Will Catholicism admit women deacons or deaconesses to ranks of ordained clergy?


What are the reasons the Catholic Church might, or might not, ordain women in the clerical rank of deacon? (Almost all Q and A topics are posted by our online audience, but The Guy decided to pose this timely question himself.)


Catholicism’s long-simmering discussion about whether to ordain women into the clerical ranks as “permanent deacons” took a dramatic turn May 12 when Pope Francis said he’ll form a commission to study the issue. His promise came during seemingly off-the-cuff answers to questions during a Rome session with the International Union of Superiors General, whose members lead nearly 500,000 nuns and sisters in religious orders.

Without doubt, female deacons would be a major change. Liberals hope — and conservatives fear — that permitting women to be deacons would be a step toward allowing female priests. However, that’s a distant prospect if not an impossibility considering Pope John Paul II’s absolute prohibition in his 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.”

To explain that term “permanent diaconate”: The order of deacons in the early church gradually dwindled over centuries so that eventually ordination as a “deacon” became a mere stepping-stone for men on the path to priesthood. (That usage occurs in Anglican and Episcopal churches. Lutheran deacons, male and female, fill a permanent office, not a temporary one. Baptists use the deacon title for lay members who govern congregations with the pastor.)

Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) restored the “permanent diaconate” as a third, separate and ongoing ministerial order in its own right that is subordinate to priests and bishops. Particularly in North America, which has half the world total, such deacons help ameliorate the shortage of priests.

Just one day after Francis’ comment, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi hastened to dampen speculation: “The pope did not say that he had any intention of introducing ordination for female deacons, much less priestly ordination for women.” True, Francis stated no support on deacons, but he didn’t rule out the idea, either. Rather, he cautiously noted that the role and status of female deacons or “deaconesses” in early church history “was a bit obscure” and the church should “clarify” matters.

That echoed an elaborate historical study of the office of deacons (females included) issued in 2002 by the church’s International Theological Commission. This complex text (click here), complete with 336 footnotes, is the essential starting point for serious discussion.

This study concluded that the “deaconesses” in the early church “were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons” who were male, and it remains for the church “to pronounce authoritatively” on whether to ordain modern-day females.

Continue reading "Will Catholicism admit women deacons or deaconesses to ranks of ordained clergy?" by Richard Ostling.

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