Throughout the short tenure of the Catholic Church’s Pope Francis, many people around the world have hailed his “progressive” actions. However, the Pope’s progressiveness has not always panned out like many adherents had hoped; such as truly embracing the LGBT community more than saying he is no-one to judge them.
One of the perpetual complaints about the Church is its continued prohibition on women becoming priests. A prohibition that is likely borne out of the apostle Paul’s confusing stance on a woman’s role as a Christian. Paul is notorious for forbidding women to preach, teach, and pray in front of a man or little else of importance even though in Paul’s writing in the New Testament women were not always relegated to the second-class status.
It was announced on Thursday that Pope Francis is taking a progressive step in the Church and although he is not issuing a Papal edict allowing women to enter the priesthood, he did signal that women may be allowed to serve as “deacons.” More on what deacons in the Church means later.
During a conference attended by religious women, the Holy Father announced that he “might” convene a commission to decide whether or not women could be Church deacons. As observers remarked, this is a big deal and could signal the Pope’s thinking that perhaps it is time for women to become priests. A Roman Catholic deacon is disallowed from consecrating the Holy Eucharist (communion), but they are allowed to preside over baptisms, weddings, funerals, teach and preach.
A Vatican press release following the conference may offer a clue to how the Pope is thinking, and how he may be intending to go farther than just “reinstating women as deacons.” The press release said in part,
“Up to the 5th century, the Diaconate flourished in the western Church, but in the following centuries it experienced a slow decline, surviving only as an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for priestly ordination. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Church restored the role of permanent deacon, which is open to single and married men. Many experts believe that women should also be able to serve in this role, since there is ample evidence of female deacons in the first centuries, including one named Phoebe who is cited by Saint Paul.”
Apparently, and this is curious indeed, the Pope is unclear about the women deacon’s role in the early Church so he intends on convening a commission to study their contributions. This didn’t sit well with the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) that noted “decades of research on this topic has already been published by renowned feminist voices.”
The women’s “Conference” also contested the Pope’s claim that women deacons could not preach “because they aren’t ‘in Persona Christi’.” A claim the WOC flatly rejects as a “flawed interpretation that a male body is a necessary condition of representing the Body of Christ.”
The Christian bible’s New Testament is rife with instances of women representing Christ in the Gospels, various Acts of the Apostles, and “epistles” from the apostle Paul to various congregations in Europe and the Mediterranean. For example, to demonstrate that he valued the lives of women every bit as much as men, in Luke 4:38-39 Jesus healed his disciple Peter’s mother in law; one wonders if Peter really appreciated the miracle, but that’s another story.
Jesus also valued women more than the Catholic Church for their value in ministering to him, much less other Christians. In what is a very telling account, Luke 7:36-50 describes a “dramatic scene” where Jesus allows a women who was probably a prostitute to anoint him, even though there was a male Pharisee in the room. Jesus rebuked the male because he didn’t get his teaching while the woman did. Also, later in Luke 10:38-42 two women important to Jesus are sitting with him in a room full of men and in atypical fashion for the time, Mary assumes the position of a rabbi’s usually male disciple by sitting at Jesus’ feet; not at the back of the room.
Even the apostle Paul, not any kind of feminist by anyone’s standards, wrote about entrusting women to carry out important ministerial tasks. For example, in the book of Acts alone there are several instances of the important roles women played in helping establish the early Christian church. In fact, the first Christian convert in Europe and a very important figure in the church at Philippi (Philippians) was not a man, but a woman named Lydia.
And the wife of Aquila, Priscilla, is renowned as one of the “major catalysts in the growth of the Christian movement in several cities across the Mediterranean world.” And in about the 21st chapter of Acts, Philip’s daughters were called prophetesses and were allowed to “mediate God’s word to God’s people.” It is something that does not occur in the Catholic Church; not as priestly “mediators of God’s word” or as “deacons.”
As noted in the Vatican’s press release, according to the apostle Paul a woman named Phoebe was “the deacon from the seaport city of Cenchrea,” and a “mediator of God’s word to God’s people.” Phoebe was the woman the misogynist apostle Paul entrusted to deliver his “letters” to the Church in Rome that make up the New Testament’s book of Romans.
What is interesting about Paul entrusting a woman to deliver his “epistles” is that the person, male or female, carrying the letter to the congregations typically was the person reading it aloud to the assemblage. As noted by Preston Sprinkle over at Patheos, “it is very likely that the first person to ever read the book of Romans in the Catholic Church was not Paul, Peter, Augustine, Calvin, or Luther; it was a woman named Phoebe” who was also a deacon.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), a deacon is one of three groups of “ordained ministers” in the Catholic Church. This little fact is what makes the Pope’s announcement so encouraging for progressive Catholics, and so damn disconcerting to the conservative wing resisting change and the idea of women as “ministers.”
This is particularly true because as the USCCB states; “As ‘ministers’ of the Word, deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach, and teach in the name of the Church.” It is an interesting statement because one of the things the apostle Paul insisted on in 1st Timothy 2:12 was that, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.”
However, although the Catholic Church will not allow women to serve as priests, or deacons for that matter, the USCCB claims that “as ministers of Sacrament, deacons baptize, lead the faithful in prayer, witness marriages, and conduct wake and funeral services.” It is possible that the Pope is on the verge of forgoing the USCCB’s assertion that “it is not only what a deacon does, but who a deacon is that is important.” Maybe the Pope has reached the juncture where it is the deacon’s gender that is not important, but what they do; so long as they are serving the best interests of the Church.
It is too soon to tell if the Pope is serious about reinstating women as deacons, or eventually allowing them to be ordained as priests. One certainly cannot get their hopes set too high because like the Pope’s “apparent” progressive embrace of the LGBT community, he did, in fact, allow the Vatican to state that Ireland voting to allow marriage equality was the “defeat of humanity.”
There is little doubt that there are no small number of Catholics, particularly conservative Catholics, who believe the Pope even considering women as priests or deacons is the “defeat of humanity.” But they shouldn’t be too overly concerned. Many people around the world actually believed the Pope was progressive enough to embrace the LGBT community, but that turned out to be little more than empty talk.
h/t Hrafnkell Haraldsson