Some days ago at a Catholic Women’s League reception, I was asked if any progress had been made by the commission Pope Francis instituted to study the possibility of admitting women to the diaconate.
Such a development would be an historic move toward ending the global institutional practice of an “all-male” clergy.
Certainly, discrimination against women has enormously diminished in the world, but there are still some areas in society, the family, and the Church, that need to advance.
To fulfill his promise, the Pope appointed a commission with an equal number of male and female experts as members. They are led by Archbishop Luis Francisco Landaria Ferrer, a Jesuit currently serving as second-in-command of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“After intense prayer and mature reflection,” Francis appointed this gender-balanced membership to study the history of the female diaconate in the earliest times of the Church. The formal name given to the group is Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate and includes experts in theology, patristic ecclesiology, and spirituality.
Francis’s openness to studying the possibility of women serving as deaconesses could represent an historic shift for the global Church.
Francis’s openness to studying the possibility of women serving as deaconesses could represent an historic shift for the global Catholic Church, which does not ordain women as clergy.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St. Paul, and the Gospels, we see that even from earliest times there were a number of women disciples and co-workers (Rom 16:3), but their roles were never one of a consecrated minister.
In other words, they were never sacramentally ordained. These women were called diakonon, the Greek word for server, assistant, or helpers, and today we call them “auxiliary ladies.” The early Church used this term for certain women who worked for the community but who never officiated as ordained ministers.
Although the diakonon were not part of priestly hierarchy, the term was never used as if they were considered inferior or less powerful than priests.
In Acts 1:14, we read that all the disciples were in Jerusalem and “joined in continuous prayer together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.” The disciples also “went to the temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:46). The women dedicated their activities to supporting the apostolic communities.
This participation determines the organic unity of the Church, the people of God, with Christ. These women and others later played an active and important role in the life of the early Church, in laying the foundation of, and building up, the first Christian communities.
The apostolic writings noted their names, such as Priscilla, and Phoebe, a “deaconess of the Church” (Rom 16:1); Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2); and Tryphaena, Persis, and Tryphosa (Rom 16:6). St. Paul speaks of their “hard work” for Christ.
Even the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines 'deaconess.'
Even the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “deaconess” according to the congregations they are part of: in the Episcopal Church they are “ministers below bishop and priest;” for Nonconformist churches, “lay officers;” for the early churches, “ministers of charity.”
Going back to the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, very few public comments have been made so far. Many of the appointed members are theologians and academics who have already written extensively on the subject, especially during the Second Vatican Council, but much of their research was directed solely toward the male diaconate.
Now they want to apply themselves to the possibility of admitting females with the argument that historical evidence shows women serving as deacons in the early Church, which could mean those women received ordination to the diaconate in a similar way as their male counterparts.
Everything started during a question-and-answer session with Pope Francis in which he was asked, “Why not construct an official commission that might study the question?” He agreed.
Pope Paul VI, in his 1976 Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, said clearly that the Church did not consider herself as having the power to admit women to the priestly ministry.
Canon 1024 of the Code of Canon Law states unequivocally: “Only a baptized man can validly receive sacred ordination.” The law therefore is clear that only a baptized man, not a woman, can be ordained. Canon law uses the Latin term “vir” which refers to the male gender and excludes any female reference.
Canon 1026, however, says: “For a person to be ordained, he must enjoy the requisite freedom. It is absolutely wrong to compel anyone, in any way or for any reason whatsoever, to receive orders, or to turn away from orders anyone who is canonically suitable.”
In recent times, this second requirement has been widely discussed, and the question of the possible ordination of women has been repeatedly raised.