On May 12, 2016, during a meeting with 800 women serving as general superiors of religious orders from around the world, Pope Francis surprised Catholics everywhere when he announced that he was preparing to set up a commission to investigate “deaconnesses” in the early Church — a proposal that came in response to a question as to whether such women might have a role in 21st century Catholicism. Shortly thereafter, Pope Francis’ favorite harbinger of radical change, Cardinal Walter Kasper, began advancing the issue in an interview with La Repubblica:
“There is going to be a fierce debate, I think. On this issue, the Church is split down the middle,” German Cardinal Walter Kasper said in an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica.
Kasper’s comments came a day after Francis said he would set up a commission to study the possibility of having women serving as deacons, ordained members of the clergy who can carry out many of the duties of priests.
Kasper, one of the most influential liberal voices in Catholicism, said Francis wanted the issues aired after years of demands for women to have a greater role in the Church hierarchy.
“I personally don’t have a clear position but I am always open to and ready for innovation,” Kasper said, adding it was impossible to predict the outcome of the review.
“If you look at what has happened in the past, it would lead you to say no (to female deacons). But anything is possible.” [emphasis added]
At the time, I shortsightedly observed that I didn’t “expect much movement on female deacons. They’ll dredge it up and look at it all over again, and very little will come of it, despite the excitement of Fr. James Martin and company.” My primary concern was the near-constant introduction of novelty, and the instability it causes in the Catholic mindset.
And at first, it appeared I might have been correct. After a brief flurry in the Catholic media, the matter died down from public view as the controversy over the then newly-released post synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, surged. Nevertheless, in August of 2016, the commission proposed by Pope Francis was established. And quietly, the question of a female diaconate has continuously been advanced behind the scenes ever since.
Looking back over the past year it’s possible to observe small glimpses of this agenda surfacing. In May 2016, Dr. Stefan Sander, a German theologian and the managing director of the International Diaconate Center in Rottenburg, was received in a papal audience. Dr. Sander has been on record as an advocate for the female diaconate, and he published a report that same month with Radio Vatikan — the German division of Vatican Radio — entitled, “The Church Needs Women as Deaconesses.” As Maike Hickson reported at the time:
Sander now claims, according to katholisch.de, that “there is no dogmatic stipulation that would exclude women from the diaconate.” As Sander told Radio Vatikan: “A diaconal Church needs the deacon, and a diaconal Church needs the women!” He continues, by saying: “In my view, this Church also needs women as deaconesses.”
In June 2016, there was another blip on the radar. A meeting of the group “Women’s Ordination Worldwide” was held in Rome, and the group was granted an audience with the Vatican Secretariat of State. A petition with their concerns was given to the pope, and they were allowed to protest in the gardens of Castel Sant’Angelo on the very same day that the Pope was offering a jubilee mass for priests in St Peter’s Square. Members of the group were also given tickets to attend that papal Mass for priests, a symbolic gesture not lost on their leadership:
“We thought that the Jubilee for Priests was a perfect time to really give an offering and a celebration for all women called to priesthood,” said Kate McElwee, co-executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, the U.S.-based member of WOW. “We really wanted to have this as a celebration and a serious conversation of women in the church.”
In August of 2016, a statement was released by the Central Committee of German Catholics (Zentralrat der Deutschen Katholiken – ZDK) — the largest lay organization in that country — advocating a relaxation of the rules of priestly celibacy in response to Germany’s devastating vocational crisis. In the statement from ZDK, there was another theme – a proposal to further discuss the idea of female deacons.
The issue of relaxing priestly celibacy came up again in September 2016, in separate reports from Vaticanistas Marco Tosatti and Sandro Magister. And while the question of female deacons was not specifically addressed in these reports, the not uncommon intermingling of calls for the relaxation of priestly celibacy and a move toward the female diaconate, as seen in the ZDK statement above, should be remembered when evaluating such proposals. At the time, Magister spoke of a possible forthcoming “Amazon synod” that would address certain issues that might therefore also invite conversation on the female diaconate:
There is renewed vigor behind the rumor that Jorge Mario Bergoglio wants to assign to the next worldwide synod of bishops, scheduled for 2018, precisely the question of ordained ministers, bishops, priests, deacons, including the ordination of married men.
