16Aug Prising open the door – women deacons

In the excitement of the last few weeks – Mayo beating Tyrone and the Catholic Church tearing itself apart over seminary training in Maynooth – many people missed what was probably the most significant religious event in years, the announcement by Pope Francis of a commission of experts to examine the subject of ordaining women as deacons in the Catholic Church.

In May, Francis promised an international gathering of religious sisters that he would set up such a commission and he’s delivered it. It was interpreted by some as off-the-cuff remarks in the excitement of the moment – the unusual spectacle of satisfied Sisters – by others as little more than wishful thinking. But if we’ve learned anything about Pope Francis, it’s that there’s nothing innocuous about his comments.

True to form, ‘after intense prayer and mature reflection’, he’s announced the commission – an equal number of male and female experts ­– and asked it particularly to study the history of the female diaconate ‘in the earliest times of the church’.

It is an historic moment in the life of the Catholic Church.

The deficit in terms of the role and contribution of women in the church has been long and widely touted. Initially when Francis took over, the presumption was that he would quickly move to give women a stronger profile without advancing into difficult theological terrain.

Leaving aside the ordination issue it has been obvious for years that women could have been involved at a much higher level in church affairs but that they were systematically excluded by an unapologetic sexist mentality in the Vatican. After all women could have been appointed to head important Vatican departments and even appointed as cardinals. That nothing of this kind was allowed to happen was indicative of a pervasive anti-woman mentality at the heart of the Church.

It may be that Francis, in recognising how difficult he found it to create any forward movement in the Vatican (with the emergence since his election of “His Holiness’ opposition”) decided that fighting endless skirmishes had less to recommend it than a full battle. And that he has chosen to bring the fight to the very centre of the Church’s life.

Admittedly, while Francis would no doubt eschew the use of such combative language, from his approach so far it seems to fit. For just as he has introduced a more nuanced and respectful language in regard to the LGBT community with his comment ‘Who am I to judge?’ and has championed a more tolerant pastoral approach to couples in second relationships, he is now turning his attention to advancing, probably redefining, the role of women in the Church. Hence the new commission.

This is, of course, a difficult area, as the full force of tradition, a key element in the Catholic Church’s theological armoury, seems to be against any deviation from a male priesthood. Some will point to the long history of male supremacy from the apostles to the present college of cardinals. Others will quote the Second Vatican Council’s firm direction of engaging with the modern world and of learning from it.

Another difficulty is not just the Catholic Church’s inability to listen to the wisdom of the world but, in the matter of women’s ordination, the refusal of an organised and officially-sponsored counter-offensive to even contemplate the possibility of women’s ordination, almost to the point of refusing to concede any perceived encroachment of women in church matters.

Just after the Council, Pope Paul VI declared that the Catholic Church ‘did‘ not consider herself authorised to admit women to ordination’. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith produced a document stating that a priest is a sign and that for the sign to have substance ‘a natural resemblance’ to Christ was required.

The perceived limitations of the twin arguments – authority and sexuality – led Pope John Paul to seek to end the continuing and embarrassing controversy by declaring that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church faithful’.

Attempting to close down the discussion didn’t work, of course, because the world had moved on, and even when it was suggested by some that the phrase ‘definitively held’ indicated that the Pope was speaking ‘infallibly’ this loose theology had the effect of actually undermining what John Paul had said. Theologians of international repute soon scuppered the connection between the pope’s declaration and the concept of infallibility. Predictably enough, in trying to curb discussion of the subject, the opposite happened.

Pope Francis has said that the door to women’s ordination is closed, but his constant focus on discussion and dialogue has moved the women’s issue under the spotlight and may well have convinced him gradually to prise open what he felt was a closed door. His thinking may be that the determined efforts of some Vatican figures to stifle debate on less important matters need to be confronted on more central issues or it may be that the evidence of so many women withdrawing from the Church may have been the determining factor.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter now. The cat is out of the bag. By establishing the commission and outlining its remit, Francis has effectively opened up the issue of women’s ordination for discussion, even though a few short years ago his two predecessors tried ‘definitively’ to close that discussion down. A few short years ago we weren’t even allowed to think about women’s ordination. Now the Catholic Church is officially considering the ordination of women deacons.

