Pope Francis’s cautionary words on the female diaconate made waves in early May, ruffling a few feathers in the Catholic world, especially among women.
However, his remarks were welcomed by some female Catholics.
“Francis’s comments make it clear that he holds to the classical understanding of doctrinal development,” said Dawn Eden Goldstein, theologian and author of numerous books on sexual abuse, in a May 10 email to Crux.
“This is, in fact, what he has indicated all along when questions of female ordination to the priesthood or diaconate come up, as I have noted, so it does not surprise me. The Pope is indeed Catholic,” she added.
During the press conference aboard the flight to Rome from Macedonia on May 7, Francis spoke about a study made by a commission he created in 2016 to discuss the possibility of women deacons.
The outcome, he said, was inconclusive with each of the members now studying “according to her theory.”
“The formulas of female deacon ordination” drawn from antiquity, Francis explained, “are not the same for the ordination of a male deacon and are more similar to what today would be the abbatial blessing of an abbess.”
Essentially, Goldstein explained, the pope used “diplomatic language” to say that members of the commission “disagree upon whether an ‘ought’ can be derived from a ‘was’.”
The theologian draws a distinction between the members of the commission who hold “a classical understanding of the development of doctrine” and those who don’t.
The former, Goldstein said, “believe the Church must consider whether the ancient formula for ordination of a deaconess contained within itself the seeds of what we now understand as the theology of the male diaconate.”
That means that there would need to be proof that deaconesses in the early Church fulfilled sacramental roles, like preaching and being a minister of the Eucharistic cup, in order to reinstate the practice today.
“But that is not what they found, as Francis says,” Goldstein said.
The latter members of the commission, who distance themselves from a classical view of the development of doctrine in the Church, believe that even if that proof is not found, “there is room for the Church to change its intentions without compromising the intentions of either Jesus - who chose only male disciples to fulfill those functions associated with the altar - or the Church from its earliest origins,” she said.
Representatives of these two positions will continue to “study the matter individually,” the pope said, but according to one Italian theologian, discernment on this matter should be take place at the grass-root level and include a wider range of opinions.
“The study process must be transparent and open for a debate at the Church’s local level, so that it may be discussed at the top levels with serious consultations that don’t allow for only a few to have the final word,” said Church law expert Claudia Giampietro in a May 10 email to Crux.
The canonist also said that the positions of the various members of the pope’s commission on women deacons should be made public in order to have a greater understanding of the question.
She also had a cautionary word regarding clericalism and how it may impact an honest and true debate.
“If it’s true that us women - lay and religious - have different perspectives, it’s also true that the power structures that are strongly rooted in the Church and the risks posed by clericalism fail once the doors of dialogue and constructive conversation are opened,” Giampietro wrote.
Though she never felt called to become a deacon or a priest, the canonist acknowledged that her cultural and societal background have led her to view the diaconate “as a male prerogative” and mused about what her opinions - and those of the Church - would be if it allowed for a more multicultural and open perspective.
While speaking to over 800 members of the International Union of Superior Generals on May 10, Francis spoke of the female diaconate, stating that he welcomes further conversation on the issue and that members of the commission might be called back to present their new findings.
“He may want to find new experts, or perhaps replace the commission entirely to see what they come up with,” said Jamie Manson, theologian and NCR weekly columnist, in a May 14 email to Crux, adding that she hopes to see more transparency on the issue.
But according to Manson, the core of the problem is the Church’s view on complementarity between men and women, with each having its unique charisma and role within the Catholic Church. This perspective, she added, is what has largely kept women marginalized from positions of power in the Vatican and the Church.
“I think it’s intriguing that a pope who has stressed the need for openness and courage, who has insisted that the church not be a relic or a museum, and who has warned the church not too be overly intellectual, to suddenly start splitting hairs about this issue,” Manson wrote.
While Francis is known for his outreach to the peripheries, to the poor and marginalized but also to other religions and confessions, Manson argues that when it comes to women in his own church “he doesn’t seem to want to take his own advice.”
“The fact is, women are severely marginalized in this church. Their gifts are not welcomed, their voices are largely silenced, they are barred from serving, leading and making decisions in their church,” she said. “Even if there were no historical precedent for women deacons, Francis should put it into effect simply because it is the just and right thing to do.”
According to the theologian and female ordination advocate, there is “ample evidence” that women served as deacons in the early church and Francis’s hesitance on the issue is derived from a concern about how it may impact his understanding of God’s plan for men and women.
“Once he allows women a sacramental form of ordination,” Manson said, “he may be worried he is opening a Pandora’s box.”