The heads of women's religious orders attend an audience with Pope Francis in Paul VI hall at the Vatican May 12. During a question-and-answer session with members of the International Union of Superiors General, the pope indicated his willingness to establish a commission to study whether women could serve as deacons. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Women in the Church

  • June 2, 2016

Much ado followed a recent impromptu promise by Pope Francis to study the role of women deacons in Church history. His  simple pledge to convene a commission to look into what Francis called an “obscure” historical question was widely — and wildly — interpreted as a thumbs up for a female diaconate.

 But as often happens with this affable Pope, the bold headlines failed to match his actual words. It’s an odd phenomenon with Francis. When he talks, people may listen closely but they often tend to hear what they hoped he might say. 

That’s what seemed to happen when, in a session with about 900 nuns from around the world, the Pope ambled into a rumination about women deacons. He hadn’t been asked about deacons, but took that risky path anyway and admitted he was unsure if the deaconesses mentioned in Scripture were ever actually ordained. He summed up by suggesting it would be useful to “clarify this point.”

It is quite a leap to conclude that seeking clarity on one aspect of the early Church means ordaining women deacons is on the papal horizon, or that the Pope even thinks the idea is worthy. Yet, many took that leap. And that’s unfortunate, because focussing on female deacons distracts from the more important issue: how to appropriately weave women more fully into the multi-layered fabric of the 21st-century Church.

That’s a question Francis has posed multiple times. It’s obviously an important issue for him. It seemed to be the point he wanted to make to the international gathering of nuns. The Vatican must find ways to elevate women into meaningful positions throughout Church structures and leadership.

This is a much bigger discussion than debating a female diaconate. The Pope has something else in mind. He has called for the development of “a profound theology” of women that would be a first step in “deepening” and “promoting” women and giving them a “stronger presence” in the Church, including, one assumes, fuller access to its decision-making corridors. 

The Pope has given no indication that ordination would be part of that discussion. On the contrary, he has often expressed discomfort at the link between ordination and power. The Church, he recently said, “is not an elite of priests, of consecrated people, of bishops.” The Church belongs to all the faithful and not just to “an illuminated and elected few.” 

In that light, it is easy to understand why Francis wants to study the historical role of female deacons and why, underlying all of that, he is urging development of a comprehensive theology of women. They are not entirely separate issues, so it makes some sense to tackle them together.  

Immediately would be a good time to start.

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