You might be forgiven for thinking that the last thing that the Church needs right now is more confusion, more doubt and more argument over doctrine, but not everyone shares this view. In particular, four members of the Pope’s commission to look into the question of women deacons have given a conference at Fordham University, designed to get us to think about this (in their view) pressing issue. Indeed, Professor Phyllis Zagano, a long standing advocate of women deacons, reveals: “It’s up to the Church to make noise,” while also warning that “to delay a positive answer” on whether women can serve as deacons “is a negative answer.” The Fordham conference is no doubt the opening salvo of much more noise to come.
The Pope’s commission on the question springs from a request made by a nun at a meeting back in 2016. The article cited above represents a fair summary of the question so far. But there are certain observations to be made.
First of all, this question of the female diaconate has been raised time and again, each time hoping for a positive answer that has not to date been forthcoming. This seems to be the modus operandi of those who want change in the Church. Keep on asking, until you get what you want. That was the method adopted by the German theologians who at least four times asked for the divorced and remarried to be admitted into Holy Communion; and kept on asking, even when Saint John Paul II gave a very clear negative answer in Familiaris Consortio.
Secondly, as is always the case in theology, the question asked is never a simple bare question, for it brings with it lots of other allied questions. The question of female deacons cannot be seen in isolation and cannot be unpicked from the other issues with which it is interwoven. It raises very important questions about tradition. We have not had female deacons for a very long time, if indeed we ever had them; their introduction now would represent a serious breach in tradition, an innovation. Again, if we ever did have female deacons, were they deacons in the modern sense, in other words, were they ordained persons, and persons in the clerical state?
The answer to those questions, from my perspective, is no in all cases. I am fully convinced that the famous Phoebe mentioned in the letter to the Romans at 16:1 was not a deacon in the sense Saint Stephen was, but more a servant of the church at Cenchreae. Moreover, she is an isolated example, and it seems a bit of a stretch to reconstruct a whole lost tradition on her shoulders. And if the tradition was lost – doesn’t that tell you something?
However, apart from the historical evidence, the interpretation of which will never be the subject of complete agreement, the real nub lies in this: are or were female deacons to be understood as being commissioned, or sacramentally ordained? Was the female diaconate part of the sacrament of orders? On this everything hinges.
That it should be so is unfortunate, because there will be many who will think that this is a reduction of the question to minutiae. But the sacrament of orders is one. That seems to me a very obvious point. The question of female deacons raises the question of female ordination as such.
If the Church were to commission women to serve as deaconesses in the way the Anglican Church once did, rather in the manner of commissioning Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, that would raise questions of prudence. Is there a need? Would it create further expectations? And so on. (The example of the Anglican Communion is instructive.) If the Church were to ordain women as deacons – ordain in the same sense as priestly ordination – then that would be nothing short of revolutionary. It would mean female clergy, and it would destroy any coherent objection to female priests and bishops. If that were to happen, the consequences would be grave. Numerous local churches would never accept it; and even in countries where cultural conditions might make it acceptable to many, numerous current serving priests would find their faith in the unity of orders shaken. Indeed, just as female ordination caused an exodus of clergy from the Church of England, the advent of ordained female deacons would surely lead many serving priests to retire from active ministry.
“At the close of the event, an audience member interrupted, pressing panellists to weigh in on women’s ordination to the priesthood. However, the panellists insisted it was unhelpful to try and conflate the topics of women’s ordination to the priesthood and the diaconate.”
I am sorry I have been so unhelpful, but the question of the ordination of women to the diaconate is intimately connected to their ordination to the priesthood. If it were not, I doubt anyone would want to discuss it. But that is something that its advocates do not want you to hear.
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