The deacons commission: a grand jury to nowhere?

by Ken Briggs

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Rather than getting a hypothetical opinion on whether women can be deacons, I'd think the first order of business is to review whether men can be priests. Comparing the overall quality of their recent service records, the women appear eligible for anything.

The pope has settled on the lesser issue perhaps because it only involves spinning wheels and once again sprinkles the air with uplifting stardust that only looks as if it means something real.

I'm prepared to be wrong and wipe mud off my face but for now this special commission on deacons strikes me as another balloon that pleases the crowd but pops as it goes out of sight. The elements of the project don't add up. Gather a team of respected specialists, ask them to comb through the dusty archives for evidence pro and con and come up with what? Clear directions for creating women deacons with definite prohibitions against their going on to priesthood? Clear denials of women as deacons? A "no clear evidence one way or another"? Finally, is the diaconate inextricably linked to ordination to the priesthood?

Here's where the grand jury potentially hits a brick wall. The pope has already stood by JPII's stout rejection of female priesthood. So if the study group by any chance finds that in the early church the office of deacon was intended as the prelude to priesthood, then what? Study group's efforts effectively rejected. If women deacons are deemed fully valid in the early church without direct links to priesthood, is it likely that the pope, given his reluctance to confront tradition, would go ahead with women deacons? It seems highly doubtful that he would, given the friction that would be created by placing women so visibly on the altar as reminders to Catholics already favoring women as priests, that the huge obstacle still remains. That's not the kind of risky behavior the pope is known for. He likes hints of more but will settle for less in the actual surroundings.

A no-decision would suit everyone who's opposed to women in the diaconate, including, I imagine, lots of women who see no advantage in women becoming deacons in the first place. Unlike the women whose hope for full inclusion soars at every gesture of "progress," the skeptics have long argued that unless the priesthood is thoroughly revamped they want no part of it either themselves or for other women. This pope touches hearts and imaginations in ways that often founder in lack of follow through or concrete conclusion.

Once again all sorts of speculation spurs unrealistic possibilities and keeps alive the impression that the sorely unresolved issue of women is being addressed. I see nothing of the kind in a well-intended exploration with competent researchers that I'm guessing will go nowhere. With one perhaps unintended consequence. It keeps the crisis of women's actual entitlements front and center. 

[Ken Briggs reported on religion for Newsday and The New York Times, has contributed articles to many publications, written four books and is an instructor at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa.]

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