World & Vatican
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Nuns sing as they wait for Pope Francis’ arrival at an audience with the heads of women’s religious orders in Paul VI hall at the Vatican May 12.
What did Pope Francis actually say about the female diaconate?
May 17th, 2016
By Elise Harris
VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis raised eyebrows around the world May 12 after declaring his openness to establishing a commission to study the female diaconate, but a careful look at his full response is less of a shocker and points to nothing new.
In fact, in addition to giving a brief summary of a deaconess’s duties in the ancient church, the pope suggested that in modern times, nuns perhaps already fill the role.
“(The question) touches the problem of the permanent diaconate. One could say that the ‘permanent deaconesses’ in the life of the church are the sisters,” he said May 12, with a laugh.
“What were these deaconesses? Were they ordained or no?” he asked, and noted that the Council of Chalcedon in 451 spoke about the topic, but was “a bit obscure.” It is because of this obscurity the pope said he wanted to form a commission to study the topic.
Pope Francis’ comments came in response to a question posed by a sister and member of the International Union of Superiors General, who met with the Pope May 12 as part of their May 9-13 Plenary Assembly, which focuses largely on the role of women in the church, and obstacles hindering it.
Pope Francis’ lengthy discussion with the sisters consisted of four questions that touched on the lack of consecrated and lay women in decision-making roles in the church, how to better insert women into the life of the church, as well as the temptations of both feminism and clericalism.
In the question on deaconesses, the sister asked why the church doesn’t include women in the permanent diaconate, since they already work with the poor and sick, and, in some cases where there is no priest, distribute Communion, lead prayer services and even give the equivalent of a small homily.
“What stops the church from including women from being permanent deacons, like in the ancient church? Why not form an official commission to study the question?” the sister asked.
Part of the church’s sacrament of Holy Orders, the diaconate is currently only open to men.
Pope Francis said the topic of the female diaconate was something that interested him a lot when he came to Rome for meetings. He usually stayed at the Domus Paolo VI residence on this trips, and there met a Syrian theologian who was an expert on the topic of the permanent diaconate.
After asking the man, whom he described as “a good professor, wise, a scholar,” about the role of female deacons, the pope said the answer he got was that their role in the early church was “to help in the baptism of women, in the immersion … for decency,” and to anoint women’s bodies.
In addition to assisting with the full-immersion baptisms of women, deaconesses would also serve as an aide to the bishop in determining the authenticity of domestic abuse, he said.
The pope recalled how the Syrian professor told him that “when there was a matrimonial judge because the husband beat the wife and she went to the bishop to complain, the deaconesses were in charge of looking at the bruises on the woman’s body from her husband’s beatings and informed the bishop.”
“This, I remember,” he said, noting that while the church has already published documents on the topic of the permanent diaconate which touch on the topic of deaconesses, including a 2002 document from the International Theological Commission, the conclusion for modern times was still “unclear.”
The document, which gave a thorough historical context of the role of the deaconess in the ancient church, overwhelmingly concluded that female deacons in the early church had not been equivalent to male deacons, and had “no liturgical function,” nor a sacramental one.
It also maintained that even in the fourth century “the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns.”
However, given the lack of clarity on the issue today and due to the fact he was only speaking on the basis on his conversation with the Syrian professor, the pope said that “I think that I’ll ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to the studies on the issue.”
He also voiced his desire “to establish an official commission to clarify this point. I am in agreement, and I will speak to do something of this kind.”
“To me it seems useful to have a commission that clarifies this well, above all regarding the ancient times of the church.”
In her question, the sister also asked the pope to give an example of where he sees “the possibility of a better insertion of women and women consecrated in the life of the church.”
While concrete areas of insertion didn’t immediately come to his mind, the pope said that “consecrated women must participate” in consultations and assemblies with religious, “this is clear.”
Women, he said, see things “with a different originality than that of men, and this enriches: both in consultations and in decisions, and in concreteness.”
The work consecrated women carry out with the poor and marginalized, in teaching catechesis and accompanying the sick and the dying, “are very maternal works, where the maternity of the church can be expressed more,” he said.
Spokesman: Pope did not say he would ordain women
VATICAN CITY – After some news outlets reported the pope was considering ordaining women deacons and comments were made about women deacons leading to women priests, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi issued a clarification May 13.
The spokesman insisted “it is wrong to reduce all the important things the pope said to the religious women to just this question.”
Women and the diaconate “is a question that has been discussed much, including in the past, and that comes from the fact that in the early church there were women who were called deaconesses, who carried out certain services within the community,” Father Lombardi said.
Pope Francis told the sisters that he thought it would be a good idea to form a commission “to take up this question again in order to view it with greater clarity,” Father Lombardi said. “But one must be honest: The pope did not say he intends to introduce a diaconal ordination for women and even less did he speak of the priestly ordination of women. In fact, talking about preaching during the eucharistic celebration, he let them know that he was not considering this possibility at all.”
In a video statement May 13, Sister Carmen Sammut, superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of Africa and president of the UISG, said the sisters “were quite excited by the fact that Pope Francis did not leave any question out; he really wanted to answer each of our questions.
“He was very strong about the fact that women should be in the decision-making processes and the decision-making positions of the church,” she said.
“About the diaconate,” she said, the sisters “had proposed that there would be a commission. He accepted that proposal and has said that he would bring that forward so that it could be studied even more than it has already. And I hope that one day there will be a real decision about this.”
Catholic News Service