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Women deacons: A closed book?


An interview with Pope Francis was aired on the American television network CBS 60 Minutes on 20 May. Over the course of the interview, Norah O’Donnell asked the Pope whether there would ever be the prospect within the Catholic Church of a woman being ordained as a deacon in Holy Orders. The Pope’s reply was a blunt ‘No’. Pressed a little further by O’Donnell, the Pope elaborated. He had no problems recognising deaconesses as in the early Church, but women deacons in Holy Orders were definitely excluded.

This negative response came as a surprise to many Vatican watchers. Firstly, because the Pope has been quite constructive in promoting women to positions of responsibility in the Church. Secondly, because he had commissioned two groups of experts to investigate the question of women deacons. The first was to explore the role of women as deacons/deaconesses in the history of the Church.  The second was to review the theology of the diaconate as such.  The first commission apparently came back with inconclusive results. The second met in September 2021 and July 2022, but the results of these discussions, too, have not been made public.

The third and main reason, however, for the surprise that greeted the papal negative is that in making any response at all the Pope was pre-empting the work of one of the ten groups of theological experts that had been commissioned subsequent to the first session of the Synod on Synodality to study the question of women’s possible access to  the diaconate and to bring the results of their investigations to the second session of the Synod in October 2024.

Over the last fifty years there has been much coming and going over the admission of women to Holy Orders – not surprisingly, as many other Christian denominations over this period have taken steps to admit women not just to the diaconate but also to the priesthood and even to the episcopacy. Just recently, for instance, even the traditionally conservative Orthodox communion has ordained a woman deacon in Zimbabwe.

In April 1976 the Pontifical Biblical Commission was instructed to address the question of what evidence there was in Scripture to support, or to deny, access to women to the priesthood.  The Commission concluded unanimously: ‘It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.’  In a further response the Commission voted 12-5 in favour of the view that Scripture alone does not exclude the ordination of women, and 12-5 in favour of the view that the Church could ordain women to the priesthood without going against Christ’s original intention.

The ink, however, was hardly dry on the Commission’s response before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in October 1976 promulgated the ‘Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood’ – the Declaration ‘Inter Insigniores’.  It taught that for doctrinal, theological and historical reasons the Church ‘does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination’. This negative response was invoked briefly and in passing in a subsequent Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II: ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’, in October 1988, and in much greater detail in his 1994 Apostolic letter: ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’, which addressed the question explicitly. Pope John Paul II not only declared that the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women but further enjoined that this judgment was to be ‘definitively held by all the Church’s faithful’.

The phrase, ‘definitively held’, excited much fluttering in theological dovecotes both in the Vatican and internationally. Did the Pope by this phrase intend to indicate a formally infallible papal dogmatic definition?  In response to a dubium (doubt) in October 1995 the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith further responded that the exclusion of women from access to priestly ordination was to be understood as ‘belonging to the deposit of the faith’.  Then in a commentary, ‘Ad tuendam fidem’, in July 1998, the Congregation, commenting on ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’, reasserted the teaching : ‘The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing  to proceed to a dogmatic definition, intended to reaffirm that this doctrine is to be held definitively, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium’.  And again in December 2002, the Congregation issued a ‘ Decree on the Attempted Ordination of some Catholic Women’ and used similar language: ‘The denial of this doctrine is rightly considered the denial of a truth that pertains to the Catholic faith’.


'What is surprising, however, is that the Pope has taken the unusual medium of a CBS 60 Minutes programme to express his negative judgment on women deacons. One would have expected such a judgment to be dignified by an Apostolic Letter, a Declaration or a Motu Proprio.'


So, while the Pope seems to resile from pronouncing a formal papal infallible dogmatic definition (as, for instance, in the 1950 definition of the Assumption), the exclusion of women from priestly ordination was proclaimed as an authoritative (infallible?) teaching of the Church’s Magisterium.

In respect of women’s ordination to the priesthood, Pope Francis has not retreated from the teaching of Pope John Paul II. Indeed, both in a 2013 interview and in an October 2016 statement to reporters while returning from a visit to Sweden, he has explicitly invoked the authority of ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’ to exclude women from access to priestly ordination. He has hitherto, however, seemed more open to the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.  As I noted earlier, he has established two commissions to investigate the question, and, although the report of neither commission has been made public, ordination of women to the diaconate has been the subject of ongoing discussion for almost ten years. At the Synod on the Amazon in October 2019, 137 of the 185 bishops commended the ongoing discussion on the admission of women to the ordained diaconate, and subsequent to the Synod on Synodality in October 2023 the question was entrusted for further investigation to one of the ten groups that were set up to report to the second session of the Synod in October 2024.

