Women deacons misses the point

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A woman holds a sign in support of women deacons as Pope Francis leads his general audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in November 2019. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
A woman holds a sign in support of women deacons as Pope Francis leads his general audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in November 2019. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring

Can women be ordained as permanent deacons in the Catholic Church? And if they can, should this happen?

I will save you all worrying, because the short answer is no. Deacons in the Catholic Church receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, and only baptised men can receive that sacrament.

There you go. I just saved the Church a pile of cash in theologians’ salaries and admin costs. However, Pope Francis has not been asking my advice recently, which is why he’s re-opened his commission to study this question in the wake of the Amazon synod.

Back in 2016, the Holy Father set up a commission to investigate the history of the role of ‘deaconesses’ in the Church. This commission was apparently still hard at it in May 2019 but hadn’t reached any conclusions.

‘Deaconesses’ aren’t the same thing as ‘women deacons’. Deaconesses are mentioned in Scripture; in the early Church they seem to have been rather like nuns who worked in the Church and the world, rather than in an enclosed monastery.

Women deacons, on the other hand, are a different concept. There are two types of deacons in the Catholic Church – transitional (who are on their way to becoming priests) and permanent (who aren’t). Both receive ordination. This isn’t an option for women, and the Church has no authority to change it.

I quoted Archbishop Fisher a couple of weeks ago, and I’m going to quote him again: ‘The average Catholic woman is worried about how to juggle their full-time job, full time family responsibilities, looking after their kids and also their elderly parents, while trying to maintain a few friendships and maybe a small amount of leisure time … I think that is a bigger concern for most of them than whether they can be deaconesses.’

Never was this more true than after weeks of being shut up at home with a husband who hides in Zoom meetings all day, fractious children, no sacraments, and a dwindling stock of toilet paper.

Women don’t need to be ordained to do excellent work in the Church. They’ve been doing it successfully without ordination for over two thousand years.

They have led entire countries, bossed Popes, exposed bad bishops, raised families, written music, run charities, hammered out theology, reformed religious orders, survived interdicts, founded schools and hospitals, and saved souls.

Pushing the ordained diaconate at us tells us that our work is not good enough. It tells us that we are not good enough; that the measure of really important and effective ministry is sacramental ordination – a completely male standard.

This simply isn’t true. It’s never been true, and will never be true. Women minister all day every day – but they do it as women, not as insufficient men. It’s good Pope Francis is examining the issue, because that’s probably the best way of making it go away permanently.

The makeup of the commission also means that it’s unlikely to recommend any exciting changes. So don’t panic just yet.