When posed that way, it sounds utterly preposterous. If there is someone out there who truly believes one gender is inherently and genetically intellectually superior to the other, please enlighten me as to your reasons.
This brings us to Pope Francis and all the fuss about his offer to study whether or not women should have greater roles in the Church, including the possibility of ordaining female deacons. The time is right, as Francis suggests, to do a thorough study of women’s place in the Church and on the altar.
Conservatives reacted in horror, fearing the slippery slope toward the ordination of women priests, while liberals metaphorically (or perhaps literally) danced a jig. The reality of Francis’ comments and what comes of them is likely somewhere between those two extremes.
By way of background, the New Testament tells us the role of the deacon was created by the apostles so they could deploy ministers or designates to do charitable works while they focused on preaching. Over the centuries, the role of deacon was eventually subsumed into the priesthood and hierarchy. Then in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council revived the diaconate as an ordained order open to “mature” men over 35, who can be married.
With the reinstallment of the diaconate, there’s long been an argument that women should be included because early Church sources mention women as deacons centuries ago and today many duties performed by nuns are comparable to deacons’ work.
It remains to be seen exactly which direction the results of such a study mentioned by Francis will lead the Church. But one thing seems pretty certain: Wherever the discussion of women deacons winds up, it will clarify exactly what areas are open to women in the Church and explain why or why not.
Another point to consider is that in a society that demands equality, it will become increasingly difficult to persuade young women to stick with the Church under the status quo.
I certainly acknowledge it is important for the 2,000-year-old Church to withstand cultural whims of the day, but the changing role of women in society is not a whim. It is a fact. As humans, we have evolved and there’s no turning back the clock. Pope Francis has assessed the social landscape and seems to understand the Church must find a way for men and women to move forward on more level footing.
Do we not want the brightest and sharpest minds — male and female — working within the Church as equals to make it stronger and more important in today’s world; a world that often seems to want to knock it down piece by piece? Why would the Church choose to restrict key decision makers and their ideas to only half the talent pool? These are some of the questions likely to be asked if Francis’ suggestions are put to formal study.
Some may argue that intellect is not the sole requirement for ordination. That’s a worthy point to examine. When it comes to pastoral care, empathy, patience, understanding and a willingness to listen are also essential. Anyone who would argue men are generally better at those things than women would have a difficult time defending his position.
There are also deep theological questions involved in expanding the roles of women. For example, because priests act “in persona Christi” or in the place of Jesus in performing all the sacraments, there’s the argument only men can do it because Jesus was a man.
As I’ve often written, I’m no theologian, but I don’t get the restriction based on Jesus’ gender. I bet lots of people in the pews don’t get it either. Hopefully, a papal commission will address why women could not be in persona Christi simply because their earthly bodies do not have the Y chromosome like Jesus had.
Soon after the Pope agreed to set up a commission to examine whether women should be ordained as deacons, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi clarified Francis’ comments. “The Pope did not say he intends to introduce a diaconal ordination for women and even less did he speak of the priestly ordination of women. In fact, talking about preaching during the eucharistic celebration, he let them know that he was not considering this possibility at all.”
Ordaining women as deacons would not necessarily lead to overturning the ban on women priests, just as ordaining married deacons has not led to eliminating the rule of celibacy for priests. But what Francis has done is open up dialogue.
That’s a good thing, especially because for years clergy were forbidden to even discuss the ordination of women.
(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @bbrehl on Twitter.)