What can we expect from the commission on female deacons?
All were excited when Pope Francis made his comments about establishing a commission to discuss the possibility of women deacons. He was speaking to a group of 900 women leaders of religious organizations and was responding to a question they had asked. Now that the dust has settled a bit on the story, it might be helpful to see if we can figure out how hopeful this latest move by Pope Francis may be.
As in too many of these false alarms, the Vatican almost immediately pulled back on the idea, making clear that one should not expect to see ordained female deacons operating in the church any time soon.
Two NCR writers provide two different and valuable perspectives on the issue. The first of these by Jamie Manson offers a sobering analysis on where Francis is coming from ideologically. Manson highlights the history of Francis' comments on women to remind us that this is one of his weakest areas. She then takes a closer look at what he said specifically to the group of religious he was addressing. The gist of it seems to be that given Francis' current understanding of women, there is not likely to be any movement on this issue any time soon. Specifically Francis sees women deacons in the New Testament not as ordained ministers, and he also believes they cannot be permitted to give homilies during the liturgy.
A second article by Christine Schenk highlights perhaps the more important point: Many women in the United States are already exercising extensive ecclesial functions. The article presents three women who talk about the services they are currently providing to the church. They then go on to express their desire to be ordained as permanent members of the diaconate. While everything Manson says is true, I believe Schenk is challenging women and men in the church to provide a bottom-up effort to begin to change minds. Nothing comes easy, but also very little comes from the top.
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It is necessary to push for change and to make more and more people comfortable with the concept of women serving in an ordained ministry. Consider one example. It will be interesting to see who the members of this commission turn out to be. Likely, given everything we know, it will be filled with white males and perhaps a very conservative woman or two. If that occurs, there needs to be significant pushback demanding a more inclusive commission. Not only women and religious, but significant members of the male clergy and hierarchy need to speak out.
Schenk is asking bishops in particular to stand up for women and to push the church in this direction. She notes many clergy tell her privately of their support. They note how grateful and pleased they are with the services women are providing. It is fine for women to do the work of the church as long as they serve without recognition or reward.
Silent approval is just not good enough. It is vocal and public support that can make a difference. Again, nothing comes easy, but the time has come to apply pressure to move the church forward.