Will the Catholic Church’s Debate on Ordained Women Force Pope Francis to Break the Glass Ceiling?
Aware that the council was going off the rails, the bishops agreed to work on a reformulated set of motions on women in the church. “This is not how we anticipated or hoped the process would unfold,” said Shane Mackinlay, Bishop of Sandhurst in Victoria.
For Gill, the failure of the motion on women deacons was particularly hard. As a member of the Diocese of Broken Bay Diaconate Training Team, she helps prepare aspiring deacons – ordained ministers who are authorized to perform baptisms, marriages and funerals, as well as distribute the Holy Communion.
Gill feels called to be a deacon herself, but is ineligible because she is a woman. This places the Catholic Church far behind other forms of Christianity, such as Anglicanism, in which women have long been able to serve not only as deacons but as priests in many dioceses.
“I love being part of it, but there are many times when I think, ‘I could do it,’” Gill says of his diaconate training role. “You look at society in general and the church is quite behind on what women are allowed to do.”
The tumult of the plenary council was just the latest skirmish in a global reflection on the role of women in the Catholic Church, overseen by reformer Pope Francis.
Francis is not a radical for gender equality; in 2019, he called feminism “skirted machismo”. But Christopher Lamb, author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and his battle to reform the Churchsays the pope has taken significant steps to elevate the role of women in the church since his election in 2013.
While the plenary council was in progress, Francis announced he would appoint women to a committee that would advise him on the selection of bishops for the first time in church history. This week he named the three women – two nuns and one layman – he chose for the job. Last year he changed church law to officially allow lay women to perform duties during Mass, including reading liturgies. The pope also made history recently by appointing women to the council that oversees Vatican finances and to the powerful synod of bishops. “He broke a number of Vatican glass ceilings,” Lamb says.
The burning question now is whether Francis will go a step further and allow women to serve as deacons. A commission of experts, launched by the pope in 2020, is currently studying the issue after a similar commission in 2016 failed to reach a consensus.
Prominent Catholic scholar Phyllis Zagano, who served on Francis’ expert commission in 2016, says there is no compelling historical or biblical reason to continue to exclude women from the service of deacons.
Zagano, the author of Women in Ministry: Emerging Issues in the Diaconate, says that male and female deacons existed as members of the same diaconate until the 12th century, when the ministry was subsumed into the priesthood. A separate ministry for deacons was revived in 1967, allowing married men to serve in the diaconate but not women.
“History cannot be changed; the story is there,” Zagano says. Others insist that theological issues are more complicated. In 2019, Francis said: “There were deaconesses at the beginning, but [the question is] was it a sacramental ordination or not?
Some socially conservative Catholics also fear that allowing women to serve as deacons will open the door to female priests, an idea Francis has explicitly ruled out. The debate is heated and contested, but there is momentum for change.
Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese called on the church to allow women deacons, an idea backed by Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell. A large meeting of German Catholics in February – similar to Australia’s plenary council – backed women deacons.
“I think restoring the tradition of ordaining women to the diaconate is certainly doable,” Zagano says. “Many years ago, the best-placed woman in Rome said to me, ‘They can’t say no, they just won’t say yes.’ I think the Holy Father, in his wisdom, is responding to the needs of the Church in such a way that it will not be undone.
As well as sending a powerful symbolic message about women’s empowerment, Vatican expert Christopher Lamb says women deacons would help the church spread its message in areas where priests and volunteers are in short supply. But he says Francis understands the need to move slowly and gradually to avoid drawing fierce opposition from more conservative members of the church hierarchy.
As it drew to a close, the full council passed a series of restated motions saying that every Catholic diocese in Australia should commit to creating “new opportunities for women to participate in ministries that engage in the most important aspects of diocesan and parish life”.
Attendees – including 37 of the 43 bishops – backed a motion saying the church would consider how best to allow women to serve as deacons if such a move is approved by the Vatican.
After initially feeling devastated by the full council, Gill says she admires how the bishops and other attendees came together just in time to recognize the role of women in the church.
Regardless of what Pope Francis decides, the 73-year-old will never achieve her ambition to be a deacon: according to Catholic rules, deacons cannot be older than 65 when ordained. But she hopes young Catholic women will have the opportunity to extend their church service and receive more recognition for their work in the church.
“I think a spark of the Holy Spirit has spread through the wider Catholic community,” she says. “We need to keep that flame burning to make sure change happens eventually.”
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