08 April 2020, The Tablet

Pope to reconsider question of women deacons

Pope to reconsider question of women deacons

A woman holds a sign in support of women deacons as Pope Francis leads his general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 6, 2019.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis has set up a new commission study the question of women deacons.

It is the second study commission on the subject. The first one was set up in August 2016 to look the role of women in the early church.

It produced a report last January and in May, Pope Francis said its members had been unable to reach a definitive consensus on the historical role of women.

None of the members of the first study commission have been appointed to the new one.

The members include the UK's Dr Caroline Farey, who works for the Shrewbury diocese as a mission catechist. She has previously worked at the Maryvale Institute and St Mary's College, Oscott, teaching Thomism.

She has a pontifical doctorate from the Lateran and contributed to a working group chaired by Cardinal George Pell at the Synod on New Evangelisation in 2012. She is one of the founders of the School of Annunciation based at Buckfast Abbey.

In a statement today, the Holy See said: "During a recent audience granted to His Eminence Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Holy Father decided to establish a new study commission on the female diaconate."

The new commission was was promised by Pope Francis at the end of the Amazon synod, but its announcement today took many by surprise.

The commission will be led by Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi, Archbishop of L'Aquila and the secretary will be Dr Denis Dupont-Fauville, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Other members are Catherine Brown Tkacz of Ukraine, Dominic Cerrato or Steubenville in the US, Don Santiago del Cura Elena, of Burgos in Spain, Barbara Hallensleben of Freiburg, Switzerland, Don Manfred Hauke of Lugano, Switzerland, James Keating of Omaha, USA, Mgr Angelo Lameri of Crema, Italy, Rosalba Manes of Viterbo, Italy and Anne-Marie Pelletier of Paris, France.

The Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) was among those who gave a guarded response to the news, which comes 165 days after Pope Francis’ remarks at the close of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon region, when he committed to further study on the topic: “I am going to take up the challenge … that you have put forward, that women be heard.” 

In May 2019, Pope Francis delivered a report from the original commission, to the International Union Superior Generals, and while this report was never made public, he stated at the time: “I cannot make a sacramental decree [on women deacons] without a theological, historical foundation.” 

The  WOC said today that the “theological, historical foundation” exists in abundance, thanks to the work of scholars like Dr. Phyllis Zagano, Dr Gary Macy, Dr Dorothy Irvin, Dr Hans Wijngaards, Sr Christine Schenk and others.

"Holding women deacons to an impossible standard of historical consistency that is not used for other elements of our tradition is out of line with the essentially Catholic belief in development of doctrine," the WOC said. 

"Women have been protagonists in the history of our faith since the time of the Gospels, something we are particularly reminded of this Holy Week. We do not need to prove our sacramentality. The ability of our bodies to manifest revelation is not up for debate.

"We have heard the cries of the people of the Amazon and around the world for this ministry to be restored. We pray that the overwhelming historical evidence of women deacons, and the urgent need for women’s ordained ministries guides the work of this commission to formalise a path toward ordination for women by recognising the work that women already do." 

They added: "The Women’s Ordination Conference supports a commission that is open to the movement of the Spirit and the reality of the historical record, not one that seeks to justify a foreordained conclusion cementing women’s second-class status in the Church."

Writer and broadcaster Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton in London, told The Tablet: "I cannot help but feel that the appointment of yet another commission, which sees to be less diverse and more conservative in its members' theological perspectives than the previous one, is simply a delaying tactic. It smacks of continuing to change the panel until the experts come up with the answer the Vatican wants."

Catholic Women's Ordination said: "CWO is dismayed to see yet another commission formed to study the question of women deacons and would like to know, what happened to the last one? Where is the report of what they discussed and discovered and why have the members of that study group been discarded only to be replaced with a group of very conservative theologians known for their hostility to women's ministry? The history and theology of women deacons is well established and has already been studied for decades. What is this new group hoping to discover and what is their brief from the Vatican?

"We also note that, despite the Synod on the Amazon bringing forth powerful testimony from local experts on the work women are actually doing in ministry, that there is an absence of representation from the Amazon and other developing countries. Only 165 days ago, Pope Francis promised the Synod, “I am going to take up the challenge that you have put forward, that women be heard.” So where is that voice or representation now on this Commission?
"As we prepare for Easter when we commemorate how the women stood beneath the cross when all the men had fled, and how Jesus chose to send Mary Magdalene forth as, his 'Apostle to the Apostles', CWO feels that this new commission is a betrayal of women's history in the Church and our potential and rightful place as equal ministers."



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