Women Religious welcome any development in Church that responds to women’s repeated call to have an equal share in the decision-making. Pope Francis’s proposal to set up a Commission to study the possibility of having women deacons, while not yet a decision to change a structure, is offering Catholic women a frisson of promise.
The composition of the members of the Commission will be crucial for credibility and for symbolic value. Will it have the usual token couple of women? Will at least half be women? Or even – will the majority be women? Certainly it will not be difficult to find qualified women to serve, as more than one Catholic theologian and scripture scholar has researched in this area in the last decades, including Phyllis Zagano, an internationally renowned academic in the United States, who has published extensively on women deacons. We remember the study of women deacons set up in the 1990s which fizzled out and we will be watching that this new initiative does not meet a similar fate.
The ordination of women into the diaconate could be a radical, hope-filled, Spirited intrusion into the male-only priesthood or it could be a matter of merely “adding women and stirring”. We can expect that a decision for women deacons will have strong opposition from many clerics and among some of the faithful. Our church has a tradition of thinking about women and men as different and unequal – which in official documents is couched in the language of “complementarity”. In essence this means that the clerical church identifies, assigns and gate-keeps women’s roles. Despite the cultural, family, feminist and other changes affecting the equality of opportunity and power for women and men in more than just western societies in the world, the Church has lagged in accepting even the new theologies emerging from contemporary experiences. When was the last time we saw a woman theologian or scripture scholar cited in a Papal or Episcopal letter? Or, consider the current liturgical translation where women are expected to pray: “For us men and for our salvation…” Look at the way Pope Francis’s encyclicals have been marred by the sexism of the English translations.
But equally we greet the Commission in hope. We know that a decision to ordain women to the diaconate will need a window-opening, Spirit-blowing, joyous conversion and acceptance so that it is recognised as a new evolution in the Church. As a “new thing” it will need to be nurtured, valued and mentored. The introduction of women deacons will call for imagination, resources, space to develop and oceans of good humour from all of us in the Church. And most importantly this new life will need to grow in the soil of humility composted in the decay of clericalism, focused on the ministry of service, watered by scriptural reflection and acknowledged as a new thing in the Church and in the communion of God.
Although women deacons will be new in the 21st century Church, women deacons are not new to the Church. In the New Testament letters by Paul and other early Church documents there is evidence of women serving in both deacon and priestly roles. Although they did not have formal ordination as now, neither did the men in those roles. As the Church became enculturated in patriarchal civil cultures women were denied the roles and theological reasons favouring a men-only priesthood and control of the Church took over and have been entrenched since.
As a “new thing” we cannot have “women deacons” boxed in the Vatican and sent out wrapped and programmed.
We don’t want women deacons to be another layer of clericalism in the Church smothering lay participation and engagement.
We don’t want women deacons to become the unpaid work force in parishes making up for the shortage of priests, the aging of the clergy and as a buffer between imported priests and the laity. Although they may well be capable women in these regards we want their deacon ministry to flourish alongside lay participation.
We don’t want a glass ceiling built over women deacons so they are not able to access information, meetings, retreats, conferences and on-going formation open to men in ministry.
We want to discover how women will be deacons in the Church at this time in history, in the different contexts of their ministry and with the gifts they will bring to ministry.
We want the vocation of deacon to be open to all women who discern God’s call – young, married, single, older – and from all the cultures of the people of God.
We want the same resources put into women’s formation for the diaconate as are given to the formation of men in the seminary.
And we want women’s preparation for the diaconate to be carefully thought out with discernment, study, praxis and prayer forming an integrated life-style. We want that to happen in ordinary life and in time apart.
We want the craft of preaching to have particular emphasis in their preparation. We want to be nourished, extended, challenged and encouraged in our faith – personally and as Christian community. We need women deacons who are steeped in Scripture and in ordinary life.
And we want to see women deacons appearing in liturgies alongside priests taking up their role confidently.
We rejoice in the Spirit working through the Leaders of Women Religious and moving Pope Francis to listen and act. We wait in hope.
Ann L Gilroy is a Sister of St Joseph living in New Zealand. She is editor of the independent Catholic monthly magazine Tui Motu interIslands and is involved in contextual – feminist as one – theologies.