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Has Pope Francis just ruled out women deacons?

Pope Francis during his in-flight press conference on May 7, 2019 (MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI/AFP/Getty Images)

More study needed, but for now it "does not proceed"

Pope Francis waded into a major Church controversy on Tuesday when he spoke to the question of ordaining women to the diaconate. While he did not give a definitive “No” on the issue, he did make it clear that the commission he appointed three years ago to study the matter had not reached any sort of consensus, and that action at this time or in the near future is off the table.

Responding to a question from the National Catholic Reporter’s Josh McElwee, during the in-flight press conference en route from Skopje to Rome, the Pope said, “[F]undamentally, there is no certainty that [the ordination of women] was an ordination with the same form, in the same purpose as male ordination. Some say there is doubt, let’s go ahead and study. I am not afraid of studying, but up to this moment it does not proceed.”

In all of this, it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of the commission Pope Francis established in 2016 was not to make a recommendation. The commission’s mandate was to study the matter. At bottom, commissioners were looking at a twofold question with an historical and a theological side: what was the status of the Order of Deaconesses in the first millennium, especially in the first centuries of Church life, in those places where it was practiced?

There is no question about whether women were ordained to special service in the Church, nor that the Order to which they were initiated was called a Diaconate – i.e. a ministry of service. There was an Order of Deaconesses, which traced its roots to Apostolic times and was stable — even flourished — in many parts of the world over several centuries. That the members of the Order of Deaconesses were ordained is axiomatic, indeed almost tautological. The question for the commission was: what kind of ordination was it?

On that point, there were members of the commission who maintain that there was no difference between the ordination men received to the Diaconate and the ordination women received to the Order of Deaconesses. Other commissioners did not share that view. Commissioners sought evidence of how the early Church understood Deaconesses in the ritual ordination practice. “The ordination ceremonies for women deacons,” explained Professor Phyllis Zagano, a member of the commission, to America Magazine in January this year, “were identical to the ordination ceremonies for men deacons.”

Though that was almost certainly true in some places, it was not in others; nor was there consensus among the commissioners on the question. “For the female diaconate,” Pope Francis explained, “there is a way to imagine it with a different view from the male diaconate.” He went on to say, “For example, the formulas of female deacon ordination found until now, according to the commission, 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.”

The fact by itself does not foreclose the complex theological question, which, as the Catholic Herald reported in June of last year, is: “[W]hat was the nature of that ‘diaconate’ to which [women] were ordained, and did the ordination have a sacramental character; and could women be ordained to the diaconate as it exists today?”

The fault lines remain essentially where they were: some experts maintain there was, in essence, one Diaconate, to which both men and women were ordained; others maintain there were different Orders, with different characters and mission profiles.

When it comes to the work of the commission, it seems the commissioners never got beyond the first part of the question, concerning the character of the Order of Deaconess in the first millennium. They did not, apparently, reach consensus on how many kinds of Diaconate there were, nor whether they were “the same” in a way that would allow the Church to admit women to the Diaconate as constituted today.

There was always a strong theological argument against that. If there is one Diaconate, it is impossible to see how ordaining women to it would not fall afoul of the “unity of Holy Orders”: the idea that the degrees of Holy Orders are fully possessed by every bishop, and articulated in the lower degrees — Deacon and Presbyter — such that anyone receiving Orders must be capable, ceteris paribus, of receiving each higher degree. Women cannot be priests; hence, it seems they cannot be Deacons, either. Whatever they were in the early Church and early part of the second millennium, their Orders were not the same as those into which men were and are ordained to the Diaconate, nor any kind of Sacrament.

This is not a hard pass on the issue, not even on the narrower question of Deaconesses; that is, on the restoration of the Order in a way that would make it clear ordination to it was neither ordination to the Diaconate as it is presently constituted, nor a Sacrament. It is, however, a strong indication Pope Francis doesn’t have a mind to do anything about it.

Quite possibly, he never did. In fact, it was in response to a question about women and the Diaconate — before he even created the commission — that Pope Francis famously quipped, “There is a president in Argentina who advised presidents of other countries: ‘When you want something not to be resolved, make a commission’.”