Well, the Synod is underway and Archbishop Paul Andre Durocher of Gatineau Quebec, President of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, raised the issue of ordaining women to the Diaconate. Of course it has the krazies in a flap. There are those who still want to hold that women are to be veiled virgins or fecund mothers—leave everything else to the men. But several of you have contacted me as to what I think about it. I don’t know why that matters. I don’t get a lot of say in things, just the chance to sit on the sidelines and take the occasional pot-shot when some itinerant emperor parades by naked. Of course, given the dysfunction in our Church structures, that happens pretty often these days, faster than I can blog.
But as to what I think of women deacons? I think it is a great idea. Long overdue. I mean long—like maybe a millennium and a half—overdue. Why did we ever stop ordaining women deacons? They could have been a great help in spreading the faith up into Northern Europe in the sixth and seventh and eighth centuries. They could have been of great pastoral help in the European urban expansion of the 12th and 13th centuries. They could have anchored the faith in the rough seas of the 16th century Reformations. They could have been great and effective evangelists in the missionary expansions of the 17th-20th centuries. And most important of all, if we had kept women deacons from the days of the primitive Church, our skirted clerics wouldn’t be so friggin’ frightened of human beings with lady parts now. Honest to God, the way they go on you’d think we are going to have menstrual blood all over the altar steps. Or that it couldn’t be cleaned up if it did happen. Move on boys, nothing to see here.
The first thing we need to remember is that while deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders at their diaconal ordination, their participation in the priesthood is that priesthood common to all the baptized. They do not share in the “ordained priesthood” in which priests share and bishops possess in its fullness. Therefore, any theological blocks that may exist to women in the presbyterate or episcopate are not relevant to the admission of women to the diaconate. Of course, since the diaconate is the fire-door to the priesthood we are letting the girls get awfully close; one senile bishop’s bejeweled hands away and no alarm bells to stop in time! Worked for the Episcopalians, but then a lot of things work for them that don’t for us and I am not going down that rabbit hole.
It may surprise some readers too that while women deacons are a well established historical fact up until the fourth century, the Roman Catholic Church has continued the practice, albeit in a severely abrogated form. Nuns of the Carthusian Order, perhaps the strictest of Religious Orders whose members live as hermits, on the occasion of the Solemn Profession of Vows are vested in the diaconal stole and given the right to read the Gospel at certain services. (The right of liturgically proclaiming the Gospel is the most important of the rights and privileges of Deacons in the Catholic Church. The Deacon takes precedence in the reading of the Gospel over any priest or bishop present. Even the Pope! Even Cardinal Burke!!!) While no one considers the nuns to be “deacons,” nor to have received the Diaconate in the same sense in which men are ordained deacons, the unique role of these women is a vestige of the once common practice of nuns being ordained to the diaconate. I have also read that the practice of Deacon-nuns has not completely disappeared in some of the non-Chalcedonian Churches of the East and there are Orthodox Churches considering reintroducing Deaconesses, especially in monastic communities. So, in other words, some of the men aren’t afraid of the competition as long as the women are locked away where they can’t mess things up for the boys. Got it? Isn’t it always the way?
And I think this is the real problem in reintroducing the Diaconate to women. For many conservative Catholic laity it is simply another indication of the radical social revolution of the last 75 years in western society where women have broken through glass ceiling after glass ceiling, displacing male leadership and chipping away at patriarchy. For a significant portion of clergy—including male deacons—it opens a male preserve to radical change that would mark “the rise and the fall of many in Israel.” I think there is serious need for us as a Church—note, for us as a Church, not simply the “them” in the red beanies—to discuss the broader and deeper issues of gender, power, and human sexuality. We need to come to some level of honesty as to what the real issues are that we are permitting to shape us as a Church and how those issues are advancing or retarding our mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. The questions are a lot deeper than ordaining women to the diaconate and the questions are long overdue.