Yesterday, in a ‘closed door’ discussion with members of the International Union of Superiors General, Pope Francis called for (another) commission to study the possibility of re-instating female deacons in the Church (see Radio Vaticana’s report, here). Immediately the Catholic web and blogosphere was awash with argument. Those open to the idea of the commission talked about female deacons; those hostile talked about deaconesses; and there was rather a lot of arguable ‘history’ on both sides. Interestingly, most people seem to have forgotten entirely the context in which the pope’s remarks were made: a typically wide-ranging discussion about the mission and ministry of women in religious (consecrated) life with the 900 heads of female religious orders and congregations who make up the IUSG. So, it wasn’t just another musing aloud to a group of press hacks, it was a discussion with women already vowed to a life of obedience and service, and it had a wider scope than the question of reinstating female deacons.
Of course, whenever anyone mentions the role of women in the Church, he/she touches a neuralgic point. I am too tired to want to engage in the kind of polemics many enjoy. Suffice it to say that I am myself convinced by the historical evidence and the practice of some of the Eastern Churches that there were female deacons in the early Church, that I don’t see the restoration of the female diaconate, should it ever occur, as a step towards the ordination of women to the priesthood (in fact, I rather lament the fact that the male diaconate is often seen as a lesser kind of priesthood rather than an important, but quite distinct, form of service in its own right); and I should be very sorry if the question of studying the possibility of reinstating female deacons were to obscure the much bigger question of women’s role in the Church and, since I am one myself, the role of female religious in the Church in particular (which is where the pope’s remarks started).
One of the sad facts of life in the Church today is that we do not use the gifts of many of her members. Over the years I have heard nuns and sisters recounting instances of being treated in ways that would be illegal in the secular sphere. I have heard intelligent and able men and women, but especially women, talking about the times they have had to fight Church authorities in order to perform some work or other. That surely isn’t right. Sometimes, too, when I look at a sanctuary crowded with men or listen to a lacklustre homily, I wonder whether the enormous and growing gulf between what men and women experience in Church and what they experience outside isn’t becoming more and more of a problem.
The Holy Father isn’t likely to be asking for my advice, but if he did, I think I would say: why don’t we just ignore the ancient divisions, and, instead of tying ourselves in knots about whether reistating female deacons would involve ordination as later generations have come to understand it, create some new categories which could be open to both men and women? For example, a Licensed Preacher might be one. An Administrator (with a capital ‘A’) might be another. I suspect one of the arguments against would be that the Church hierarchy would worry about having a body of people it could not really discipline, but, unless I am mistaken, that is a problem they already have with some clergy and religious anyway!
It is good that Pope Francis has opened this discussion during these days when we are preparing for Pentecost. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and over the centuries has come to see more and more depths in the mystery of Christ. We must pray earnestly that the Holy Spirit will lead us wherever and however we are meant to go. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what any of us wants or what any of us thinks is a good idea. It is what God desires that matters. Our task is to be open to that and to do his will, not our own.