Fair Questions: Should Pope Francis study deaconesses?

Recently, there was quite a bit of uproar over remarks Pope Francis made in response to a question.  Oddly, this time it wasn’t on an airplane, as it so often has been.  Nonetheless, America magazine, that most famous of Jesuit publications, was ready to make sure everyone knew this was an “opening with historic import” in the life of the Catholic Church.

It also mentioned that it had been argued in the 1960s that the Church should restore deaconesses along with the restoral of ordained deacons.  And that orthodox Popes like John Paul II and Benedict XVI hadn’t seen a need to discuss it.  Quite understandably so, given that John Paul II settled the question of the ordination of women definitively in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and it was quite apparent in the 60s that critics of an all-male priesthood were not going to be even remotely satisfied by mere deaconesses anyway.  They wanted full priestly ordination for women, which JPII said the Church did not have the authority to grant:

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare 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’s faithful.”

And Pope Francis has upheld the position that the door is closed on women’s ordination to the priesthood.  That said…

It’s important to note here that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis did not attempt to settle the question of deaconesses.  It’s an open question at the moment.  And it’s fairly clear that there were in fact deaconesses in the early Church.  Though there is no strong evidence that the deaconesses had exactly the same roles as deacons, it is part of Church tradition to have deaconesses.

Accordingly, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with restoring deaconesses as a part of the life of the Church.  Nor do I see anything wrong with clarifying the question for all, which is what Pope Francis seems to want to do.  My concern is that people will ignore Pope Francis’ other remarks with regard to deaconesses as reported by CNS.  For example:

Pope Francis said the obligation to listen to women in the parish, diocese and at the Vatican “is not a matter of feminism, but of right.”

He clearly rejects what he has called in other contexts “gender ideology” as a way of evaluating Church teaching and practice.  And elsewhere:

However, Pope Francis warned the sisters about the danger of clericalism, which he described as “a sinful attitude,” but one which is “like the tango, it takes two.” There are priests who see themselves as lords of the church, he said, but there also are women and laymen “who ask to be clericalized.”

On the other hand, the pope expressed concern about the number of consecrated women working as housekeepers for priests. Their work is that of “a servant, not of service,” he said, and that “undervalues their dignity.”

The sisters applauded when the pope suggested such priests pay local women in need of a job and let the sisters teach, care for the poor, heal the sick. “And when you superiors are asked (to assign a sister) for something that is more servanthood than service, be courageous and say ‘no.’”

The balance he proposes is the avoidance of the unhealthy clericalism of the priest who sees himself as the one whose feet are to be washed rather than the one who is to wash the feet of his flock, and also the avoidance of the unhealthy clericalism of the layperson who insists that we are not equal until we are all clerics.

At the same time, we must guard against the tendency to devalue the work of the ones who wash the feet of others, and guard against it quite vigilantly, whether those who wash our feet are priests or not.  In the end, the Christian life is a life of service, not a life of seeking positions or power, and so the arguments of those who assume that it is about power will never be persuasive to a person with a heart purely focused on service.

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