A Canadian archbishop told a major Vatican meeting on family issues Tuesday that the church should consider allowing women to serve as deacons.
Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher, who was recently president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, was one of many top church leaders who gave short speeches to the hundreds of bishops meeting in Rome.
Pope Francis convened the meeting this month to suggest ways the Catholic Church can support modern families but within the context of traditional church teachings. The meeting opened Sunday and so far has been made up of bishops speaking for three minutes apiece about their various ideas on family issues and church teachings.
Durocher declined to comment to The Post, but pointed to a Catholic News Service piece about his comments. In the piece he says he had used his time mostly to talk about the role of women in the church, and about domestic violence and ways Catholic theology views gender roles.
Deacons in the Catholic Church can preach and preside at baptisms, funerals and weddings, but may not celebrate Mass or hear confessions. Becoming a deacon in the church requires training but not going to seminary, as priests do.
“I think we should really start looking seriously at the possibility of ordaining women deacons,” he told CNS he had told the synod. He also said he had recommended the synod “clearly state that you cannot justify the domination of men over women — certainly not violence — through biblical interpretation,” particularly what he called incorrect interpretations of Scripture that women should be submissive to their husbands.
Francis has urged synod participants to raise whatever is on their minds about family, although there is a working document from a pre-synod a year ago that lays out the general road map for this meeting. That document called for giving women greater responsibility in the church.
Debate has been going on pretty steadily within the church for decades about the possibility of women becoming deacons and priests, and has been routinely rejected by most church leaders who find it too dramatic a break with the history of Catholicism. Advocates of women in those roles note that there are scriptural references from the early church to women playing roles of spiritual leadership.
Church-watchers seemed skeptical Durocher’s idea would go far during this synod, but for different reasons: Some said it went too far, others said not far enough. Theologians also disagree about the nature of deacons, and whether the position is more like a priest or more in the school of general ministry and thus more open to expanding to include women.
Durocher told CNS that the office that deacons hold — called “the diaconate” — “has been defined as not being ordered toward priesthood but toward ministry.”
Chad Pecknold, a theologian at Catholic University, disagreed, saying it is “exceptionally clear” that deacons are like priests — ordained and part of the “holy orders.”
“If you’ve opened the diaconate to women, you are opening up the door to female priests,” Pecknold said. “It’s Pope Francis’s stated intent that we pay attention to the role of women in the church. And it’s a fairly easy kind of thing to suggest: ‘Let’s have women be deacons.’ But when you look carefully, you see it’s not an easy fix. It changes church teaching on the diaconate.”
Part of the debate over the years, Pecknold said, is whether this issue is one of church law — which can be changed — or of doctrine, which cannot.
Pecknold noted that Francis just last month created a new, high-level Vatican body to deal with laity and family issues. A woman, Pecknold said, could head this body.
Candida Moss, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said Durocher’s suggestion Tuesday would be welcomed by some advocates for women’s ordination but that in reality “it’s an unhappy compromise for everyone.”
Theologians agree that the word “deacon” is used in the New Testament in some places to refer to women, but they disagree on what the word meant. Church tradition does not, Moss said, “maintain that women performed priestly roles.”
In other words, embracing female deacons and citing Scripture, she said, is a “return to biblical fundamentals.” Accepting female priests, on the other hand, requires an acknowledgement of change, of development in doctrine, she said.
“Allowing women to serve as deacons, therefore, is not a sign of progress … the ecclesial glass ceiling is very much intact,” she said.
Women’s Ordination Worldwide, a decades-old group advocating for women to be ordained in all Catholic ministries, issued a statement Tuesday saying it applauded Durocher for “raising the suggestion to the exclusively male-voting body” and for making a connection between the status of women in the church and their safety in the world.
Female deacons would be welcome, WOW said, but only as a step toward women’s full inclusion in church leadership.
“The hierarchy deprives people of the pastors God calls for them and of the leadership gifts found in women who would serve the Church; upholding this discrimination, as though it were the will of God, is simply indefensible,” WOW’s statement read.
Francis triggered debate early in his pontificate by saying the church needs to advance a “theology of women” and praised the fact that feminine pronouns are used to describe the entire church. Some Catholic women embraced what they saw as a call to raising women’s leadership, while others saw an unproductive division between the sexes.
Mary Hasson, a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center — a more conservative think tank on faith issues — said while she welcomed the archbishop’s interest in expanding leadership roles for women, she opposes the ordination of women because it’s unclear historically what the role of female deacons was.
“For too many years, the misguided lobbying for women priests monopolized the conversation about women’s contributions to the life of the church. Pope Francis is urging greater participation of women, so let’s have that conversation without getting sidetracked by a quest for ordination,” Hasson said.
Moss noted that Francis has spoken often about women’s role as mothers, and in the United States he urged people to start families earlier and to have children.
The role of women is one of the family topics the bishops are discussing this month at the synod, after which Francis is expected to write a teaching. Some predict it could make dramatic changes — such as allowing people who divorced and remarried outside the church to still take Communion and fully participate in church life — while others think Francis will probably encourage people to stay with the same practices and doctrine.
“We’ll probably end up with the same comment that women should have greater leadership roles and we can’t spell out what that means except it’s not clerical,” Moss said. “Or, this could be an exciting moment, but we say that a lot with Francis. It’s exciting because we’re even having this conversation.”