In the light of these ongoing commissions, discussions and investigations, Pope Francis’ blunt ‘No’ to Norah O’Donnell’s question about the prospect of female deacons comes as a shock. A variety of reasons have been advanced to explain the Pope’s volte-face. Perhaps both unpublished reports of the commissions established to examine the issue, and the evidence from the early Church which they have considered, have been too inconclusive to justify the Pope acting to ordain women deacons. Perhaps in any event he does not wish to ordain women as this would ‘clericalize’ them and introduce yet another clerical order in the Church. Perhaps the strong negative reaction in some parts of the Church that greeted his recent Apostolic Letter, ‘Fiducia Supplicans’, authorizing the blessing of members of gay unions make him unwilling to intervene again in a highly controverted discussion. Perhaps he thought that ordaining women as deacons would set at least an arguable precedent for re-igniting the debate over women priests, since both the priesthood and the diaconate are both Holy Orders. Or perhaps, finally, because of the model of male/female relations he has borrowed from Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Pope believes that in aspiring to ordination even as deacons women are denying their uniquely Marian role confined to women in the Church and intruding on the Petrine role reserved exclusively to men. Or perhaps it was a combination of these and other considerations.

One would be bold to dismiss the persuasiveness of these considerations or even the Pope’s sense of the untimeliness of such an intervention at present. What is surprising, however, is that the Pope has taken the unusual medium of a CBS 60 Minutes programme to express his negative judgment on women deacons. One would have expected such a judgment to be dignified by an Apostolic Letter, a Declaration or a Motu Proprio. But to do so on a television programme is at least highly unusual or even inappropriate. And to do so when a group of theologians has been specially commissioned between sessions of the Synod to investigate the issue further and to bring the results of their investigation to the second session of the Synod not only seems to be pre-empting their research but also acting in an authoritarian and distinctly unsynodal manner. There is no sign of deference to the deliberations of the Synod or to the possibility that new evidence or a new understanding of the existing evidence might render conclusive what has hitherto been interpreted as inconclusive.

One waits expectantly to see how this ongoing discussion plays out at the Synod in October and how it clarifies (or obscures) the relation between the official teaching organs in the Church (including the papacy) and the emerging deliberations and decisions agreed upon by the members of the Synod. Is the Synod window-dressing or a genuine sharing of authority?




Bill Uren, SJ, AO, is a Scholar-in-residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne. A former Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand Jesuits, he has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics in universities in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and has served on the Australian Health Ethics Committee and many clinical and human research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research centres.

Main image: Pope Francis during the 60 Minutes interview (OSV News/Adam Verdugo, courtesy, 60 minutes, CBS NEWS)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Women, Deacons, Vatican, Gender, Church, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Bill Uren's speculations on Pope Francis' recent statement regarding female ordination to the priesthood and diaconate are appropriately comprehensive. However, since Synodal consultation is an instrument of authority in the Catholic Church - not its source - the article's concluding question seems unnecessary.

John RD | 12 June 2024  

My first instinct after reading this (very fine) article was to go to the corner of my room and read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”. I can feel my importance to God. Jesus knew and communicated to her the potential and capability of the woman at Jacob’s well. I would love the Church to join me in the corner of our room and start reading Sylvia Plath.

Pam | 12 June 2024  

'Is the Synod window-dressing or a genuine sharing of authority?'

There is no sharing of authority. Authority resides in the episcopacy in communion with the papacy. Everybody else looks in. However, there can be a sharing of consultation by the pope and the order of bishops with the minor orders and the laity. That sharing of consultation, not authority, should not be window-dressing.

However, because extreme assumption of liberty is licence, that sharing of consultation will become window-dressing if the minor orders and the laity make the extreme assumption of liberty that they have a share in authority. They don't and they mustn't. The Christian Church is apostolic, not congregational, and the Roman Catholic Church, as the remnant reminder of a once-united Christian Church, is the same.

roy chen yee | 12 June 2024  

I must confess surprise at reading Pam's opinion that somehow a reading of Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy', or indeed any of that writer's poetry or prose, has any relevance to the topic under discussion, namely the question of whether it is possible for women to be ordained to the diaconate in the Catholic Church. Sylvia Plath had a history of chronic depressive illness and attempted suicide. Sadly, she successfully suicided at age 30. Suicide due to mental illness is considered forgivable.
I found her poetry - which we read at university - depressing. Deep sadness may well be part of genuine religious experience but clinical depression is not and should be treated medically. Alarm bells ring for me when people say they are depressed about the state of the Catholic Church. Concern is fine but depression? How can you say that about a religion which points its whole story towards the everlasting joy of the Resurrection? I am genuinely concerned that so many ordinary Catholics are getting depressed about the Synod. That was never the purpose of the Pope's calling this Synod.

Edward Fido | 13 June 2024  
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Thanks for your perspective, Edward. Sylvia Plath was a very talented poet and her potential for producing more great work was cut short. Life experience, plus biological factors, can lead to clinical depression which does need to be treated medically. My point in the comment was: The Church needs to ‘read’ women better; their experience in a Church where men only can be ordained; their perception of what God is accomplishing in their lives. The everlasting joy of the Resurrection happens each day (Lam.3:22-23). Listening deeply is part of a synodal process.

