In answer to a question by a religious sister at a recent audience, Pope Francis observed that the possibility of there being women deacons is an issue that is open to study. He noted that once a “wise professor” told him that there is a possibility that there were deaconesses in the early Church but the matter “is obscure.” The Pope went on to say that he would be open to setting up a commission to study the matter. This is all well and good.
Of course the media grabbed it and ran with it. Protagonists of this were cheered and understandably so. Others were more cautious, pointing out that agreement to set up a commission does not mean that the results necessarily will be what the protagonists hope will be the case. That is as far as it has gone.
My retired auxiliary bishop expressed his support in the local newspaper, a position he has advocated before. If the Pope asks the opinions of the bishops of the world, I will share with him my thoughts on the matter. For the moment I have yet to be convinced that the “evidence” in the early Church about deaconesses indicates any kind of sacramental ordination. The limited instances in print and in art to my mind are inconclusive and certainly somewhat “obscure.” I agree with one observer that, whatever may have been, references to deaconesses gradually disappear over a not long period of time.
What I would note is this: it seems clear that the true charitable and social work of men and women in the Church has been well fulfilled by the growth of congregations and institutes of women and men of apostolic life, the religious, those extraordinary sisters, brothers and religious order priests who to this day we applaud for their work, their witness and their holy commitment.
There is a long standing additional reservation I have about this discussion of “diaconate ordination.” Many people in the Church today chafe at what they call “clericalism,” any indications of a kind of “special caste” with special “privileges.” The Vatican Council in the Document on the Church (n. 31) and in the declaration on the Laity (n. 13) speaks positively of the many roles the lay faithful fulfill precisely because we all constitute the holy People of God by virtue of our baptism. Do we need to add another “clerical group” to the three we already have?
Whatever the result, I would like to warn against a very contemporary American political model that the Church does not need and that might well compromise the unity and peace of the Church. I refer to the approach of pressure groups who, using questionable language about “rights” and equality,” try to build up a vocal and insistent drumbeat for what they want. That is not the way the apostles made decisions in the Acts of the Apostles. If I have a choice, I would want to model our behavior on the apostles, not American politics.