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by Phyllis Zagano

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Pope Francis has made it pretty clear: He wants more women involved in things churchy. That might even include listening to what women have to say. You think?

Two prelates seem to have gotten the memo.

In Ireland, the diocesan bishop of Killaloe, Kieran O'Reilly, canceled his plans to introduce only half (the male half) of the ancient ministry of the diaconate following objections from his lay ministers and many others from outside the diocese. Meanwhile, in Rome, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had his slate of five women approved for the reconfigured International Theological Commission (ITC).

Are things are looking up? Will women's voices echo within episcopal palaces and curial hallways? Maybe.

The Irish situation may be an example of a bishop finally getting it. With about 100 priests for his relatively large diocese -- which cuts across Ireland from the Atlantic seaboard in county Clare through Limerick, Tipperary and Offaly to Laois, nearly at the other end of the island -- O'Reilly thought deacons were a great idea. His pastoral letter listed all the things deacons could do. The problem? Most of the tasks are already taken up by lay ministers. That would be female lay minsters. So the women could still do the work, but the men would be preaching and baptizing and marrying.

It took about a day for the women to get organized. Their complaint was simple: Why add a clerical layer between the priest and the lay ministers, especially when the bishop's own pastoral plan promised to "empower men and women"? So within a few weeks of announcing his wish for the male-only diaconate in Killaloe, the bishop backtracked and announced its suspension.

Good news? Maybe.

Meanwhile, over at the doctrinal congregation, they're getting ready for the five women named to the ITC, which Pope Paul VI created 45 years ago, when he formally sought advice from many of the stars of the Second Vatican Council. The lineup then included Passionist Barnabas Ahern; Oratorian Louis Bouyer; Dominican Yves Congar; Benedictine Cipriano Vagaggini; Jesuits Walter Burghardt, Bernard Lonergan, Henri de Lubac, and Karl Rahner; one ex-Jesuit, Hans Urs von Balthasar; 20 others; and Joseph Ratzinger.

Pope Francis did say he wanted more women in positions of responsibility: His exact words were a "more incisive feminine presence in the church" in his interview a year ago with Jesuit editor Antonio Spadaro. Francis used the word "incisive" again, just in January.

Every five years, the ITC replaces a few members. Ten years ago, the first two women joined. Now, five women and 25 men make up the body. So it looks like Müller got the memo.

Or did he?

The women appointed at Müller's request seem to be from the most conservative edges of theology and philosophy. Aside from Sr. Alenka Arko of the Loyola Community in the Russian Federation-Slovenia, about whom little can be found, the others are safe bets to support Müller's outlook toward women:

  • Tracey Rowland, dean of the John Paul II Institute for Family and Marriage in Melbourne, Australia, and author of six books on Ratzinger;
  • Marianne Schlosser, a professor of spirituality at the University of Vienna, who has written on consecrated virginity and contributed to works on Ratzinger;
  • Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute; and
  • Alma, Mich., Mercy Sr. Prudence Allen, a former Denver seminary philosophy professor who is now part of the chaplaincy at Lancaster University in England and completing her impressive study on the philosophical concept of woman from 750 B.C. to modern times.

The writings of at least four of the five draw straight lines from John Paul II to Benedict XVI in every issue that affects women. It is probably a safe bet that they agree with Müller that women cannot be ordained -- as priests or deacons -- because women cannot image Christ. It is an even safer bet that they have or will find arguments to support church teachings on any of the neuralgic social issues of the day, from the nature of homosexual relations to birth control and back again. Just in case they are not up-to-date on what other women theologians -- particularly American women theologians -- are up to, former U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' doctrine czar Capuchin Thomas Weinandy has been added to the ITC mix.​

So no deacons in Killaloe, and five women on the ITC.

Good news? Bad news? Who can say?

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and winner of the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice. She will speak Oct. 14 at the Church of the Assumption in Fairport, N.Y.; and Nov. 9 at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches.]

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