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.