The Future of Women Deacons—A Report on the Symposium

I attended the symposium on The Future of Women Deacons at Fordham University last night. The hall was full. In fact they had to turn away requests for tickets weeks in advance because they sold out the house so fast. People from all over the world asked to see the event, and so they livestreamed it. The recording is archived at Salt and Light Media. I encourage you to view it.

I think I speak for many when I say that I was both surprised and disappointed that the two panelists who served on the papal commission announced from the start they could say nothing about the commission’s report except that they made it and it was on the pope’s desk.

How frustrating. I think most people who attended expected to come away with at least some information and insight into the papal commission’s efforts—not a full report, but some idea of what their work was all about and what they achieved. We got none of that. For a symposium that was promoted as the first public speaking engagement of people who served on that commission, it was a bust. They could have said 99% of what they said about women deacons before the papal commission ever convened. Sure, we learned that Professor Zagano stayed at Casa Santa Marta, visited libraries, and talked to bishops and metropolitans in the hallways; we learned that the food was good. But that’s not why we came.

That said, the event was informative in more general ways. If anyone was not already familiar with the literature, the evening provided a quick primer in the key issues concerning the history and theology of deacons as they apply to the question of ordaining women. These issues were clearly and competently discussed. Professor Zagano’s recounting of the earlier reports of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith (the one that was never published, the one that was) and the way she situated the report of the papal Commission in the context of the Major Superiors’ question to Pope Francis, provided a solid and important chronology for understanding how we got to where we are in terms of the institutional progress of this discussion.

During the panel discussion some facts came to light that are not so well known to an American audience. For example, Fr. Pottier mentioned that there were three queries about women deacons sent to the Vatican by German bishops during the pontificate of John Paul II, but the response received did not reply to the question asked. The response was: Women cannot be priests. But that was not the question! (It seems that the suspicion that the deaconate is actually a Trojan horse for smuggling women into the priesthood has haunted this discussion.)

Indeed, the distinction between priesthood and diaconate has been a key element in setting up the current consideration of the possibility of ordaining women deacons. The act of Benedict XVI in changing canons 1008 and 1009 to declare a difference between diaconate and priesthood provides evidence that the Church has already been in the process of gradually loosening the “cursus honorum” approach to Holy Orders – an approach which presumes that diaconate is essentially a temporary stage on the way to priesthood. Permanent, married deacons have served as a stable example that deacons can be deacons for life. These facts have opened the door to considering women deacons without automatically allowing for their ordination as priests.

The “unity of Holy Orders,” Professor Zagano argued, does not consist in following the cursus honorum, but rather in imaging Christ. Because priests and deacons image Christ in different ways, each must be considered on its own merits she concluded. Few would argue that women cannot image “Christ the Servant.”

Fr. Pottier made several contributions to the discussion. First, and most important, he was able to offer a nuanced historical perspective. The impact of the Great Schism on how the theology of sacrament developed in the West was one of his themes. He emphasized the importance of the Gregorian Reform in the 12th Century in shaping our way of thinking through the issues of ordination in the West. He also noted that there have been more than 800 books and articles written about women deacons in recent years; the field is changing as research on this subject has grown. No longer can people simply echo the received wisdom that “women have never been ordained” in a simplistic fashion.

I was also struck by his insight into the global question of male-female collaboration within the church (this came up during the question period). Fr. Pottier, in addition to being a theologian and historian is also a psychologist who has an active practice jointly with a female professional colleague. The inclusion of women in church ministry is not a question of complementarity, he said. It is not, he explained, that “you can do something I can’t do and I can do something you can’t do.” Instead, he said, “It is a question of promotion, dialectical promotion.” “I am more a man when I am with a woman”; the presence and cooperation of one with another promotes the gifts of both men and women. This seems to me to be truly a new and intriguing way to frame the question.

Sr. Donna Ciangio injected a contemporary pastoral ministry component and some lively urgency into the proceedings by describing and quoting the thoughts of lay people in her parish and participants in a pilot study group she conducted on the subject of women deacons.

In her parish, for example, the pastoral staff routinely ask new parishioners what, if anything, keeps you from fully embracing the faith? The answer most frequently given is the exclusion of women from leadership and preaching.

When Sr. Donna asked some lay people what they think about the idea of women deacons, they said they thought the sisters who work in pastoral staff positions are already deacons! The study group experience revealed that the more that people came to understand the history, the more they became agitated by the fact that we don’t ordain women as deacons.

Also significant was the fact that no one reported experiencing any confusion between deacons and priests at the parish level. The permanent diaconate is well established; everybody knows who is a deacon and who is a priest. The responses she quoted had a lot of resonance for those in the room, but the report was anecdotal and did not represent a broader study.

Overall, the evening was upbeat. Although nobody claimed to be sure of what would happen next, they did not seem unduly pessimistic. Clearly, the panelists were hopeful that Pope Francis will move in a direction favorable to the restoration of the female diaconate, and trusted him to do so when the time is right.