Pam | 16 June 2024  

Pam. As you would know, Sylvia Plath wasn't Catholic and wasn't interested in it. One of the more traditional Catholic clerics in America and quite famous, Fr Chad Ripperger, has said the main problem with the Church was clericalism. I concur. I don't think clericalism just affects women. It is a cancer and I have seen it affect Anglicanism as well.

Edward Fido | 17 June 2024  

I'm no poet but was educated in the literary tradition of post-Leavisite Oxbridge. Plath is hailed as one of the finest American poets and while her husband, Ted Hughes, occupied similar status as Britain's Poet-Laureate, he controlled her literary estate which, post-divorce, occasioned widespread criticism on both ethical and literary grounds.

It is also alleged that Hughes abused her at a time when the power exercised by men over women was widely uninvestigated.

It happens too that Plath's father, who died when she was ten, and whom she adored and grievously missed, left her family penniless on a life wasted on drugs, booze and expounding fascist causes.

Pam's sense of Plath's position is beautifully captured by Plath's great friend, Dame Carol Duffy, who succeeded Hughes as Poet-Laureate:

'Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.'

From 'Prayer',
Mean Time, Anvil, 1994

Michael Furtado | 17 June 2024  

Thanks indeed Michael. I knew some of Plath’s history but you have expanded my knowledge and sense of her difficult life circumstances. A beautiful understanding by Carol Duffy (herself a wonderful poet) of her friend.

Pam | 19 June 2024  

I remain unconvinced what real relevance Sylvia Plath has to the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. This topic is not a discussion of her poetic abilities.

Edward Fido | 24 June 2024  

A shock indeed.
Having spent the past two decades in an ecumenical organisation (mainly older women, some in ordained ministry) my quiet prayer would be that some ecumenical dialogue could clarify some of these issues.
The Uniting Church for example acknowledges that there are significant differences between ministers of the word and deacons. Yet both receive ordination (and both lead communities)
And both (as a dear late friend of mine would have reminded me) have a role very different from that of a deaconess, once the only option open to her in the Methodist Church.

Please: No more "closed books".
May we continue to turn the pages...

Margaret Ker | 13 June 2024  

If synodality means anything, the members of the Synod should take control of the agenda as the bishops did at Vatican II and insist that the Church repeal the canonical provisions excluding women from ministry and the power of governance. As Fr Orabator SJ stated at Newman College recently, the Church’s exclusion of women from leadership is sinful.

Peter Johnstone | 15 June 2024  

Bill – could I suggest Francis is again taking a lead from the tactics of John XXIII. His blunt No takes an issue off the table for the time being. In so doing he is keeping another contentious issue from being front of mind when the next conclave is convened, just as he did with waylaying many of the Amazon Synod recommendations – thus leaving the conclave to focus on the best candidate.

You would recall that eight months prior to the opening of Vatican II, John XXIII published Veterum Sapientia on the perennial value of Latin to the Catholic Church - knowing full well that reform minded bishops and theologians were discussing the liturgy in the vernacular. His apostolic constitution quelled the overt slings and arrows at the time and left the issue alone until the Council was in session and all conciliar fathers could venture an opinion.

Bill Burke | 16 June 2024  

Some of us here are adamant that the Church must be an autocracy with no space for democracy. Consulting is fine, but sharing decision-making is not. It's 'apostolic', not' congregational', according to Roy. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying 'upon this rock I will build my Church, my ekklesia. Now that word ekklesia, which can, I understand, be faithfully translated into English as 'assembly' or 'gathering', was used in Ancient Greece to refer to assemblies or gatherings of citizens, especially in the democratic city-states like Athens, where citizens would come together to discuss and decide on matters of public importance. So if that's what ekklesia meant in ancient Athens, where and when did the 'citizens' of the Church get to be excluded from the decision-making ?

Ginger Meggs | 23 June 2024  
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Our Church stands problematically accused of accommodating Greeco-Roman culture and practice.

We Catholics cannot, without standing accused of engaging in the kind of Thomist persiflage, somersaults and gyrations disparagingly associated with sea-lawyers, disassociate Greco-Roman culture and institutions, some aspects of which gave birth to democracy, from a cherry-picked scaffolding rigidly suited to feudal times.

Even our arguments, apart from those carefully curated through Eureka Street, cannot ever result in any known expression of the General Will, whether in a religious setting or even within the vast secular presence of the institutional Church in society.

Modernist Europe succeeded in sorting this out by properly, in my view, separating Church & state and, in some jurisdictions but only rarely, through Lord Acton's and John Courtney Murray's extraordinary work, liberal Catholics have been able to champion Freedom of Conscience Declarations without which we would have continued to remain the laughing-stock of the democratic world.

Indeed, Democratic Theory, like everything else, is evolving to take on more consultative AND representative expression. The only body impervious, if not resistant, to this is Catholicism.

Be warned: when asked if there would ever be another Polish pope, God is said to have replied: 'Not in my lifetime'!

Michael Furtado | 28 June 2024  

'upon this rock I will build my Church'

The rock precedes the 'ekklesia'.

roy chen yee | 12 July 2024