In the early morning hours of May 12, I awoke to an urgent Facebook message from a friend and a stunning headline from the National Catholic Reporter: “Francis to create commission to study female deacons in the Catholic Church.” We at FutureChurch might have been surprised by the news, but there is no doubt that we were well prepared for this moment.
For 26 years, FutureChurch has been telling the story of women deacons (who served for centuries) and encouraging church leaders to restore this ministry today. In the months leading up to the May 12 meeting between Pope Francis and the female leaders of religious congregations when Francis agreed to “constitute an official commission” to study the question of women deacons, FutureChurch had already laid the groundwork for this unforeseen opportunity.
In October, FutureChurch personally delivered 8,300 signatures of support to Archbishop Paul-André Durocher who in an intervention at the Synod of Bishops called for expanded roles for women in the church, including the permanent diaconate. In March, FutureChurch launched catholicwomendeacons.org, which includes many resources for learning about the history of women deacons, discerning a vocation to the diaconate, and encouraging bishops to seriously examine this possibility. In April, FutureChurch hosted a teleconference that featured three Catholic women who are ready to serve as deacons and have experienced a call to this ministry.
These efforts are a small but significant part of a much larger movement within the church in which Catholic women are taking on expanded leadership and ministerial roles. Today women are exercising unprecedented leadership in parish, diocesan and Vatican administration, as executives and board members in Catholic schools and hospitals and charities, and as chaplains, catechists, theologians and seminary formators. (The most recent development, announced on July 11, is that Paloma Garcia Ovejero, a Spanish lay woman and veteran journalist, will serve as vice director of the Vatican Press Office.)
In what other capacities might women serve? Is the diaconate a possibility?
Some naysayers claim the Vatican already studied the question of women deacons and rendered a negative judgment. It is true that in 2002 the International Theological Commission issued a lengthy report on the historical development of the diaconate, but only two brief sections (comprising 2,660 of 42,000 total words) examined the ministry and subsequent disappearance of women deacons. This means the ITC left out reams of historical data and theological reflection on the question. Also, the ITC arrived at no definitive conclusion, instead saying that it “pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.”
The present commission presents an unprecedented opportunity to explore the matter in greater depth and breadth, drawing from the recent scholarship of Cipriano Vagaggini, Phyllis Zagano, Gary Macy and others. In the synodal church that Pope Francis has repeatedly called for, the commission also has an opportunity to engage in a pastoral discernment involving prayer, dialogue, listening and a full assessment of missionary opportunities, pastoral needs and the gifts, charisms and actual ministry of women in the church today. The recent Synod on the family, which involved a global survey of Catholics and the encouragement of Pope Francis to bishops to speak with parrhesia (boldness and courage), provides a model for a pastoral discernment concerning the matter of women deacons. If this happens with great freedom and openness to the Holy Spirit, then no one knows where the winds will blow.