What’s Up with Pope Francis and the Question of Women Deacons?

I’ve gotten into this conversation numerous times in the last few weeks, so I figured it would be worth a post. Many people have heard rumors regarding Pope Francis and the possibility of women deacons. Murmurs about what the pope does or doesn’t mean began in May when a group of nuns first broached the topic of women deacons with him, and recently re-erupted with the announcement that Pope Francis has indeed put together a committee to study women deacons.

I don’t pretend to know what conclusions the commission will reach, what new information regarding the history of women deacons might come to light, or what the Pope might or might not do with the information gathered by the committee.

For those who have never heard of women deacons, here are a few background facts that might put current conversations in perspective:

  1. In the long history of the Church, women served as deacons for many centuries, beginning in the early Church (St. Phoebe, deaconess from the 1st century, feast day = September 3, is an example).
  2. The exact nature of the role played by women deacons when they existed in the Church seems to have varied a bit from place to place and time to time.
  3. The understanding of the role of deacon at the time when women served as deacons differs from our current understanding of the role of deacon.
  4. For a time in Church history, the role of permanent deacon was lost. Our current understanding of the role of deacon is largely based on a renewal of the permanent diaconate foreshadowed by Trent and implemented through the Vatican II document Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem.
  5. An International Theological Commission issued a document in 2002 with more information on the history of the diaconate and our current understanding thereof. It also includes some information on the historical role of women deacons, but left open a number of questions that would need to be further explored.

A few conclusions:

  1. My personal hope would be that the committee appointed by Pope Francis might further the study begun by the International Theological Commission and shed more light into the rich history of the Church, namely the specific role women deacons played, and the meaning/significance of their ordination, assuming that it was of a different nature from the ordination of men deacons.
  2. Based on what we know from history, it is clear that there is no absolute impediment to having women “deacons” or “deaconesses”.
  3. Let’s be clear: Pope Francis verified in June that no change allowing for women deacons is currently underway. He has, however, begun a commission to further study the role of women deacons in the past and their significance. How the information and conclusion of this study might affect our current or future understanding of the diaconate remains to be seen. Logically, there are only a few paths forward, namely a) no change to current practice, b) a return to practice of ordaining women deacons with a clarified understanding of the role of the diaconate and whether or not it’s sacramental in nature, or c) an inconclusive conclusion. Given that the Church typically thinks and acts in centuries rather than decades, I personally am not holding my breath.

Practical concerns regarding the commission and the question of women deacons aside, I believe Pope Francis is making a clear statement about the need to focus more on the importance of the inclusion and integration of women in the Church, not only through baptism but through meaningful roles in the life and ministry of the Church. Regardless of what ends up happening in the future regarding deaconess, I am hopeful that the current study will lead to a productive dialogue on multiple levels of the Church, help us deepen in our understanding of the diaconate and its history in the Church, and lead to a more profound understanding of the role women have played in the Church through the centuries.