There is a refreshingly heterosexual aura on Pope Francis. He seems to be a man with a healthy and mature appreciation for real women. This sets him apart from most of the hierarchy comprised of men who are stunted in their visions of women, comfortable with an imaginary Mary-Queen-Of-The-Universe-Star-Of-The Sea-Mediatrix-Of-Salvation, but flummoxed by flesh-and-blood women with whom they shrink from shoulder-rubbing in the halls of church authority. (I will return to why I think Francis is a mature heterosexual at the conclusion of this.)
Pope Francis has given sudden evidence of his appreciation for real women in a spontaneous response to a nun who, during the May 12, 2016 meeting with the 50th anniversary conference of leaders of religious orders of women (the International Union of Superiors General) dared to ask him if the Catholic Church might be well served by women deacons. His answer – akin to his “Who am I to judge?” comment that temporarily thrilled gay Catholics – might be a slightly opened door to the ordination of women, albeit at a pace that will probably prohibit the ordination of any of the nuns present for his response in the Sala Nervi audience hall that day.
Pope Francis is willing to call for a study of the idea that women might be ordained deacons. This is significant, even though it is the same kind of side-stepping that he used when he convened a pow-wow over the issues of marriage and family. Pope Francis harbors personal opinions about these matters, but feels that it is his responsibility to act collegially and to discern the will of God as voiced by his bishops. In the case of granting Communion to divorced/remarried Catholics or granting marriage to LGBT Catholics, Pope Francis let his bishops temper what I suspect was his personal inclination to act more compassionately in those areas.
What does a Roman Catholic deacon do, and what would be the impact of women deacons. In short, a lot!
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A deacon can do everything a priest can do sacramentally except offer Mass (Eucharist) and grant absolution via the sacrament of Penance (Confession.) In a twist that is perhaps indicative of the media-driven time in which we live, reserving the sacramental act of transforming bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus to male priests has less impact than allowing women the deacon’s voice, not just proclaiming the Gospel during Mass but also preaching/delivering the homily. Having women deacons would mean that the Catholic in the pew on Sunday might receive most of the vocalized sentiment and truth about God via a woman. The central mystery of Transubstantiation would be reserved to the male priesthood, but because it is a mystery, it is already beyond our hearing.
Women proclaiming the Gospel and preaching the Good News at Mass is really not the biggest impact of allowing women to be ordained as deacons. The biggest impact might be something Francis had not thought of when he made his spontaneous response about having the issue studied. Ordaining women to the diaconate opens the door to naming women cardinals. This is the bonus round of women’s rights in the Catholic Church and a place where Church tradition, law, history and progress get extremely confusing, and where it is impossible to predict how the dominoes set in motion by the ordination of women deacons may fall.
The historical facts provide more openness than prohibitions. St Paul mentions the deaconess Phoebe, but how her authority stacked up against her male counterparts is anyone’s guess. Also, in the earliest years of the Church, cardinals were not always ordained priests. They were princes whose authority was practical and temporal. Even today, becoming a cardinal does not involve a sacrament. In other words, it is the conferring of an honorific that does not necessitate the flow of grace that comes through sacraments. Over centuries, the church decided for practical reasons that popes and cardinals really ought first to be ordained priests/bishops, but it took a number of Church councils and papal proclamations to hammer out this restriction. (The Synod of 769, the Papal Bull In Nomine Domini of 1059, the third Lateran Council of 1179 and the revision of the Code of Canon Law by Pope Benedict XV in 1917 stating that all cardinals must first be ordained priests/bishops. The last non-priest/bishop cardinal died in 1899.)
Adding to the historical confusion is the fact that there are three classes of cardinals: cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons. These distinctions are rooted in extinctions involving Roman ecclesiastical infrastructure and authority that simply do not exist today, even in the Curia. If women can be ordained deacons, logic would dictate that they can also be made cardinals. Once the College of Cardinals is populated by a significant number of women, the Catholic Church will, if it has not yet expired under the suffocating weight of its recalcitrant patriarchy, be revived by the election of a pope who will dare to do what is in his/her heart and soul. This proposed study is the type of leadership that Pope Francis favors. Timid about making sweeping changes, he is quite willing to plant the seeds of change, trusting that long after he is gone, good seed will produce good fruit.
Why do I suspect that Pope Francis is a mature heterosexual? Obscured by all he has said and done in the whirlwind of his papacy, was an early report about how he, as Cardinal Bergoglio, treated a widow in Buenos Aires. A predecessor bishop had left the priesthood to marry a woman. When that bishop died, Bergoglio telephoned the widow every Sunday afternoon for several years. This very simple gesture goes beyond civility and indicates his acknowledgement of her value in his own episcopacy. He sought her out because she possessed something he lacked as a celibate man, something that might inform his leadership and shape his compassion. That is certainly not the kind of counsel kept by most of the hierarchy.
Finally, as happy as I am about Pope Francis’ openness to the ordination of women deacons, he is well acquainted with how committees work on these matters. When Pope Paul VI set up a committee to study the regulation of birth, the majority report given to him by Jesuit Father Josef Fuchs (my moral theology professor at the Gregorian University) was in favor of allowing parents to make informed conscience-driven decisions. That report was discarded in favor of a minority report that resulted in Paul’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae saying no to artificial birth control.
Tossing an examination of the historical and traditional indicators of the merits of ordaining women deacons to a committee directed by a bunch of elderly virginal males protective of their exclusivity is not an encouraging process. We’ll see, if we and the Catholic Church live long enough.
Meanwhile, I think back upon my time in the priesthood, knowing that the greatest amount of good I did was through my presence at key moments in the life of my parishioners, including baptizing their children, marrying those in love and presiding over funeral rites for the departed. These are among the responsibilities that would be granted to women deacons. These are the moments that Catholics never forget. Give women this kind of voice and authority, and they will be one or two generations away from full equality in the Catholic Church.
I also recall my years in Rome as a seminarian. An order of American nuns sent a young woman to Rome the year I was sent by my archbishop. Sister Barbara attended all the classes I attended at the Gregorian University for four years. She finished her course of studies with an award for excellence, but in the course of those years, as I was received first into the minor orders and then ordained a deacon and finally a priest, Sister Barbara watched from a pew at every ceremony, praying for her privileged male friends. She deserved the sacraments I received. Maybe it is not too late.