The female diaconate under study in Rome
A Synod of Bishops on the issue could perhaps give greater emphasis to the strong pastoral dimension of such a change.
Foreshadowed by Francis in May, the Study Commission on the Diaconate of Women is meeting for the first time at the Vatican today
Why this Commission?
Last May, in the presence of several hundred major superiors from around the world meeting in Rome, Pope Francis accepted the idea of a commission to study the issue of the diaconate for women in the particular light of the experience of “the first centuries of the Church.”
Several months later, the Vatican published a list of members of the body, which comprises six men and six women – two religious and four lay people. Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria, second in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, presides over the commission which has no time limit on its mandaate and will meet as many times as required.
Where is the Church on the issue of the diaconate for women?
This sensitive and recurrent debate goes back to the Second Vatican Council, which by restoring the permanent diaconate for men, re-opened reflection on the diaconate for women. In 2003, the International Theological Commission (ITC) published the results of its five years of work on the history and theology of the diaconate, dealing particularly with deaconesses. However, the possibility of an eventual restoration of the female diaconate comes down mainly to the ordination question. The issue of whether women deacons received ordination or a blessing in the early Church is still under debate. The ITC did not rule on the issue and concluded in 2003 that it now belonged “to the Magisterium to decide the issue authoritatively.”
What was the historical role of deaconesses?
Women diakonos are mentioned in the New Testament and in the sources of the early Church in the East, in Syria and particularly in Constantinople. At a time when baptism was practiced by total immersion, only women were able to preside at the baptism of women. They also paid visits to the sick.
“All the same, their ministry is not comparable to that of deacons today,” comments Archbishop Roland Minnerath of Dijon (Côte d’Or region), who took part in the work of the ITC. In the sources, “one never sees them, for example, having a role in the liturgy or preaching,” he notes.
The historical approach of the commission also raises the methodological question of “the relevance of historical arguments in a pastoral decision” bearing in mind that “Tradition is not just an accumulation of archives,” according to Fr Luc Forrestier, director of the Institute of Religious Studies at the Catholic Institute of Paris. In addition, the male diaconate today is not identical with that in the early days of the Church, he points out.
What prospects for the future?
While “the work has already been completed from a historical point of view,” as Archbishop Minnerath points out, this is the first time that a commission will be devoted exclusively to the issue of the female diaconate.
“This is all the more important since research on the issue has progressed over the last fifteen years,” says Fr Forestier, citing advances in gender studies.
“This sociological contribution enables us to reconsider the female diaconate from a new perspective and with a new sensitivity,” he adds.
“From the point of view of scientific methodology, the historical work needs to be done during the first stage but on its own it is not conclusive for the debate,” says Fr Forestier, who believes that reflection should turn towards the East, where the female diaconate was practiced for several centuries. Recently, in fact, the Patriarch of Alexandria and of all Africa announced that he wishes to relaunch the female diaconate.
In order to envisage the access to the diaconate for women, it will still be necessary to overcome the theological obstacles. If a Synod of Bishops were to be held on the issue it could perhaps give greater emphasis to the highly pastoral dimension of such a change.
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