Study of women deacons won't be first, but might answer questions

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When Pope Francis accepted a proposal at the
Vatican May 12 to form a commission to study the possibility of women serving
as deacons today, it generated plenty of buzz.

The pope’s agreement
on the idea — raised by members of the International Union of Superiors
General, the leadership group for superiors of women’s orders — was
interpreted by some as a thumbs-up to women deacons and eventually women
priests, which the Vatican spokesman was quick to rebut the next day.

Pope Francis
“did not say he intends to introduce a diaconal ordination for
women,” and he certainly did not speak about the ordination of women
priests, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.

But even a study
of women deacons — suggested by women and approved by the pope — carries pretty
hefty weight, some are saying.

Even the context
of the possibility of this commission is important, said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director
of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the
University of Notre Dame.

“Women were
asking the pope to elaborate on what he’s said about women’s roles in the church,”
she told Catholic News Service May 13. The discussion got so much attention,
she said, because “anytime there is a suggestion of some kind of opening for
women in the church it makes news. People are desperate for it and others are
frightened by it.”

The pope’s
response to this idea caught the attention of Deacon William
Ditewig, a theology
professor at Santa Clara University who previously served as the head of the U.S.
bishops’ diaconate office.

He said he keeps
looking back at the pope’s words that day to the women religious and what
stands out is the pope’s humility. It’s clear, he said, that the pope has thought
about the issue but hasn’t kept up with it and is willing to hear more.

Deacon Ditewig,
who has written several books on the permanent diaconate
and lay ministry, also said it’s important to pay attention to what the
pope didn’t say.

“He never
said, ‘Tomorrow we will ordain women deacons,'” adding: “Those who
think that’s what he was saying are wrong.”

The timing of the
suggested commission also is worth noting, said Phyllis Zagano, senior research
associate in the religion department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New
York, who has researched and written about the history and theology of women

“I am
delighted that in this time of Pentecost the spirit has brought the question of
women deacons to the Holy Father’s mind,” she said in an email to CNS.

“A genuine commission
can only arrive at the same answers scholars have arrived at for many years:
Women have been truly ordained as deacons and can be so ordained again,”
she said, noting papal letters in the 11th and 12th centuries that she said gave bishops
permission to ordain women as deacons. Zagano also said that in the 18th century, the canons of the
Maronite Catholic Church that include ordaining women as deacons were given
papal approval.

But Bishop William F. Murphy of
Rockville Centre, New York, questioned whether there is documentation showing women were actually ordained deacons in the early church.

In a column posted May 13 on the website for the
diocesan magazine, The Long Island Catholic, he said he has “yet to be
convinced that the ‘evidence’ in the early church about deaconesses indicates
any kind of sacramental ordination.” He also described the “limited
instances in print and in art” as somewhat “obscure” and he questioned
if the church needs another “clerical group.”

Bishop Murphy warned against employing
a “contemporary American political model” in the church, referring to
“the approach of pressure groups who, using questionable language about ‘rights’
and equality,’ try to build up a vocal and insistent drumbeat for what they

“That is not
the way the apostles made decisions in the Acts of the Apostles,” he

Deacon Ditewig told CNS May 13 that the pope’s acceptance of a study
really needs to be taken just at its word and put into the context that the
Catholic Church has studied this issue before but has failed, as recently as
2002, to offer a definitive answer about women deacons.

the church has been clear on its insistence that the priesthood is reserved only
to men, it has avoided saying the same about the diaconate.

2002, the International Theological Commission, which acts as an
advisory panel to the Vatican, concluded after a five-year study that it “falls
to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his church to make
an authoritative pronouncement on the question” of women deacons.

Even though some
hoped the report would open doors for women in the church, the commission made
clear that the role of women deacons in the early church cannot be considered
equivalent to that of ordained male deacons.

Further study of
the permanent diaconate, a ministry restored by the church in 1967, is a
welcome effort said Deacon Ditewig, who said it could provide
clarity about the potential role of women, but also offer a needed clear
theology about the role of deacons.

that end, he said the commission charged with studying the issue should
include theologians as well as historians.

also said there should be a cautious approach about what such a commission could ultimately

now there is some freedom,” he said, because the lack of a definitive
answer from the church on the issue of women deacons provides some hope that it
is possible.

if the answer is no?” he said, stressing that people shouldn’t ask the
question if they aren’t prepared for the answer.

open to either answer,” he said, adding: “I just want to have the

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Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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