize all this. However the key will likely be greatness of vision especially one founded in scripture.

    Francis encouraged the cardinals discussing marriage not to get bogged down in casuistry. Cardinal Dolan (as reported by John Allen) said this produced a sea change in discussion emphasizing the pastoral rather than focusing on doctrinal and canon law issues that had dominated previous meetings of cardinals.

    Servant leadership is for everyone in the church, not just to be modeled by deacons and ministers. It is grounded in Jesus who came to be the servant of all. Francis is emphasizing servant leadership in word and deed; hopefully bishops and priests will follow suite. Perhaps if we all regain this biblical notion we can then figure out the place and qualifications of deacons. A step above the laity and a step below the presbyters is not very compatible with servant leadership.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #1:
      I quote Fitzgerald in my book, pointing out that we accept the sacraments of the Greek Orthodox Church and this creates an interesting situation regarding their ordained female deacons.

      Yes, I think that the place of all deacons, male and female, needs more careful study. I suggest in my book that the sacrament of ordination to the diaconate does not originate with Stephen but with the washing of the feet at the Last Supper.

      1. @Jane Coll – comment #6:

        I suggest in my book that the sacrament of ordination to the diaconate does not originate with Stephen but with the washing of the feet at the Last Supper.

        This is a very interesting idea and certainly has motivated me to buy your book.

      2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #11:
        If you do buy the book, I would be interested in your comments. I am particularly interested in comments on the section on the women in Matthew’s genealogy – the only part of the book that I actually enjoyed writing!

  2. “I needed to be sure that … my conclusions did not contradict official Church teaching.”

    Maybe this explains how there can be such divergent views about women in the church. Those who are hoping women can be deacons and who would be happy with that have accepted the church’s teaching about women. But people like me who want equality for women in the church believe the teaching is wrong.

    Saw this today in the news about the church and women …
    “Why churches should brace for a mass exodus of the faithful” …

    1. @crystal watson – comment #3:
      My first suggestion for a title for my book was “Equal but Different” reflecting the teaching of John Paul II in his “Theology of the Body” lectures. Women are equal in dignity to men, are equally loved by God, have an equal duty to spread the gospel. However men and women have different natures, act in different ways, think in different ways (just think of “man flu”!). So we have different roles within the Church.

      I wonder what you are thinking of when you ask for “equality for women in the Church”? In the introduction to my book I talk about the danger of women simply looking for worldly prestige and power. I remind the reader that we should all be asking ourselves how best we can serve the Church, not how we can gain prominence in the Church.

      In a purely secular situation, I would be the first to champion the rights of women to be treated as equal to men – equal pay for equal work etc. but we cannot deny that we are different. My husband is physically stronger than me, I am better at lateral thinking – the list could go on for some time!

      Another consideration is that, if you want change, you have to work from the inside. If you want the golf club to change its rules, join the committee.

  3. @Kelly Marie Santini – comment #2:

    Yes, Mark certainly got the male-female issue right.

    As many commenters have noted the male disciples are consistently portrayed in a very poor light in the Gospel of Mark, a portrayal that is often softened in Matthew and Luke. I found this becomes particularly evident if one substitutes a neutral descriptive word like “aide” for disciple, e.g. Jesus came with his aides, when the meaning is clearly functional. There is rarely anything positive about the male leadership.

    While Jesus proclaims himself the servant of all, and admonishes the disciples to imitate him, the only persons (beside the angels in the desert) who serve others are the women (strategically framed at the beginning and the end as Mark often does when he wants to make a major point) with Jesus in the center of the Gospel saying he is the servant of all.

    So for Mark, women and children are the better models of what it means to be a Christian. That plus the fact that in the passion narrative the women enact by the sign of anointing that Jesus is the Christ lays a good biblical foundation for the ordination of women.

  4. Dr. Stoll finds it frustrating that people keep making the same arguments without getting anywhere. She herself makes two unsupported statements that frustrate me. “Women cannot be leaders at the Eucharistic assembly, partly because this would upset the natural order of things” and “In general, it is better for women to allow the men to take up the leadership roles.” Apparently for her, these ideas grow out of a Scripture and Tradition that cannot change. As a scientist, I bring to my study of theology a broader view of the role of change in God’s creation. In nature biological changes occur through evolution, and the physical universe changes through plate tectonics, atmospheric processes, and stellar formation to name but a few. Change is built into the natural order of the universe; as such it must be part of the divine plan.

    Dei Verbum allows for our interpretation of Scripture to change as our understanding of human nature evolves and changes. Most of us now know (and believe) that women are not mis-begotten males, that women have souls, that women are capable of reason, that women can be leaders. Scripture tells us that women are created in the image and likeness of God. Tradition, if it is to remain worthy of our obedience, must also be allowed to evolve to reflect that deepening understanding.

    Perhaps in the divine plan women are not meant to be priests. I’m not convinced of that, but will wait in humility for further developments. But to argue that it is better in general for men to take up leadership roles while women push them to do the right thing poses a serious problem for the church in the 21st century. As Crystal Watson’s This Week article (#3) notes, churches which hold to such beliefs, either acknowledging them consciously or practicing them subconsciously, will not be tenable to a population which has grown up with a very different reality.

    1. @Julie Boerio-Goates – comment #5:
      First, you have credited me with greater learning than I possess! I am a plain Mrs, not a Dr. Also my second name is Coll, not Stoll. Coll is both a Scottish island and an Irish surname.

      The quotes that irritated you are paraphrasing St Paul. As Sacraments have to be clearly based on the life Jesus and teaching of Scripture, the Church has to be very careful not to contradict this. However I was interested in your scientific argument for the evolution of ideas. I am away from home just now but will read them in more detail next week.

      1. @Jane Coll – comment #8:
        To follow up on this comment…

        The fact that St. Paul said something does not, by itself, settle the question in every aspect, as I am sure you would agree. The whole enterprise of understanding the writings of St. Paul today continues to be — and always has been — a work of interpretation.

        It’s important to me too that we not take Cardinal Newman’s ideas about doctrine, themselves the product of a different age, out of their historical context as a sort of timeless yardstick to apply to how we understand God’s will.

        I find Julie’s comments apposite and stimulating. Thanks, Julie!

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #10:
      Is theology not a form of philosophy? Either way, I use this theology/philosophy to emphasise that men and women are created by God as equal in dignity before God but different in nature. In any organisation, from the nuclear family to the United Nations, we need both masculine and feminine influences. Currently, the Church is lacking the feminine influence and is unbalanced as a result.

  5. If you are interested in learning about and discussing women deacons, sign up for the free Massive Online Open Seminar (MOOS) on the topic set to run June 9-July 8, 2014 with lectures by me, Gary Macy, William T. Ditewig, and “cameo appearances” by other scholars. We will use “Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future” (Paulist) and “Ordination of Women as Deacons in the Eastern Churches: Essays by Cipriano Vagaggini” (Liturgical Press), each available in print and as e-books.

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