August 2, 2016 may well be remembered as a crucial day in the history of Catholicism.

13 Responses

  1. Colm Holmes

    We must not all sit back to watch Pope Francis reform our church. He can not do it on his own. In Ireland 77% support the ordination of women. At the Limerick synod the role of women was the top item. Our bishops remain very silent on this issue because they were selected for their roles because of their opposition to ordaining women. DMA (Divine Male Authority) remains very strong amongst all our unelected church leaders. Pope Francis says he wants a new governance structure for our church: an inverted pyramid with the people of god at the top. We have a long way to go to reach that goal and each and every Christian must do what they can to make this a reality.

  2. Darlene Starrs

    Well done article…clear, plain explanation…Interestingly, August 2nd is the Feast Day of a Female Ukrainian Mystic!

  3. Ned Quinn

    Sad that only 12 members of the ACP were willing to sign a letter supporting a discussion on the ordination of women!

  4. Elizabeth

    Delighted to hear about the Commission. In the apparition at Knock, Our Lady appeared as if she was offering up her Divine Son by the Lamb appearing on the Altar. I think she was giving a message to the world but as Knock is not as widely known as the other major Apparition sites, so many are unaware of the significence of that wonderful event. Our Lady was with Jesus from the beginning to the Resurrection. And was the first Priest. I pray that the ordination of women will take place in the near future.

  5. Nessan Vaughan

    I agree with Ned. Are most ACP members not in favour of the ordination of women or are they fearful of signing the petition?

  6. Soline Humbert

    @3 Yes indeed Ned it is sad. But thanks to you and the other courageous eleven! Perhaps more will find their heart and their voice…

    @4,Thank you Elizabeth for your contribution on this feast day of Our Lady of Knock. This is what I wrote in 2008: “Ten years ago a friend returned from a retreat in Knock with a previous gift for me. It was a child’s drawing of a priest at the altar presiding at the Eucharist. What made it special was that the priest was a woman.The drawing was by a child preparing for Holy Communion and had been exhibited in Knock.

    Of all the places in Ireland there could not have been a more fitting place for this picture of a woman at the altar. After all isn’t it in Knock where Mary appeared in a priestly role in 1879?

    In 1985 Fr Berchmans Walsh published a detailed analysis of the symbolic message of that apparition. He drew our attention to Mary’s priesthood.

    “She [Mary] co-offered and still co-offers (on the human plane ,of course) with the Lamb the supreme sacrifice of merciful love that redeemed and saves us. This is admirably demonstrated by the posture she assumed at Knock as in no other of her apparitions,ie praying with her hands extended and raised to the level of the shoulders-as a priest prays during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass,” he wrote.

    And in case anyone missed the point, he repeated: “How does she exercise her motherhood in our regard? Vatican II gives the answer:’By her never-ending acts of intercession for us at the throne of grace in heaven’. How ideally this is signified to us by her posture in the Knock apparition-praying at the altar of the Lamb as a priest prays during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass.

    ……..It is my deep conviction that some of this message will be lived out in women being ordained in Knock under the protective presence of Mary and standing with her at the altar. ( from Knock’s Important Message On Issue Of Women’s Ordination, Rite&Reason, Irish Times, Feast of the Annunciation,25/3/08)

  7. Mattie Long

    Just for your information; today on the Feast of Our Lady of Knock Rev. Ruth Patterson, Director of Restoration Ministries, spoke in Knock Basilica on ‘Hope & Healing for the Future’.
    How long will it be until an ordained catholic woman speaks there?

  8. Paddy Ferry

    Ned, what you say @3 really saddens me.

  9. Joe O'Leary

    Brendan, all the papal utterances you quote from Paul VI on now seem merely to underline the tawdriness of the all-male ideal of priesthood, the product of another age. Cult of this dead ideal has been poisoning us for too long. Well the door has now been opened and light and air should come flooding in. But if Francis hands it over to a Synod we may find the possibility buried again.

