On Mother Teresa and her legacy, new in OSV

With the canonization of Mother Teresa by Pope Francis coming up on Sunday, September 4, Our Sunday Visitor has posted two related articles I’ve written.

The first is a biographical piece, recounting her fascinating and awe-inspiring life — which included a dramatic mystical experience, a surprising spiritual secret known to almost no one while she lived, and an iron will to make God’s love known to the poor. (This article includes a sidebar that considers several criticisms of Mother Teresa that you sometimes come across.) You’ll find all that here.

The second is a look at the ways her legacy is still being carried out very concretely today. Everyone knows she founded the order of sisters known as the Missionaries of Charity, but did you know there’s a long list of other orders and organizations as well? You’ll find that article here.

What a remarkable figure. Just preparing the articles called me to a deeper faith and greater love.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.

On women deacons: seems we need a darn good reason not to

Following up on my previous post, I offer this thought: If an all-male, Vatican-appointed group of conservative scholars (and I do not use “conservative” as a negative) with a likely interest maintaining the status quo can spend five years studying scripture, doctrine, theology, and linguistics in considering the question of women deacons, and the strongest conclusion they can reach is one that  — in the words of its general secretary — “tend[s] to support the exclusion of this possibility,” well then, we might very well call that a resounding statement in support of women deacons. That’s because, given the cultural bias against the full dignity and personhood of women that marks most of Western history and current society, and which has been well-absorbed by Catholic life, thought, and practice, we should all be able to agree that there needs to be a blindingly clear and obvious reason not to open any role to women.

The baseline principle of any such discussion should be the equality of women, and the burden of proof should be on those wish to deny them anything at all.

If there’s a flaw in that line of thinking, I’d love to hear it.

The 2002 ITC study on women deacons: a few relevant points

Now that the composition of Pope Francis’s commission, assigned with the task of studying the possibility of women deacons in the Catholic Church, has been announced, it’s worth pointing out that the topic has been addressed before at the Vatican level. Indeed, some critics are irked that Francis doesn’t consider the previous effort the end of the matter.

The previous effort these critics are referring to is a 5-year study, released in 2002 by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, titled “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.”

At Catholic World Report, Carl Olsen wondered in May whether the Pope has “any idea of the needless can of worms he opened up,” since “the issue has been discussed. At length.” He mentions that the ITC study is a “42,679 word document.” Questioning the Pope’s grasp of the issue, Olsen thinks Francis may be “oblivious to the 2002 ITL study and all that has already gone into this topic” (while Olsen himself is, of course, “well aware of what the ITC has studied over the years”).

At the New Liturgical Movement blog, Gregory DiPippo seems to think Francis’s new commission is a waste of time as well. Like Olsen, he wants us to be crystal clear about the fact that the document was long, writing: “it clocks in at a bit over 42,000 words; this works out to about 85 single-spaced pages in the standard layout (Times New Roman, 12-point).” And he writes: “The members of the new commission probably don’t have to worry about whether they can keep their day jobs, since a very large portion of their work has already been done for them. It is difficult to imagine that any significant historical documents or liturgical texts referring to women deacons in the ancient Church have been discovered since 2002.”

In short, they’re telling us, a panel of Vatican-appointed theologians, chaired by Cardinal Ratzinger, spent five years studying the question fifteen years ago. Isn’t it a little silly to go back and hash out the same questions? What a waste of time.

In light of this, I simply want to make a few points that Olsen and DiPippo don’t mention.

(1) The 2002 document from the International Theological Commission is not a magisterial document, so it’s not binding on the Church and doesn’t represent Church teaching. There’s no reason it needs to be regarded as any more than an opinion of a few notable scholars (all of whom, by the way, were men; there wasn’t a single woman on the commission).

(2) Importantly, the 2002 document did not come down decisively against the possibility of women deacons. Admittedly, after carefully scouring the Bible, the history of the Church, and the theological and doctrinal tradition, the study did  — in the words of ITC’s general secretary Father (later Cardinal) Georges Cottier — “tend to support the exclusion of this possibility.” But if a Vatican commission, whose interests, it would not be unfair to suggest, were in maintaining the status quo, could not construct a decisive argument in favor of the status quo, that’s significant.

(3) To drive home for us what a waste of time the new commission is, DiPippo notes that absolutely no “significant historical documents or liturgical texts referring to women deacons in the ancient Church have been discovered since 2002.” And this is true. But it’s also true that since 2002, canon law has been significantly modified by Pope Benedict XVI to make clearer the theological distinctions between the diaconate and the priesthood/episcopate. (This is important since one important factor in the 2002 doc’s inclination against possibility of women deacons is precisely the idea of “the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders.”) So in fact we have more theological/canonical data now than we did then — and the additional data supports a different conclusion than the 2002 effort reached.

What I offer here is not the case for women deacons. It is, rather, a case for not putting any more weight on the 2002 ITC study than it deserves.




Heroes: “not because they’re perfect, but because they’re not”

The National Catholic Reporter has published a great article recently (it’s been several days, but I’m still catching up after some vacation and business travel) on what authentic heroism, in context of Christian faith, is about. In her article, journalist Heidi Schlumpf graciously featured a book series into which I’ve invested a lot of time and thought in my work at Liturgical Press, called People of God. It’s a series of biographies of notable Catholics, written for the non-specialist reader, and it’s been great fun to work on the past couple of years.

Anyway, Heidi’s article includes a few comments from me. You’ll find that here.