On women deacons, clarifications, and bad arguments

A word of thanks to all those who make up the friendly neighborhood clarification brigade who took time out of their busy days, these past 48 hours, to make sure we are all crystal clear about the fact that Pope Francis absolutely did not announce that he has decided to approve the creation of women deacons and that he furthermore absolutely did not announce that he has decided to approve the creation of women priests. We thank you for your efforts, but must point out that your services really are not necessary.

That’s because there is precisely no one on the planet who has suggested, in the wake of the Holy Father’s announcement that he’ll create a commission to study the possibility of women deacons, that he said he’s decided to go ahead and actually ordain a few, or that he said he would also, while he is at it, ordain a few of ’em priests as well.

Of course, the announcement provides a good opportunity for the rest of the Church to take a look at the historical and theological arguments pro and con. While we’re carrying out that worthwhile exercise, there’s one “con” argument that we need to dismiss right from the start, to avoid wasting our time. That’s the one that rejects the ordination of women as deacons on the grounds that there are some people who hope it would represent the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, the slippery slope, the tip of the spear that leads inevitably to the ordination of women as priests.

Either women can or can’t be ordained deacons. If they can’t, it’s not because they can’t be ordained priests. If they can, it is unjust to deprive them of this role (and to deprive the Church of their diaconal witness and service) just because someone might get the wrong idea about something else. We may as well refuse to offer the sacrament of marriage to anyone in order to make sure no one gets the idea gay marriage might be okay.

If women can be ordained deacons, then it’s just too bad if someone gets the wrong idea about women priests. We’ll either have to have a good explanation about why the two are very different, or admit we can’t explain why they’re very different and accept the consequences of that (the latter maybe being what’s really at the heart of the objection).

Does God want women deacons? I don’t know. It’s certainly not unreasonable to wonder whether the prohibition might have more to do with the cultural blinders that Pope St. John Paul II acknowledged has long existed within both the Church and society than it does with God’s revelation. And given the long history of sexism those blinders have produced, it is simply not enough to presume it’s not possible, based on the fact we’ve been thinking that way for a long time; we better be darn sure it’s not, based on careful study and discernment.

In that sense, it’s hard to deny that the commission the Pope says he’ll create is long overdue.


The Summa at 750: New in OSV

It was 750 years ago that St. Thomas Aquinas set to work on the Summa Theologiae. Other  than the Bible, there has been no written work that has had greater influence on Catholic doctrine and faith.

Here’s my new article in Our Sunday Visitor, taking a look at the Summa on this auspicious anniversary.

Democratic presidential candidate tells nation why abortion must be abolished

“I believe that the genius of this American experiment of ours is that in every generation we take actions to include more people more fully in the economic, the social, and the political life our country. That’s the broader arc of American history. We’ve yet to arrive at a perfect union, but every generation we have the opportunity to make it a more perfect union….

“One of the most powerful beliefs we share is our belief in the dignity of every person. That’s what’s motivated me, and the common good that we share. And, I will do everything in my power to move us forward as a nation, and make us more inclusive in every possible way I can across the board because that’s what makes us stronger as a country.”

That’s Governor Martin O’Malley speaking at last night’s Democratic Town Hall on CNN. (Full transcript here.) He was responding to a question about what he would do to secure full LGBT rights in the United States.

And in doing so, he articulated perfectly the case for the abolition of abortion.

“Especially the voiceless”: OMI’s mark 200 years this week

This week the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate mark the 200th anniversary of their founding by St. Eugene de Mazenod. Here’s my new article in Our Sunday Visitor marking the occasion. It takes a look at St. Eugene himself, as well as at the admirable work that the OMI’s do here in the U.S. today.

Congratulations, OMI’s!

“A development that follows the logic of the rite”: Augé on the foot-washing rite

Matias Augé is a highly regarded liturgical theologian and longtime professor at the Anselmo, the renowned Benedictine school of liturgical theology in Rome. Below are the reflections that Fr. Augé offered on his blog two days ago, with the announcement of Pope Francis’s change to the rubrics of the Holy Thursday foot-washing rite.

