What the Pope said about Women Deacons


Give a larger place to women in decision-making in the Church: that was the central point of Pope Francis’ conversation with over 800 women religious gathered in Rome to celebrate the Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), May 12, 2016. The Pope said that the Church is called to be enriched with “the feminine genius”. One way to do this is to include the opinions of women “in the processes of decision-making” at all levels – from Parish or Diocesan councils, to the offices of the Vatican. On this last aspect, the Pope suggested that it would be possible, for instance, to have women present in “the secretariat of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace” or “in the Dicastery for Migrants”; jobs for which the Sacrament of Holy Orders is not necessary. These are ideas that the Pope put forward “because women see things with an originality different to that of men; and this is enriching, in consultation, and decision-making, and in practice,” as he explained.


Women Religious Superiors welcome the Pope in the Paul VI Hall

What Pope Francis really said about women deacons

The conversation with the women religious touched on the subject of the “deaconesses” in the early centuries of Christianity: women who performed various works of service in the Christian community. Pope Francis promised to set up a commission to study what sort of ministry these women exercised, and whether they received some kind of consecration to fulfil their mission. He also said “I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to some studies on this theme.” In fact, in 2002, the CDF published a document by the International Theological Commission dealing with this question.

The Vatican spokesman, Msgr. Federico Lombardi, explained that although many news outlets have stated that the Church is prepared to open the diaconate to women, this is not actually true. “There has been a lot of noise about the fact that the Pope, in reply to a question, spoke of a commission to study the question of the diaconate for women. It is a subject that has been widely discussed in the past, arising from the fact that in the early Church there existed women who were called “deaconesses”, who performed certain works of service in the community,” he said. “We need to be honest: the Pope did not say he intends to introduce ordination to the diaconate for women, still less did he say anything about ordaining women to the priesthood.” The false interpretation laid on his words surprised Pope Francis.  A member of the Secretary of State’s team, Msgr. Angelo Becciu, tweeted: “The Pope called me to say he was surprised at the reactions about deaconesses. He is thinking of a commission. We should not predict its conclusions.”

The diaconate in the Catholic Church today is one of the grades of the sacrament of Holy Orders. As the Pope reminded the women religious superiors, the priesthood is not the only way of serving the Church. “I would like to explain a bit what I said about the participation of women in the Church,” he said in 2013 on his flight back from Brazil. “It is not limited to acting as altar-girls, being President of Caritas, or being catechists. No! There needs to be something more, but more in the sense of deeper, even mystical; that is what I said about the theology of woman. And with reference to the ordination of women, the Church has pronounced on this: she has said no. Pope John Paul II said it, defined it. That door is closed, but I would like to say something on this subject. The Virgin Mary was more important than the Apostles, the bishops, deacons, or priests.  In the Church, woman is more important than the bishops and priests; what we need to do is try and explain this better, because I think that theological reflection about it is lacking.”

Revitalizing the role of women in the Church and in theology has been one of the Holy Father’s concerns from the start of his pontificate. He said in a 2013 interview, “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up from a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo. Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The Church cannot be herself without women and their role. Women are essential for the Church.”


Feminism and clericalism – two big risks

The Pope warned the religious about two dangers: feminism and clericalism. “Woman’s role in the Church is not one of feminism; it is a right! It is a right as a baptised person, with the charisms and the gifts that the Spirit has given. We must not fall into feminism, because this would reduce a woman’s importance.” And, speaking of clericalism, Pope Francis denounced the “parish [which] is led with a clerical spirit by the priest alone; the priest who clericalizes the layman, and the layman who lets himself be clericalized. According to the Pope, working for the participation of laypeople on parish and diocesan councils is a proof that a priest is not “the head of a firm” but “the servant of the community.”

by Rodrigo Ayude, Rome


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