Fr. Rosica, the panel moderator, summed up three of his own takeaways as follows:

  • Recalling the resurrection narratives of the gospels, he quoted: “Some women have astounded us.” In this way, he reminded us of the evangelical light that women have been the bearers of from the very beginning – a hat tip to Phyllis Zagano’s witness.
  • “History is the great teacher” he also said, echoing Fr. Bernard’s presentation. We should not be afraid to learn from history.
  • “The question begins at the parish” was his final observation, affirming Sr. Donna’s offering of a view from the pews.

David Gibson, director of the Center on Faith and Culture, which sponsored the event, also had a “last word” worth pondering. He wondered if the very fact that we are discussing this subject with such a lively interest today suggests that under Pope Francis we are “restoring a church of service” in a variety of ways.

P.S.

It may also interest our readers to know that Salt and Light, hitherto a Canadian media company, has just opened a U.S. branch, at St. Paul the Apostle parish. St. Paul’s is the mother church of the Paulist order, a beautiful historic church and lively community of faith with a long tradition of outreach and the arts. It is across the street from Fordham at Lincoln Center, in midtown Manhattan. I am very interested in seeing the work of Salt and Light expand into an American context, and I wish them all the best!

8 comments

  1. There are already 1100+ unordained female deacons doing the ministry in the US. We are called Board Certified Chaplains. I know of no male deacons who are required to obtain 50 CEUs annually to maintain their ordained status and current orthopraxis of their ministry.

    God forbid that those of us with MDiv. degrees and a full year of graduate level homiletics and orthopraxis should be granted the faculty to preach from lenses that re-present 51%+ of the world’s population.

    Blessings.

    1. Congratulations on your ministry. I’d be pretty surprised if there aren’t some board certified chaplains among Catholic deacons in the US, but your comment illustrates that one needn’t be a deacon to be a board certified chaplain, and vice-versa. They’re not the same thing, although one can certainly imagine a Venn diagram with the two circles having some overlap.

  2. Despite the fact that we know no more of what Francis’s intentions may be (perhaps hardly surprising), it was a very interesting symposium. Rita’s account is much fuller than I could have given with just one viewing. But I would recommend watching, maybe more than once if your attention is like mine.

    There is a part of me that is concerned, when we talk about ordination (of anyone) to the diaconate, to remember that we are not (or should not be) thinking of another class of clerics set apart from the people of God. That was not in practice my experience in my last parish, where there were at one time four permanent deacons, sadly mostly retired or deceased and not replaced. Nor is it my general experience of women religious such as the Verbum Dei community who in practice fulfil a similar role in my current parish. But I would prefer to think about ordination of deacons as the recognition (as Donna reminds us) of an essential role that is needed in today’s church, in the same way that a not-entirely-similar role was needed in the early church as told in Acts.

    We might of course extend that conception of “ordination” to the ordination of priests, consecration of bishops, etc – without advocating for or against women priests – but perhaps that would necessarily challenge our understanding of “ordination” and “clerical”, and even “hierarchy”.

  3. “When Sr. Donna asked some lay people what they think about the idea of women deacons, they said they thought the sisters who work in pastoral staff positions are already deacons! … Also significant was the fact that no one reported experiencing any confusion between deacons and priests at the parish level. ”

    While these two sets of facts don’t directly contradict one another, the first (thinking women already were deacons) at least raises red flags about the certitude with which the second is given.

    FWIW, my own experience, simply from greeting/conversing with parishioners after mass, is that quite a few don’t have clear ideas of the distinctions between deacons and priests – often evidenced by the folks who greet me as “Father”. Others seemingly perceive that I’m the junior partner but may not be able to clearly distinguish how or why. To be sure, we could talk about the distinctions more than we do to help clarify it in people’s minds. Those discussions (and the same is true of the discussion of whether women can be deacons) too often get bogged down in what deacon can *do* and *not do*, as though what a deacon does, or what a woman isn’t permitted to do, are central to diaconal identity.

    Both sets of observations – about women and deacons, and priests and deacons – raise the intriguing question: if two items are different in reality, but aren’t generally perceived to be different, to what extent are they different?

    I am not sure how important this question of popular, casual perception is to the larger questions of whether women can be deacons or priests. I’m not one who obsesses over the identity of the priesthood and believes it must be jealously guarded from encroachments by women and/or deacons. On the other hand, I would say that, without obsessing over it, an accurate understanding of the identity of the priesthood or the diaconate isn’t nothing.

  4. There is so much about why women cannot be deacons and priests, a lot dating back many centuries. Our Church is a Church alive and moving. Why not ask more what good can come from women ministers, how will the Church benefit? The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few. Maybe the Holy Spirit is indeed moving among us

    1. This link, along with my encouragement for readers to to view the entire tape, was already included in the first paragraph of the blog post.

      Should we pay no attention to the fact that the panel gave us “no news” about the papal commission and its report? No, it’s the question that was on everyone’s mind. I could not fail to point out that at least some of us came away disappointed at having no better idea of what was said and done than we had going into this.

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