TONY DOHERTY. Women deacons.

Three feet of ice, the Chinese say, are not frozen in one day.
Nor does it thaw in one year.

Large institutions are famous for sometimes moving with all of the speed of an inert glacier. The ancient institution of the Vatican is no exception to this rule.

During the three-year, event-filled ministry of the Argentinian Pope, ‘Papa Francisco’, however, there are unusual signs of movement. There is a distinct sense that, perhaps conscious of his age, and despite to face down strident resistance, Francis is moving things along. As former Irish President Mary McAleese expressed it recently: ‘…his greatest legacy to the church has been the welcoming of debate after the stultifying and suffocating imposed silence of the past.’

Despite those signs of new life, there has been bitter disappointment among many about the lack of movement around the role of women in the church.

Visiting Sydney last November, for example, the very senior Papal advisor Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, chair of the Committee of Nine established by Pope Francis, was asked “When is the Pope going to move on the question of women in the church?” Maradiaga expressed his own personal disappointment that there was little good news on the horizon.

And now six months later out of the blue comes a report from Rome about the opening up of discussion about the possible ordination of women as deacons.

During a meeting at the Vatican this month with some 800 leaders of the world’s congregations of women religious, in a question-and-answer session the Pope was asked why the Church excludes women from serving as deacons. Francis replied that he would create a commission to study this question.

At first glance setting up a study group might sound like a classic piece of fancy side-stepping when facing 800 determined women religious.

Early commentary however is hopeful that it is a positive step towards opening up a new discussion about the contentious issue of women in ministry in the church. At its best Francis’ openness to studying the possibility of women serving as deacons could represent an historic shift for the global Church.

Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II decreed that “the Church has no authority whatever to ordain women as priests”, citing Jesus’ choosing only men to serve as his twelve apostles. (Critics claim that that form of biblical logic might exclude from priesthood all males who are not Jewish-born.)

But to return to the ministry of deacon. Back in the sixties after Vatican II it was decided to reinstitute the role of permanent deacon for men, even though married, who have reached the age of 35. In some parts of the universal church this has been seen as a positive move. In other parts, there has been more of a mixed response.

Many Church historians are saying however that in the early centuries of the Church there is abundant evidence that not only men but women also served as deacons. The apostle Paul mentions such a woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans. It seems that it is this history of such women’s ministry that Pope Francis has invited a commission to examine.

The Vatican Press Office has been quick to report that the Pope did not say that he intends to introduce the ordination of women as deacons – and even less the ordination of women as priests – but to set up an enquiry into the possibility of female deacons.

There are critical underlying issues behind this decision. When the permanent diaconate was reinstituted, many felt that male deacons were seen as a response to those who felt compulsory celibacy disqualified men from ordained ministry. The excitement behind this Vatican announcement of a commission studying the history of female deacons is triggered by seeing this as a critical step towards more decisive roles for women in the area of ministry and governance.

To find an effective path to give women an appropriate role in the future ministry and governance of the church looks a very tall order. To be effective it would need to penetrate the three feet of ice which is the all-male hierarchy structure which underlies the worst examples of ‘clericalism’.

Let us hope that this latest news is a sign of a genuine shift in the ice. To bring women into the decision making about the future may be one of the most critical issues facing the global church.

Should this news be no more than some fancy figure skating on the surface of the ice will risk contributing to the fund of disappointment and sheer dismay that no real way can be found to move this critical issue forward.

Monsignor Tony Doherty is parish priest at St Mary Magdalene, Rose Bay.

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