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Women Deacons: An invitation to listen to the Holy Spirit?

The issue of women in ordained ministry in the Catholic Church is one which evokes very strong feelings among Catholics but also beyond the Church. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that women can never be ordained to the priesthood. The one place in relation to ordained ministry that the church has been looking at seriously – in recent times –  is the issue of women deacons. This too has been a difficult issue to discuss as, to begin with, the nature and role of women deacons in the early Church is disputed. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell wonders what the Holy Spirit may be saying to the Church and asks if the Church is really listening.

As reported in America by Nicole Winfield (3 August 2018), a recent survey of U.S. Catholic Women’s religious orders at the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University has shown that a majority believe that women should be allowed to serve as ordained deacons. 77% of both male and female Religious superiors in the USA believe it is theoretically possible to ordain women as deacons. 72% percent said that the church should go ahead and implement it. However, tellingly, only 45% said that they thought the church would, in fact, implement it.

An earlier study of U.S. Catholic women in January 2018 by the same group, revealed that 60% of U.S. Catholic women were in favour of the diaconate for women, with that figure being as high as 70% of those who had a university education. (America, 16 Jan 2018 by Mark Grey and Mary Gautier)

These figures show encouragingly high levels of support for the move, but there is far less confidence that the church will act on it. Both of these facts are not that surprising for several reasons. Firstly, the study was done of Religious in the United States which has a strong culture of recognising the gifts of women. It is also the country where most Religious have had access to wide educational opportunities. In more patriarchal societies, including our own, the statistics are, sadly, unlikely to have been so strongly in favour. The lack of confidence in the likelihood of the church acting on the issue of women deacons is perhaps also unsurprising. An International Theological Commission Report in 1997, that was printed but never released, found that there existed no barrier to women deacons. But, over 20 years later the matter is still being looked into.

The issue of women in ordained ministry in the Catholic Church is one which evokes very strong feelings among Catholics.  It is a deeply emotive issue for reasons which may be more cultural and psychological rather than doctrinal or pastoral. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that women can never be ordained to the priesthood. This was first set out clearly in Inter Insigniores in 1976 and reiterated in 1994 in the document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis by Pope John Paul II. This document sought to claim that this teaching is to be definitively held by all the faithful and to end any discussion on the issue. Pope Francis has also said that this teaching remains unchanged and has said that the discussion on ordaining women as priests will not be reopened.

The two principle arguments offered are that the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus were all male and that in the celebration of the sacraments, the priest needs to be a male in order to be considered as acting “in persona Christi” – in the person of Christ who was a man. Those who argue for the ordination of women argue that we do not know whether there were women at the Last Supper (and that it is likely there were), and that if we take that argument to its logical conclusion we should also only have Jewish Middle Eastern men as priests.

Mary Magdelene, the first to witness to the Risen Christ is also named Apostle to the Apostles thus providing a strong example of a woman called to proclaim the Good News.  In relation to the second point, it is in our humanity (not gender) in which we are created to reflect the person of Jesus. While discussion on this issue in the church has been significantly curtailed by the Magisterium, for many sitting in the pews,  the issue of women’s inclusion in ordained ministry remains. In fact, it is becoming increasingly pressing.

The one place in relation to ordained ministry that the church has been looking at seriously – in recent times –  is the issue of women deacons. In August 2016, now two years ago, Pope Francis set up a commission to study this issue. In part, the impetus behind this may have been the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) a group comprising those who are in charge of women’s religious communities worldwide. They asked for dialogue on this issue, among others. In response, Pope Francis agreed to set up a commission to look at the question of women deacons in the early church.

There is abundant historical evidence of various kinds that women in the early church acted in the role of deacons. This includes references in Scripture.  In St Paul’s letter to the Romans, Phoebe is named as a deacon of the church at Cenchae (Romans 16:1).

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who is the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at a Press Conference on 26 June 2018 that the Commission’s focus was to examine precisely what role women deacons played in the early church. Ladaria said that “while women deacons existed in the early Church they were ‘not the same’ as their male counterparts”. Part of this is apparently an effort to differentiate the office of deaconesses from that of women deacons. “Deaconesses” were not ordained but carried out functions such as taking communion to sick women who were alone in their homes or assisting with full immersion baptisms of women. Women engaged in the same ministry as male deacons would be “deacons” and not “deaconesses” – implying ordination. This would seemingly contradict the current Code of Canon Law, which states that only a baptised male can validly receive ordination (CCL #1024).

The Church lays tremendous weight on historical precedent and there is something important about this. However, even if there was not a clear historical precedent (as there is), we believe that the Holy Spirit is always active and that God’s ongoing Revelation continues to unfold throughout human history.

What are the signs of the times in which we are called to discover God’s action and invitation?  Could it be that when women are officially ordained to Ministry in the church, incidences of sexual abuse in the church, for example, might decline as has been found in other churches? What are the pastoral needs that could be met better by ordaining women to the diaconate? Has the time come to make the anointing of the sick one of the Sacraments that deacons (male and female) could be called to administer, given that they are so often the ones who are engaged in the ministry of visiting the sick.  What impact could this have on women if they see their strong sense of call to minister in the church being recognised? What impact might the experience of seeing a woman lead worship have on girls and younger women and their sense of church?

Phyllis Zagano is a leading expert on the issue of women deacons and sits on the Papal Commission. In 2011 she wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict in which she said: “Women are no longer walking away from the church. They are running away. They are running towards churches that make it clear women are made in the image and likeness of God.”

Those opposed to the priestly ordination of women fear that ordaining women to the diaconate may open the door to renewed discussion about women priests. The so-called “slippery slope” argument. And the truth is it might. Once people see women leading funeral and wedding liturgies and preaching at masses, they might well begin to wonder whether a woman could in fact act “in persona Christi”. Once they hear women preach at liturgies and break open the Word from the perspective of their own experience, they may perhaps wonder about the ministry of women in other areas. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for example, the choice of going to a woman could be a deep gift to someone who has suffered abuse and may fear to be alone with a male priest.

But the issue of the diaconate is its own question. Women are already in many places in effect carrying out the ministry of deacons. Why not offer them the formation and recognition appropriate to that role of service in the church?

How do we listen for the invitation of the Holy Spirit? Is not the church of which we are each a part entrusted with the task of discernment? Listening for the movement of the Holy Spirit not only in past experience but in God who is active and at work now in our world is important. Listening to the pastoral needs of people in our ever-changing context is crucial. We also need to listen to and respectfully honour the deep sense of call among some women to minister as deacons. Perhaps this latest survey is an important part of listening to the Holy Spirit who speaks in the convictions of people who have given themselves generously to God in service.

Image: Enric Martinez i Vallmitjana – Mosaic of Women deacons in Ravenna, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (505-525 CA.)

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Annemarie Paulin-Campbell
Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell currently heads up the Jesuit Institute School of Spirituality (JISS). Annemarie is a Catholic laywoman who has studied and worked in the area of Christian Spirituality for the past 16 years doing spiritual direction and retreat work, and training spiritual directors in the Ignatian tradition. Her particular focus is the training and supervision of spiritual directors and retreat givers. A related area of interest is in the interface between Christian Spirituality and Psychology. Annemarie's doctoral research is on "The impact of imaginal and dialogical processes on shifts in image of self and image of God in women making the Spiritual Exercises as a 19th Annotation Retreat." Annemarie is also a registered psychologist (and life coach), and has worked in particular in the areas of trauma counselling and community psychology.

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