My article “Preaching on Catholic Social Teaching” appears in the July issue of The Priest. It’s a big one (seven pages in the print mag, though with photos), but was thoroughly fascinating and fun to work on. Check the whole thing out here.
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 It is difficult to imagine that any significant historical documents or liturgical texts referring to women deacons in the ancient Church have been discovered since 2002.”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.
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.
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.
My new article for Our Sunday Visitor considers the question, “Would Pope Francis approve of the U.N. climate deal brokered in Paris last month?” My work on this one was particularly interesting and enjoyable.
That’s probably because the initial reaction of most folks — including me — would probably be, “Of course he would.” But the ways the deal differs from (and even ignores) Francis’s approach are as interesting as the ways the two are aligned.
The whole thing is here. Have a look.
I love this passage from Pope Francis’s Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square yesterday:
Today Jesus also tells us that the measurement is not the quantity but the fullness. There is a difference. It is not a question of the wallet, but of the heart. There are heart diseases that lower the heart to the portfolio. To love God “with all your heart” means to trust Him, to trust in His providence, and to serve him in the poorest brothers and sisters without expecting anything in return. Faced with the needs of others, we are called to deprive ourselves of essential things, not only the superfluous; we are called to give the necessary time, not only what remains extra; we are called to give immediately and unconditionally some of our talent, not after using it for our own purposes or our own group.
Allow me to tell you a story that happened in my previous diocese. It is about a mother with her three children. The father was at work and the family was at table eating veal cutlets alla Milanese. Just then someone knocked at the door and one of the children – the young one who was five or six years old – the oldest was seven years old – came and said, “Mom, there’s a beggar at the door who is asking for some food.” And the mother, a good Christian, said, “What should we do?”
“Give him some food,” they said.
“Ok.” She took the fork and knife and cut each person’s cutlet in half.
“Oh no, Mom! Not like this! Take something from the refrigerator!”
“No, we will make three sandwiches like this!”
And thus the children learned that the meaning of true charity means that you give not from what is left over but from what we need. I am certain that that afternoon they were a bit hungry, but this is the way to do it.
Before Pope Francis’s triumphant visit to the USA last month came a historic visit to Cuba. That leg of the trip included a private meeting between the Pope and retired leader Fidel Castro. Francis and Fidel exchanged books as gifts at that meeting, and the books that the Pope offered were noteworthy. Indeed, at least one of them surely evoked a strong response in Castro’s heart — exactly what kind of response, we’ll never know.
Here’s my new article from Our Sunday Visitor about the books Francis gave Fidel.