In December 2016, noted liberation theologian Leonardo Boff gave an interview to the German newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. In her translation of that interview, Maike Hickson reported a noteworthy observation by Boff which echoed Magister’s prediction:
[Boff]: …Only recently, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a close confidant of the pope, told me that soon there will be some great surprises.
Q: What do you expect?
Who knows? Perhaps a diaconate for women, after all. Or the possibility that married priests may be again engaged in pastoral care. That is an explicit request from the Brazilian bishops to the pope, especially from his friend, the retired Brazilian Curial Cardinal Claudio Hummes. I have heard that the pope wants to meet this request – for now and for a certain experimental period in Brazil. [emphasis added]
What was only rumor at the time of Magister’s report and Boff’s interview has since been at least partially confirmed as fact. We now know that the next synod will take place in 2018, and that the topic will be “Youth, faith and vocational discernment”. In the synod’s preparatory document, released in January 2017, there is nothing specifically addressing priestly celibacy or the female diaconate, but there is language that could easily establish the groundwork for such innovations:
Accompanying young people requires going beyond a preconceived framework, encountering young people where they are, adapting to their times and pace of life and taking them seriously. This is to be done as young people seek to make sense of the reality in which they live and to utilize the message which they have received in words and deeds in their daily attempts to create a personal history and in the more-or-less conscious search for meaning in their lives.
Precisely because the proposed message involves the freedom of young people, every community needs to give importance to creative ways of addressing young people in a personal way and supporting personal development. In many cases, the task involves learning to allow for something new and not stifling what is new by attempting to apply a preconceived framework. No seed for vocations can be fruitful if approached with a closed and “complacent pastoral attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’” and without people being “bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities” (Evangelii gaudium, 33). [emphasis added]
In February 2017, Magister again noted a more significant development in the push toward a female diaconate — one which comes by way of revisiting the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood:
On August 2, 2016, Pope Francis instituted a commission to study the history of the female diaconate, for the purpose of its possible restoration. And some have seen this as a first step toward priesthood for women, in spite of the fact that Francis himself seems to have ruled it out absolutely, responding as follows to a question on the return flight from his journey to Sweden last November 1 (in the photo, his embrace with Swedish Lutheran archbishop Antje Jackelen):
“For the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by Saint John Paul II, and this holds.”
But to read the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” the question of women priests appears to be anything but closed. On the contrary, wide open.
“La Civiltà Cattolica” is not just any magazine. By statute, every line of it is printed after inspection by the Holy See. But in addition there is the very close confidential relationship between Jorge Mario Bergoglio and the magazine’s editor, the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro.
Who in turn has his most trusted colleague in deputy editor Giancarlo Pani, he too a Jesuit like all the writers of the magazine.
So then, in the article with his byline that appears in the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” Fr. Pani calmly rips to shreds the “last clear word” – meaning the flat no – that John Paul II spoke against women’s priesthood.
To see how, all it takes is to reread this passage of the article, properly speaking dedicated to the question of women deacons, but taking the cue from there to express hopes for women priests as well.
Specifically, Fr. Pani asserts:
The historical fact of the exclusion of woman from the priesthood because of the “impedimentum sexus” is undeniable. Nevertheless, already in 1948, and therefore well ahead of the disputes of the 1960’s, Fr. Congar pointed out that “the absence of a fact is not a decisive criterion for concluding prudently in every case that the Church cannot do it and will never do it.”
Moreover, another theologian adds, the “consensus fidelium” of many centuries has been called into question in the 20th century above all on account of the profound sociocultural changes concerning woman. It would not make sense to maintain that the Church must change only because the times have changed, but it remains true that a doctrine proposed by the Church needs to be understood by the believing intelligence. The dispute over women priests could be set in parallel with other moments of Church history; in any case, today in the question of female priesthood the “auctoritates,” or official positions of the magisterium, are clear, but many Catholics have a hard time understanding the “rationes” of decisions that, more than expressions of authority, appear to signify authoritarianism. Today there is unease among those who fail to understand how the exclusion of woman from the Church’s ministry can coexist with the affirmation and appreciation of her equal dignity.”