  10. MM

    “Just after the Council, Pope Paul VI declared that the Catholic Church ‘did‘ not consider herself authorised to admit women to ordination’. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith produced a document stating that a priest is a sign and that for the sign to have substance ‘a natural resemblance’ to Christ was required.”

    In an address on ‘Resdiscovering our Authenic Humanness’ at an Inter-Church forum gathering earlier this summer Dr Johnston McMaster touched on this subject, and I quote:-

    “Significantly, Jesus is never described in the Christian Testament or the Gospels as male. Through the ages theology has made a great deal of the maleness of Jesus and used his maleness to construct a patriarchal theological system, a theology of male dominance, a theology of male ministry and priesthood and a male centered theology of sacraments. But our sacred text never described Jesus as male or man. It always used the Greek word anthrophos. Anthrophos simply means the human. Jesus is not primarily male but human. That is how the Christian Testament primarily describes Jesus, and that is primarily more theologically significant than the church constructing Jesus as male. Not surprisingly the construct of Jesus as male and a primary theology of maleness was a short step to the assumption of God as male, and the male as God!”

    So if ‘natural resemblance’ is the issue then women meet the criteria, for they too are human. (Unless of course the CDF see them as sub-human).

  11. Mary Vallely

    “A few short years ago we weren’t even allowed to think about women’s ordination”. You know it’s ridiculous that adults, THINKING human beings in full possession of their faculties, are told they are not allowed to discuss this issue. What sort of eejits are we if we do not think and discuss, reflect and debate with each other! The gullibility and lack of moral fibre in many of us is shameful. Where indeed are all those ordained ACP supporters who regularly read this page, nodding their heads in agreement or even disagreement, but who do not participate in discussions? One chance is all each of us has to try to make the world a better, more equal, more loving and more just place and yet we are afraid to speak out. Apart from a few brave souls the silence of the majority of ordained men is really shameful.
    I agree with Joe O’Leary that the time has come to end ‘the cult of this dead ideal’ of an all- male priesthood at last. The closeting of young men in an all male seminary is destructive to many – not all- but to many. Man is not meant to be alone. Celibacy should never be imposed. For those who can keep their vow it is a great blessing but it is unfair to make it mandatory and downright unChrist- like to continue to treat women as lesser human beings. The one optimistic voice who regularly posts comments which uplift the spirit and which inspire me to hang on to this RCC is our Soline. What a wonderful Cardinal she would make! ( easier to make her a Cardinal than the tortuous route to priesthood. Cannot even discuss that possibility!)

  12. Soline Humbert

    Joe@9:”… the all-male ideal of priesthood, the product of another age. Cult of this dead ideal has been poisoning us for too long.”
    I have written about this on-going poisoning in http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/seminaries-such-as-maynooth-perpetuate-unjust-rule-of-church-men-over-women-1.2755981

    Mary@11: Your words remind me of Catherine of Siena: “Cry out as if you had a thousand voices. It is silence that is killing the world (and church).”
    Sean Fagan’s “Facing Up To Spiritual Abuse ” (reproduced on the ACP website )…has some challenging words:
    ….”We can understand cultural conditioning as a normal part of history. But can we be sure that some of the attitudes in the past that we are now ashamed of are not still at work in our collective subconscious? Has the misogyny that was a feature of the Church for centuries been admitted and repented of? Church leaders can be patronising in hesitantly admitting that women may have got a raw deal in the past, but most men have no idea of how deeply women feel about the injustice they still suffer today .”
    And there is such a thing as the will NOT to know.

  13. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I honestly think someone had a sensitivity training with the Roman Catholic Church about advances in human rights that have taken place over the last 60 years.

    The more I read on these sites, the reality that an awakening is taking place within the “boomer” generation and they are ready to flip the switch on some issues. I honestly believe it is worthy of the forgiveness of sin for all of us for having remained inactive on these subjects for what it now seems an eternity.

    If what the Pope is saying can be moved into aggressive action, to divest all we can and invest in green technology as a whole unit, the quicker the better, this can be reversed. You have to believe it.

    We must act now. We are the Ones we’ve been waiting for.


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