Apropos of today’s news that Pope Francis has appointed members to a commission to study the question of the possibility of deaconesses (aka deaconettes – so much easier to say), I bring your attention to a recent offering at Crisis O my prophetic soul) by the scholar Fr Regis Scanlon, OFM CAP.
Some of the piece, which you should definitely read over there in its entirety, given how timely this is.
Remember: While most people don’t care about deaconettes, and, of the few who do, most of them dismiss the notion as zany, someone might engage you in conversation about this topic. Reading good material like this will help you.
Women Deacons? A Matter of Authority
Pope Francis recently called for a commission to study the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate in the Catholic Church. This might seem to be disturbing news because it suggests that the pope has opened up the possibility of ordaining women to the hierarchical and sacramental diaconate—a role which, throughout the history of the Church, has been expressly forbidden.
However, since we know this pope likes to open up topics for discussion without any intention of changing Church teaching, we have to believe that is what he is doing here. [The ITC study of some years ago had a leaning, but it left the question open. I’m confident that this is a terminal commission.] Furthermore, we know that, historically, a diaconate role has already been open to women. Since the early Church, women have been admitted to a non hierarchical and non sacramental diaconate. These women—”deaconesses”—played an essential role in ministering to women when it was clearly not appropriate for men to do so, for example, when preparing women for full immersion baptism. Much has been written on this subject by many authors, including myself when the subject of women deacons last reached a full boil in 1996.
Today, there is no need to rehash those arguments. The definitive answer to the question of admitting women to a hierarchal and sacramental diaconate need not be lengthy. If the pope’s call for discussion does get underway, we must hope and pray that he will effectively teach what is grounded in Scripture and in the Church.
One has only to understand the nature of the diaconate and St. Paul’s teaching in his letter to Timothy. First, deacons occupy “the lower level of the hierarchy” and as administers of the word, the sacraments, and parishes, [NB] they have official Church authority over men, women, and children as they serve in this capacity. [NB] But, St. Paul says to Timothy: “For I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men; but she is to keep quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and was in sin” (1 Tim. 2:12-14).
Obviously, since St. Paul recognized that women can prophesy during public worship with head covered (1 Cor. 11:5) and since women were able to teach doctrine unofficially in the early Church (Acts 18:26), St. Paul’s statement, that “I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men,” referred to official teaching in the Church and to official Church leadership. While women could be charismatic leaders and teachers in the Church, as was St. Catherine of Siena, they could not be official leaders of men.
There have been attempts to probe this statement of St. Paul looking for a way to discredit it or to reinterpret it so as to open up a way to ordain women as hierarchical and sacramental deacons, but to no avail. Some have tried to say that this statement was conditioned by the culture or situation of the time but these were easily refuted. [blah blah blah] For example, it has been suggested that the rules or ordinances of St. Paul about women speaking in churches should be treated as a custom, just like St. Paul’s statements saying that women should have their heads covered when praying in churches (1 Cor. 11:2-6). [The Latin Church eliminated the law that required women to cover their heads when in Church. And yet Paul’s words remain. I’m just sayin’.]
But the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithdistinguished between these two Pauline ordinances for women when it explained St. Paul’s rule for women to cover their heads and St. Paul’s rule for not speaking in churches. After pointing out that the requirement to wear a veil on the head (cf. 1 Cor. 11: 2-6) was based on a custom of minor importance, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated: “However, the Apostle’s forbidding of women ‘to speak’ in the assemblies (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12) is of a different nature…” And the reason is that “For Saint Paul this prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7; Gen. 2:18-24); it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact.”
What all of this boils down to is this: women can have ministries in the Church—even administering the sacraments in some cases and conducting administrative rules as deaconesses. But “they cannot have authority over men.” It is a question of authority. This is the basis of why women cannot be ordained as sacramental and hierarchical deacons in the Catholic Church.
So, the possibility of women being included in the hierarchical diaconate of the Roman Catholic Church hinges on the question: Is St. Paul’s rule in 1 Tim. 2:11-14 (“For I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men”) a divine law? For, if it is a divine law, the Church’s rule, which excludes women from the diaconate, cannot change because the divine law is “eternal” and “unchanging.” And, as mentioned earlier, it is quite clear that St. Paul based his rule in 1 Tim. 2:11-14 on the divine law, because he explicitly appealed to the divinely revealed teaching of Gen. 2:18-24 as the basis for his rule. Thus, those who want to change the present ruling of the Church to permit women deacons must attack 1 Tim. 2:11-14 itself by challenging its authenticity as inspired Scripture.
Therefore, to call into doubt the veracity of 1 Tim. 2:11-14 is a very grave matter for which one risks his eternal salvation. Surely the pope’s intention is to draw out the argument for the ultimate purpose of silencing Church activists once and for all, and to declare the Church’s teachings once again. For we know that Jesus said: “For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul” (Matt. 16:26).
Yes, some choose to lose their souls to gain the whole world. But for women deacons?
“The red dragon…”.
Of course we are now living in a world in which increasing strident voices harp on the loony notion that men can be women and women can be men depending on their choice and, I suppose, mood.