Yesterday, Pope Francis met with women religious from the International Union of Superiors General (UISG). In response to their unflinching question three years ago about women deacons, he handed them a report saying there had not been agreement about whether women deacons were ordained in the early Church in the same way men were ordained.
Several things jump out.
First of all, it is striking that he sought a unified position from the commission rather than weighing the evidence and the current of contemporary scholarship. Compelling evidence that women were ordained with the same rites as male deacons abounds, but even if some disagreed with that conclusion, the standard he used is an outlier. Not many things would get done in this Church is we waited for everyone to agree. Even Gaudium et Spes got 75 “no” votes (over 2300 “yes” votes) during the Second Vatican Council. Certainly disagreement over issues within synod documents over the past five years is proof that this pope has not waited for agreement, but instead looked for a degree of consensus.
Secondly, it is striking that he does not have a clear way forward. Individual research? How much more could there be? If Phyllis Zagano and others in the field haven’t uncovered it yet, it may not exist.
On the positive side, there was no attempt to shut down the dialogue on this, no pronouncement that the question is closed, as was the case with Pope Francis's predecessor. The question is still under deliberation and that is the way it should be.
Pope Francis may feel he needs a rock solid foundation to make this decision knowing that it will discomfort male clerics and other conservative leaning Catholics who do want to see women have more authority.
But what “weighs light” in his calculus are the deep hopes and yearnings of women in this church who know their gifts are being underutilized or ignored and are grieved by the inability of male leaders to be true brothers and true partners. In short, Pope Francis and those who surround him continue to fail women, and the entire church on this front.
What more is needed to create the impetus for change?
For one, Pope Francis needs close advisors who are women. His ears are attuned to the voices of other ordained men, the group he most trusts, but like most change, his heart must be changed through experience with those who are excluded.
Pope Francis needs to set up structures whereby he can immerse himself in the experience of women in this Church. He must have more thoughtful, engaged contact with women leaders than the occasional visit to an assembly. Meeting with a group as powerful as the UISG is extremely useful, but, even more than that, women must become part of the core groups that advise him, especially the group of Cardinals that meets regularly. Women must become full voting members at synods. Women must be equally represented in curial offices, diocesan offices, and parish offices. Where ever men are found, women should be standing next to them as equal partners.
Still, for all the doubts that Pope Francis seems to inhabit; for all the ways he cannot hear God's Spirit in the voices of faith filled women because his world, his conversations, and his interactions are still dominated by male clerics, here is how it will change.
During the UISG assembly, one religious superior stood up and told the pope that “women like her were seeking to serve the church on an equal setting with men." She asked why the question of whether women could serve as deacons rested on historical practice.
Her question floats above all the doubt -- a beacon of light.
One prophetic voice can change everything in this Church. In fact, it is the only way change has ever occurred. God is always way ahead of Her people, even ahead of Her popes. She speaks to us, sometimes in whispers, but often in the unflinching questions of Her prophets.