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 It is difficult to imagine that any significant historical documents or liturgical texts referring to women deacons in the ancient Church have been discovered since 2002.”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.