A major crack in the ice: studying women deacons

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by Maureen Fiedler

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OK, just to be clear: I have long believed that women should be full equals with men in all the offices of the church, eligible to serve as priests, bishops, cardinals, even pope. And I think the "reasoning" (if you can call it that) in the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (the 1976 document which came out against women priests on grounds that they cannot "image" Jesus) makes no sense. And when I express such opinions to friends, they usually say something like, "Yeah, I agree, but maybe in the fourth millennium the Vatican will think about changing that."

So, I was pleasantly surprised ("stunned" would be a better word) today to hear that Pope Francis has opened a door on women's roles in the church. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a "major crack in the ice" at the Vatican. Pope Francis, thanks to prodding by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), has said he will appoint a commission to study the idea of women serving as deacons in the church.

I frankly did not think that even a step as minimal and cautious as this one would happen in my lifetime. Even Francis -- in spite of all the great things he has done on peace and justice -- has basically ignored women's issues in the church until this moment. Now, it looks like he heard some word from on High (mediated by the women at UISG, of course). Whatever the case, he is finally doing something in an area where the church is woefully lacking in justice.

OK, OK, it's just a commission, a study. We don't know how soon it will be set up or who will be appointed to serve on it. And we don't know the scope of its mandate. Still, it definitely should include a majority of women -- especially those who have already studied this issue. For starters, the Women's Ordination Conference offered these names: Gary Macy, Dorothy Irving, Ida Raming, Sr. Christine Schenk, John Wijngaards, and Phyllis Zagano.

Of course, this "study" has to be put in perspective. The idea of women deacons is not at all new. It doesn't require a new study to know that there were women deacons in the early centuries of the church, women like Phoebe who are even mentioned in the writings of St. Paul. Their roles may not be totally clear, but they held some type of leadership service positions to be sure.

And it's important to recall that not all deacons in the church today are "consecrated equal." Men studying for the priesthood go through a "deacon" period, which is the "holy order" leading to priesthood. Married men, on the other hand, can become "permanent" deacons, with no path to priesthood.

My guess is this: this commission on women deacons will focus on the latter possibility, although it should examine both. Moreover, I am sure there are conservatives in the Vatican who are horrified at even this limited move and will be sure that Francis knows their views.

Still, the crack in the ice remains: a papal commission to study the idea of women deacons. Who would have predicted it? Now, anyone have a blow torch? We just have to melt the rest of the ice!

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