Magister sums up:
In the judgment of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” therefore, not only should the infallibility and definitiveness of John Paul II’s “no” to women priests be brought into doubt, but more important than this “no” are the “developments that the presence of woman in the family and society has undergone in the 21st century.”
And then, in language very much reminiscent of the above-cited preparatory document for the 2018 synod, Magister exposes Pani’s conclusion:
“One cannot always resort to the past, as if only in the past are there indications of the Spirit. Today as well the Spirit is guiding the Church and suggesting the courageous assumption of new perspectives.”
And Francis is the first “not to limit himself to what is already known, but wants to delve into a complex and relevant field, so that it may be the Spirit who guides the Church,” concludes “La Civiltà Cattolica,” evidently with the pope’s imprimatur. [emphasis added]
This push from La Civiltà Cattolica, a periodical that is reportedly reviewed by the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication, can hardly be seen as merely speculative. As Canadian priest and Convivium editor Fr. Raymond de Souza wrote in 2015, La Civiltà Cattolica editor Father Antonio Spadaro is “both a close confidant and mouthpiece of Pope Francis. It is inconceivable that he would write something contrary to what the Holy Father desired.” What is likely happening in Father Pani’s piece, therefore, is likely the setting up the thesis and antithesis in one of Francis’ favorite approaches to injecting controversial issues into the heart of the Church: the Hegelian dialectic. If John Paul II’s “final word” in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is the thesis; Pani’s promotion of a female priesthood the antithesis.
And the synthesis?
This has now, it seems, been presented to us by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture. In a February 24, 2017 interview with the official online publication of the German bishops, katholisch.de, Ravasi pushes the issue of the female diaconate further into the Catholic consciousness. Asked what possibilities he sees for women in the Catholic Church, Ravasi responded:
A diaconate for women would be possible, I think. But of course, it must be discussed, the historical tradition is very complex. In general, I think it is clerical to constantly focus on women’s priesthood. Why do we not start talking about other, very important functions of women in the Church? For example, the leading of a parish, from a structural point of view. Or the area of catechesis, volunteering, finance, architectural planning, design. Why should that not be in the hands of women? Also in Vatican institutions, there could be a stronger presence of women, at higher levels. This is what the Pope also said. Of course, this does not happen immediately.*
The interviewer noted that Ravasi has implemented a first — a female only advisory body for his Pontifical Council for Culture. Ravasi responded with some background on these 35 women – noting that there are among their number Muslims, a Jew, and “non-believers”. He goes on to say that he hopes what he has done will be a model for other Pontifical Councils. When asked why the only pontifical commission with female advisers is Ravasi’s own, he dismissed the insinuation that it is because culture doesn’t play a significant role in the Vatican. He also warned against a danger of women in such roles as being seen as merely filling a “quota”. He then went on to say:
Of course, I also take a risk here. If one of the female counselors, for example, would say that she is in favor of the female priesthood — and in my opinion it would be legitimate to express her opinion — most probably afterwards, there would be the headline: Cardinal Ravasi has proposed the female priesthood. This ambiguity in the field of communication and in the media is currently a very big problem.
It appears here that Ravasi thinks women in positions of influence at the Vatican advancing the idea of a female priesthood are perfectly acceptable. As for the communication problem he says such a statement would represent — namely, that he would be associated with any such position put forward by one of his advisers — it appears to be a problem that nobody in the Vatican is very keen to solve. After all, such a statement attributed to a cardinal of stature like Ravasi is just the kind of thing that helps keep the issue of the female diaconate moving forward. And too much work has already gone into that cause for it to be merely a trivial piece of the papal agenda.
* Translation by Maike Hickson. This post has been updated.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.