Do we need women deacons?

Mary McDonald SGS

Mary McDonald SGS

Why ordain women as deacons to stand forever on the first rung of the hierarchical clerical ladder, asks Good Samaritan Sister Mary McDonald.

BY Mary McDonald SGS*

At a recent meeting in Rome of almost 1,000 leaders of the world’s congregations of women religious, Pope Francis was asked if he would consider establishing an official commission to study the question of women deacons in the Church. His response, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter, was: “I believe yes. It would do good for the Church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this”.

To what purpose, I asked? Women are already carrying out the key functions of the service diaconate, which are ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity. The exercise of these gifts is already evident in our parish communities, more so in remote and rural parishes that rarely have a priest in residence.

And anyway, why ordain women to stand forever on the first rung of the hierarchical clerical ladder: deacon, priest, monsignor, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, pope? They will never put foot on the next rung.

The key issue for me in this conversation is the exclusion of women from authority, decision-making and power (in the best sense of the word) in the Church. Yes, women can exercise authority through their expertise, usually in the disciplines of theology and scripture, but they are given no real access to decision-making in the Church. Currently this resides exclusively in the ordained male priesthood.

In 1988, I was invited, as president of Women and the Australian Church (WATAC), along with Mercy Sister Elaine Wainwright, a scripture scholar, to give a paper to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. In that paper I said: “Within the Church, there is need for structural change. The question of ordination is central. In the Catholic Church, authority and power reside within the priesthood which is hierarchical… If women were admitted to the ministerial priesthood they would have equal access to both power and authority”.

In conversation after delivering the paper, one of the bishops said to me, “I would prefer that you omitted the reference to power and authority before you print the papers”. I replied: “With respect bishop, I cannot do that because what I said is central to the issue of the ordination of women in the Catholic Church”. Almost 30 years later my view hasn’t changed.

The discussion and debates on the ordination of women came to a definitive end with the promulgation of Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, “On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone”. The reason offered was that the Church cannot reverse Jesus’ decision to choose male apostles, the predecessors to priests and bishops. Sacramental power and juridical authority come with priestly ordination and episcopal consecration. Barred from these roles, women can cooperate with, but not share, authority.

Of course there could be a hypothetical exception – women cardinals, who might get access to some power in high-level decision-making in the Church. While we associate cardinals with ordination, their appointment has not always been connected with priestly or episcopal ordination. In the Church’s history non-ordained men and women have been named as cardinals. According to the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, Teodolfo Mertel, who died in 1899, was “the last cardinal who was not ordained a priest”.

Writing almost 25 years ago in the July 1992 edition of US Catholic, Greg Pierce presented what seems to me an enlightened way forward for the appointment of women cardinals. He said: “To show the Church’s commitment to the equality of men and women and to prove that his reluctance to ordain women has nothing to do with the question of power in the Church, the Pope [Pope John Paul II] could announce that he will name only women as cardinals of the Church until their number in the college of cardinals equals 50 per cent of its membership”.

In 2013, the Vatican’s spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that women becoming cardinals was “theologically and theoretically” possible. But in the same interview, in response to speculation at the time that Pope Francis was about to appoint some women cardinals, he said the idea “was nonsense”. To clarify the situation, Pope Francis, himself, ruled out the idea when he said: “I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not ‘clericalised’. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism”.

Speaking to media recently in response to the Pope’s comments about introducing a commission to study the question of women deacons, Lombardi was quick to caution that Pope Francis “did not say he intends to introduce a diaconal ordination for women”. He added, it “is a question that has been discussed much, including in the past”. In other words, don’t get your expectations up.

So if the hope of women becoming cardinals is slim, so is the hope of expecting the inclusion of women to the ordained diaconate. Both seem highly unlikely.

Catholic scholar Phyllis Zagano seems to think so too. Writing in The Tablet last month in response to Pope Francis’ comments about studying the question of women deacons, she said: “He said celebration of the Eucharist and preaching during Mass are restricted to the priest, who is acting ‘in persona Christi’. If, by extension, no woman can act ‘in persona Christi’ then he would have to determine that no woman can be ordained deacon”.

So my question remains: Why do we need women deacons? To me the answer is self-evident. We don’t. What is more, women will probably not be allowed!

* Good Samaritan Sister Mary McDonald has had a long involvement in and commitment to education, the environment and social justice issues. She holds degrees in arts, education, environmental education and theology. Mary lives in Brisbane where amongst other things, she gardens, plays croquet and tutors at TAFE in ESL (English as a Second Language).