The original post is in Italian; the translation is mine, as are the bracketed translations of the Latin passages. (My thanks to Fr. Anthony Ruff, who helped me understand the reference to the “signal given with the tabula” in the second paragraph. More on that here.)

It’s worth noting in reading this: mimetic refers to imitating something, while anamnetic refers to liturgically memorializing it.

“The Rite of Foot-Washing in the Roman Liturgy”

By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus made visible the logic of love and of service that guided his life toward his death on the cross. But this gesture of Jesus is also the foundation of an ecclesial practice. The Christian community is invited to follow the way of service: “…so you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14).

The Roman liturgy has included the foot-washing in the context of Holy Thursday rather recently, only in the second millennium, as we see in the twelfth century Pontificale Romano, in which the rite take place after Vespers. The thirteenth century liturgy of the Roman Curia includes this rite in an abbreviated form, which then passes into the Messale Romano of Pius V, in its 1570 edition, where it is celebrated outside of Mass during the afternoon. It is worth noting that the rubric of this Missal does not seem to preoccupy itself with the mimetic dimension of Jesus’s action. In fact, the rubric does not speak of washing the feet of “twelve” people; it says simply: “Post denudationem altarium, hora competenti, facto signo cum tabula, conveniunt clerici ad faciendum mandatum. Maior abluit pedes minoribus: tergit  et osculatur…” [“After the altar is stripped, and at the proper hour, the signal having been given with the tabula, the clergy present carry out the mandatum. The senior washes the feet of his lessers: he wipes and kisses them…”] Note that this gesture is carried out only among the members of the clergy. Here we see that that liturgy is in general more anamnetic than mimetic: it makes memorial of the Lord’s actions, interpreting them in a broad ritual context.

With the reform of Holy Week carried out by Pius XII in 1955, the foot-washing takes place after the homily of the Mass in cena Domini [the Mass of the Lord’s Supper]. The same is the case in the Messale Romano of 1962. Here the foot-washing is done to “duodecim viros selectos” [“twelve chosen men”]. Now it is no longer a solely clerical gesture and the reference to “twelve men” make it a more explicitly mimetic rite.

This, however, is corrected by the Messale Romano of Paul VI, which no longer makes reference to the number twelve, but speaks only of “viri selecti” [“chosen men”]. The antiphons that accompany the rite of foot-washing emphasize the great theme of charity with the texts taken from John and 1 Corinthians 13 (the hymn to charity), and the rite concludes at the beginning of the offertory, with the ancient hymn Ubi caritas et amor (in the Missal of Paul VI, happily, it becomes: Ubi caritas est vera). The foot-washing is now intended to help us understand and live better the great and fundamental precept of fraternal charity which applies to all baptized men and women.

If Pope Francis has now decreed that the foot-washing is done to “qui selecti sunt ex populo Dei” [“those who are chosen from among the people of God”], we can say that it is a development that follows the logic of the rite, keeping in mind that: 1) in the Missal of Paul VI, the mimetic dimension is no longer emphasized; 2) following Vatican II, the magisterium of the Church has strongly emphasized the equality of rights and duties shared by men and women (see Gaudium et Spes 9; Evangelii Gaudium 103-104); and 3) it is no longer a rite performed by members of the clergy. In this regard, we might recall that for several years, even after Vatican II, girls were forbidden to serve at the altar. That ban was lifted as the result of an interpretation of canon 230, §2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states: “Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.” The reference to “lay persons” obviously refers to both men and women.

Many times, Pope Francis has asked for expanded roles for women in the Church (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 103-104). The Pontiff’s approach to the issue of the role of women in society and in the Church is quite attentive to modernity. It is a vision in which women are equal to men in rights and duties, but complementary and different as the bearers of specific characteristics, making his own the new social paradigm of “reciprocity in equivalence and in difference.”

In this area, however, one must keep in mind the possible impediments to washing the feet of women in public in some cultures. Note therefore that the rubric “qui selecti sunt ex populo Dei” is generic (it does not carry any obligation that women are always included), and therefore the bishop can interpret it in light of the various local situations.