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No women deacons — for now

Pope Francis’ comments on the ordination of women to the diaconate, given on an in-flight papal press conference this week, suggest that despite expectations of an announcement this week on the matter, disappointingly, a decision won’t be made now.

For some time now there have been rumblings that Pope Francis would make an announcement concerning the ordination of women deacons. The speculation was that the opportune moment for such an announcement would be when the pope addresses the meeting of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), an organisation of the worldwide leaders of women’s religious congregations on 10 May 2019.  For, it was this body that asked Francis to look at the issue when he addressed their 2016 meeting. In response to their August 2016 request, the pope established a commission comprising six men and six women to study the question of women deacons in the early Church. 

The commission have since completed their work and submitted their report to the Holy Father. In some quarters, there was hope that their findings might lead Pope Francis to institute the ordination of women to the diaconate. 

At a meeting earlier this year, hosted by the Jesuits’ Fordham University in New York, two members of the study commission, Phyllis Zagano and Bernard Pottier SJ shared outcomes of some of their own research. It must be noted that they did not share the commission’s official report, as this is confidential. They shared that all their research indicated that indeed there had been women deacons in the early Church who were sacramentally ordained, according to the same rites as their male counterparts. 

On 7 May during one of the pope’s in-flight press conferences returning to Rome from Macedonia, Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, Joshua McElwee, asked Pope Francis about the committee’s findings and whether the pope had made his mind up on the matter given the imminent UISG meeting. Responding, Francis said that the commission was split in their findings and did not come to agreement. 

 “Each one of them has their own vision, which is not in accord with that of the others and, there, they stopped  as a commission”, the pope reported. While the commission had concluded their report and ended their work together, “each one is studying how to proceed”. The pope revealed that the commission disagrees fundamentally on whether or not women had in fact been ordained deacons ,“with the same formula and end of the male ordination”. The pope admits, “I am not afraid of the study”, and that there is as yet no decision on the matter. The present report “could serve as a basis for continuing the study and to give a definitive response, yes or no, in accordance with the characteristics of the time”. He ended by remarking that the divergent opinions offered a “joyful variety”. 

The bottom line is this. It appears that while Francis has not closed the door on the possibility of women deacons, he is also not about to say yes, at least not anytime soon. Perhaps, it is not surprising that he is not going to stick his neck out on an issue that appears never to have been top of his agenda. It would certainly add even more fuel to ‘conservative’ Catholics’ anger. And, given a recent open letter accusing the pope of “the delict of heresy”, we must agree that he is in an unenviable position.  

Still, it is extremely disheartening, especially as we come to Vocations Sunday, that there seems to be little hope of movement on ordaining woman deacons despite the immense pastoral needs, deep desire and sense many women have that God is calling them to ordained ministry.

For some it may be tempting to just walk away from the Church, or to sink into a place of resignation and discouragement. But it is precisely now that the debate and conversation needs to continue. The Church is not static, because God is not static. The dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit is ever renewing the Church. 

Establishing historical precedence is helpful but it should only be one part of the discussion. Zagano in a recent comment on Facebook following the Pope’s remarks also urges us to look at what we are learning from current theology and anthropology (and I would add pastoral psychology to the subject list) to see “how the Church can tell the world that women are made in the image and likeness of Christ.”   

Church historian Massimo Faggioli tweeted, that “he looks very much forward to reading the reports of some individuals” on the commission to know whether the doubt regarding the sacramental ordination of women is “a majority vs a minority report” and “if the reports will be published.” 

One certainly hopes that they will, so that the dialogue and communal discernment so valued by Pope Francis can continue as we grapple with their findings. Especially, as we continue to listen attentively for the movement of the Holy Spirit and to discover the  “characteristics of the time” as the pope remarked on the plane.

*Quotes from the pope’s in-flight press conference are a working translation and will be updated once the official translation is published by the Vatican press office. The original transcript can be read here:

* 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.