The International Union of Superiors General met with Pope Francis as part of its plenary assembly. During that meeting, a religious sister participating asked the Holy Father why the Church doesn’t include women in the permanent diaconate, since they already participate in the works of charity, in terms of caring for the poor and the ill, as well as in the case of administration, following the example of the first deacons as detailed in Acts of the Apostles.
Examining the issue through the fonts of revelation, namely Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as well as the official teaching power of the Church, we can see a tradition that is admittedly unclear, as the pope admits. He says: “What were these deaconesses? Were they ordained or no?”
He went on to say that these deaconesses assisted with the baptism and anointing of adult women in the early Church for the sake of decency and also acted when “when there was a matrimonial judge (appointed) because the husband beat the wife and she went to the bishop to complain, the deaconesses were in charge of looking at the bruises on the woman’s body from her husband’s beatings and informed the bishop.”
A 2002 scholarly document from the International Theological Commission concluded that the role of the “deaconesses” was not liturgical and was not the equivalent of the role of the ordained male deacon. It was not an ordination, per se, as in the case of a deacon, but more a special ministry in the Church.
The pope then voiced his desire “to establish an official commission to clarify this point. I am in agreement, and I will speak to (others about the possibility to) do something of this kind” and, further, “To me, it seems useful to have a commission that clarifies this well, above all regarding the ancient times of the Church.”
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, clearly stated: “The Pope did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons, and even less did he talk about the ordination of women as priests. In actual fact, the Pope made clear in his preaching during the course of the Eucharistic celebration that he was not considering this (question) at all.”
The pope’s question seems to be how can we get women, be they religious women in consecrated life, married, or single persons, more involved in leadership roles in the Church. He was not and is not calling for a female liturgical diaconate or a female priesthood.
The question that has come up is key and important. How can women be more involved in the leadership role in the Church especially since Holy Orders, according to our understanding of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the consistent Magisterium of the Church is reserved to men? This requires many things: patience, insight and discernment of the Holy Spirit’s movement. Perhaps a step might be to see more women involved in decision-making on the diocesan, national and Vatican level.
It also asks a deeper question: What is really the role of a permanent deacon in the Church today?
Is it charity as in the Acts of the Apostles, doing the practical things in the Christian Community so that the Apostles could be freer for prayer and sacramental ministry, or is it, as it has become in so many of our parishes, primarily a liturgical one?
The pope asks us some very important questions concerning ministry and apostolic work in the Church today.
We urge readers to become familiar with the International Theological Commission’s report: (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_05072004_diaconate_en.html) and to reflect on the dignity and work of women from St. John Paul II, found in his 1988 encyclical, “Mulieris Dignitatem” (found at https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1988/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19880815_mulieris-dignitatem.html).