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.

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.