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The Good Oil, June 21, 2016. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

19 Responses to “Do we need women deacons?”

  1. Gerri Boylan says:

    Thanks Mary for expressing so succinctly and forthrightly
    what I see as a reality in the Church as well.
    It is good for someone like me to have you speak for this situation.
    You have boosted the hope I have which enables me to continue to love, live with and serve God’s people in the remote areas I work in here in Outback WA.

  2. Haruko Morikawa says:

    Dear Mary,
    Thank you very much for your article. I am inside of partriarchal Japanese church. Not so many chance to meet this kind of idea. But I believe that Pope’s idea does not reach to the women’s ordination. But in Japan, majority of the christians are women. Women work very hard for the service of the church. That means women know much of the church reality, not only the liturgical field but also the pastoral field. Women love the daily matters in church and human reality. The role of the priests is done by women. However, hierarchical church does not admit the women ordination, only some possibility of deacon. I wonder why we women don’t show our angst to the church?

    • Thanks Haruko for sharing your insights about women in the church in Japan. You wonder “why we women don’t show our angst to the church?” Perhaps because change seems so far off, and as you say “Women love the daily matters in church and human reality”. Women see the needs and respond rather than wait for the hierarchical church to decide about admitting women to the deaconate.

  3. Patty Fawkner says:

    Dear Mary, I am so grateful for your insightful analysis of the women’s diaconate issue. At a recent parish Mass during the homily, as an aside, the PP said that women and children were not present during the feeding of the 5,000! I thought to myself “business as usual”! I don’t imagine a woman deacon who is authorised to preach, would presume in a homily to say that women were not present. Unlike you and Julie, I’m with the Syrophoenician woman and would be grateful for a few crumbs as a first step. Practically, we’ve got more chance of women deacons than cardinals.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Patty for offering an alternative position. It would be interesting to see how the crumbs would become a sustainable diet – but of course we must remember the distribution of the loaves and the fishes. Plenty for all and lots of left overs!

  4. Julie Allen says:

    Thank you, Mary, for your wisdom and your on-going advocacy for equality in the Church. I think women’s admission to the diaconate would not change the fundamental problem which is male-dominated clericalism and an inability to recognise the signs of the times. It would be no more than a few crumbs from the table.

  5. Andrea Dean says:

    “The one who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” Confucius
    While I agree completely Mary, I do wonder if women as deacons might be part of the journey of moving the mountain.

  6. Diana Law says:

    You can’t say you haven’t done your bit, Mary!! I’d hate to think of what life would be like boxed into the first rung of the ladder!! The same would apply to any rung! The Romans never learnt the principles of democracy from the Greeks and the clerical system has immortalized their hierarchical modus operandi. Change would not only require a quantum leap in theological thinking but a complete ecclesio- sociological paradigm shift. And, that’s possible with ground swell and a bolt of celestial lightning on the top rung!

  7. Rod Thomson says:

    Agreed, generally, with the article and comments so far, except that there is a permanent diaconate, too, which doesn’t see itself as a stepping-stone to ordination. In any case, the more humanity evolves in both East and West, North and South, it will seem more and more preposterous that clerical roles will be available only to one sex. At a lecture I attended a few years back, this statement struck me: “The past doesn’t instruct us – we can learn from it – it can inform, but it’s not a blueprint. Everything changes and is possible.”

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Rod. Yes men do have the choice to move from the diaconate of service to the transitional diaconate to ordination to priesthood denied to women. But as you say: Everything changes and is possible.”

  8. Margie Abbott says:

    Mary what a powerful and succinct way to describe and question women deacons. I see no point until women are recognised and eligible for ordination to the priesthood.

  9. Anne Hannigan says:

    Mary, how refreshing to read your writing. My thoughts are the same and I speak it in my circles. The structures must change and the Spirit will really need to be busy for that to happen. I question having acolytes or permanent deacons in the church anyway. Thanks again Mary.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Anne, I appreciate your feedback – wasn’t sure of how it would resonate – thankfully it has!
      As one personal response said “To what end? Maybe to don some item of clerical garb to do more ‘washing up”!

  10. Marie Casamento says:

    Mary sometimes when I see women in clerical dress minister in other churches I question why women need to look the part rather than what is missing from priesthood devoid of a female presence. To me something about authority and power jar for me. If the night of the institution of the Eucharist was about service combined with the breaking of bread why does the church assume women were all in the back room when Jesus said ‘Do this in memory of me.’ Who and what is served by continuing to keep women in a back room.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Marie I acknowledge that ” something about authority and power jar for me” yet the reality is until women share real power and authority in the church women will remain “in the back room” and never be allowed to utter the words of Jesus ‘Do this in memory of me.’
      Many thanks for your powerful prayer poem One Vote is all we Have.

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