To quote the philosopher Han Solo: “Didn’t we just leave this party?” That, in a nutshell, is what many Vatican-watchers felt earlier this month, when the press office of the Holy See announced Pope Francis had created a new (new) commission to pick up the study of deaconesses where the old new commission to study the matter had left off.
The fact of the new new commission wasn’t exactly a surprise: Pope Francis had told synod fathers he would make one even though he has thrown cold water on the proposition several times, most recently in his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia. Both the timing and the composition of the latest commission nevertheless gave people here in Rome and around the world some reason to scratch their heads.
Remake, sequel, or reboot?
It isn’t at all clear what the new new commission’s specific mandate is, nor is it apparent that they’ve been at work or will be any time soon. People within and without the Leonine walls wondered at the news. In an audio-visual register, one might say we are in the uncanny circumstance of being at once unsure what we’re seeing and still at least half-convinced we’ve seen this all before. Frankly, it’s tough to say what we have here: a remake, a sequel, or a reboot?
One thing it isn’t: a rerun. The studio is the same, as is the studio head (Pope Francis). There’s a new cast (the members of the commission, who are theologians of the more-or-less systematic variety rather than historians, and none likely disposed to change of the sort that would satisfy or even encourage advocates of change in these regards) and a new script (still under revision, but indications are it will explore the theological rather than the historical side of the argument). There’s a new director (Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi of L’Aquila, Italy, pictured, appointed president of the new commission, who hasn’t really done a picture like this before).
This is, in short, a new production rather than a remake. It doesn’t look like we’re dealing with a sequel, either – not exactly – because the old cast are replaced and there’s no accounting for them beyond a statement from the studio head that they didn’t get it done the first time around. “Each [member] has his own vision,” Francis told reporters travelling with him to Rome from North Macedonia in May of last year, “which doesn’t accord with that of the others.” He went on to say, “They stopped there as a commission, and each one is studying and going ahead,” but not together and absent an official mandate.
The evidence suggests something more like a reboot: of the whole project – starting mostly from scratch, after two recent desultory attempts – only it isn’t entirely clear what the studio wants the picture to be or even whether the studio really has its heart behind the project, whatever it is.
The key questions
An Order of Deaconesses existed in the early Church, and survived – even thrived in several places – sometimes into the second millennium of Christianity. The women who participated in the Order were “ordained” to service in it. The historical-theological question is twofold: whether their integration into the Order of Deaconesses made them participants of the one Sacrament of Holy Orders; and, whether Deaconesses’ ordination was of a piece with that of Deacons. The weight of the evidence suggests that the answers to the parts of that question are no and no.
Paul VI suppressed the Minor Orders in the Latin Church, along with the Order of Subdeacon (a Major Order in the West). He accomplished the suppression in 1972, by motu proprio (Ministeria quaedam). Until then, being in Holy Orders didn’t necessarily mean having the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
For going on half a century now in the Latin Church, however, being in Holy Orders has meant being either a Deacon, a Priest, or a Bishop. The distinction of Holy Orders as mere introduction to the clerical state, from Holy Orders as participation in a Sacrament (the Sacrament of Holy Orders) has become obscured.
It’s easy to see why: if being admitted to Holy Orders has come in practice to mean admission to one of the three degrees that are definitely of the Sacrament, being “ordained” will come to mean “receiving the Sacrament”.
The distinction was operative in the Church nonetheless, for most of her life.
If Vatican II settled any single dogmatic issue once and for all, it was that the Sacrament of Holy Orders has three degrees: Deacon, Priest, Bishop. It had long been established that anyone admitted to the lowest degree (Deacon) must be capable, ceteris paribus, of receiving the Sacrament in each higher degree. Women cannot be priests; therefore they cannot be Deacons.
Still, we know that Deaconesses were ordained to special particular service, often tied to churches, rather than general service in the Church. We also know that Deaconesses were listed among the kleros or clerus in many places where the Order was active.
Where is this headed?
Theoretically, the pope – any pope – could restore the Order of Deaconesses at any time. He could make it clear that Deaconesses were ordained clerics, but not participants of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. He could tweak canon law where necessary to give them liturgical rights and privileges, and to define their ministry more or less specifically. He could give local bishops the option of implementing the restoration within their jurisdictions.
If one looks to Orthodoxy, there are extant Orders of Deaconesses even today. Francis could restore the Order of Deaconesses without another study commission. He could have done it years ago. His predecessors in the office might have done so, but they didn’t. No one in the Catholic fold has done it, or really even talked about it in these terms.
Francis has been quite clear, however, that he does not believe the clericalization of women is the right way to resolve the urgent and very much outstanding question of the role of women in the life of the Church.
Right now, we do not even know what specific question Pope Francis has put to the new new commission. What is clear, is that this project is still in the very early stages. This isn’t the first go at it, either. Studio heads will sometimes put resources into projects they do not plan on bringing out, just to keep valuable elements happy or at least in order to avoid having to shoot the projects down.
The hope is usually that the people involved will move on to other things, interest wane, and the project fold on its own.
In this case, however, there is strong and persistent interest. What’s more, there’s a market for the product. Whether those anxious to see the picture made are willing to work with the studio on its terms is one outstanding question. Whether the studio will be willing to risk alienating a major fan base is another. If the picture does come out, it is bound to displease a good number of people in any case – and in any case, there are things the studio simply cannot do. Those holding out hope for the impossible are bound to be disappointed.
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