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.
- Is the proposal compatible with the teachings of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium?
- What is the result of applying Newman’s “notes”?
- 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.