Sunday, 23 September 2012

Serving the Church

Christ calling Deaconesses to serve the Church

I am starting from scratch after having written a lengthy post on this topic already and realizing - after talking to my besties YYM1 and PM - that I was approaching the topic all wrong. I can still use all the research, but the tone had to change from the playful and partly sarcastic to what I am going to try next.

I feel that my being married, working at a tech company and being a lay person allows me to seek God without limits, to fully participate in the life of the Church and to have the path to sanctity wide open to me. At the same time I realize though that some of my Catholic sisters suffer from feeling the call to the priesthood and being faced with (a now final) barrier to it:
“I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, §4)
At first sight (and maybe even after repeated reading) this might sound like an aspect of Church teaching that is simply out of date, that needs to catch up with the times and that can be summed up with the following:
“[T]here is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State.” (Letter to Women, §4)
Now, maybe this will come as a surprise, but the author of both of the above quotes is the same person: Blessed Pope John Paul II, and you may ask yourself how he can at the same time talk about women’s rights and slam the door shut on the question of women priests. I believe the answer lies in the following (and, yes, it too is by John Paul II):
“If Christ […] entrusted only to men the task of being an “icon” of his countenance as “shepherd” and “bridegroom” of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, this in no way detracts from the role of women, or for that matter from the role of the other members of the Church who are not ordained to the sacred ministry, since all share equally in the dignity proper to the “common priesthood” based on Baptism.” (Letter to Women, §11)
When I first saw this, a light went on in my mind after I read the words “an “icon” of his countenance.” Priests are Jesus’ proxies and transmit to us his presence in the Church and his being the source of the sacraments. When I attend mass, I experience a man saying the words that bring about the Eucharist, like I would have, had I been at the Last Supper; when I go to confession, I speak to a man, as I would have, had I been among Jesus’ disciples. Jesus having come into the world as a man rather than a woman is not an accident, nor is it a consequence of social conventions. I believe, that God became flesh as a baby boy, to use the male gender in a specific way, just like he sought consent from a girl to become His mother, again because of the specifics of the female gender. To read this as in any way discriminatory against women is incomprehensible to my mind, but I'll leave that to another post.

Let me now put my last card on the table with regard to the priesthood. God’s call is ultimately the same for all of us: to choose Him as the first priority in our lives and to follow his new commandment of love. Placing something above a love for one’s neighbor and for God is a mistake, even if that something is the priesthood. If love for God and neighbor are missing, the priesthood becomes a millstone (“The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” St. John Chrysostom) and if they are present, then it becomes secondary and one seeks specifics with humility. To come at the argument from a perspective of rights is also a category mistake. No one has the right to be made a priest, whether man or woman, and it is in all cases a gift that is received rather than an entitlement that can be claimed.

For now, let it suffice that my argument is this: the priesthood is only open to men, because Jesus was a man and because he indicated to us from the very beginning that it was through men that he wanted certain aspects of his ministry to be perpetuated. In this way, his ministers’ being male is integral to their being Jesus’ proxies and no matter what social or other developments ensue, the priesthood in the Catholic Church is going to remain restricted to them.

This is not the end of the story though, since we are ultimately all being called to be Jesus’ proxies: to be the means by which He can show His love to all. As a married, lay person I don’t feel in any way limited in the extent to which I can strive to imitate Jesus’ love for humanity, even if I don't become a priest. But, and there is a but, there is a variety of other ways in which Jesus can be imitated and and in which Catholics can serve the Church (which is fundamentally also what the priesthood is about: service). Two of these, which today are not open to women, are the diaconate and the office of cardinal, and I would like to argue that they may both one day (hopefully soon) be conferred on women.

Bishop Emil Wcela has just published a very interesting article (that I recommend in full), entitled “Why not women?” It starts where the final word on women priests in the Catholic Church ends: by making a case for exploring the possibility of ordaining women as deacons. Wcela presents a compelling case, starting with evidence for deaconesses dating back right to the time of the apostles (giving the example of St. Phoebe, whom St. Paul calls a diakonos in his letter to the Romans (16:1) - although the meaning of the term is disputed) and dotted through the history of the church (including Pope Benedict VIII writing to the bishop of Porto to give him authority to ordain deaconesses). He the proceeds to give the example of deaconesses in other Christian churches, but is also clear about the fact that this is not the case in the Catholic Church at present.

Nonetheless, there has been a desire to explore its possibility since the Second Vatican Council, including a raising of the issue by the US bishops in a pastoral letter from 1992. 2009 then saw an important change to Canon law, which differentiates between the nature of the priestly and episcopal order and that of deacons, stating that bishops and priests “receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head; deacons, however, are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.” (Canon 1009 of the Code of Canon Law). This change removes the constraints that previous legislation placed on the diaconate and historical precedent further supports a future change in this area. Bishop Wcela finally notes that women already participate extensively in the Church’s ministry and that ordaining them as deacons would provide greater official recognition, confer the grace of the sacrament on them and give them access to ecclesiastical offices that require ordination. The article ends with a call to raising awareness of this opportunity and I would personally like to add my voice to it.

On a related note, Cardinal Timothy Dolan stated in an interview last March, that the office of cardinal is in principle open to women, since it does not require priestly or episcopal orders. He then proceeded to tell the story of how someone once suggested to Pope John Paul II to make Mother Teresa a cardinal, to which he replied: “I asked her - she doesn't want to be one.” While the John Paul II - Mother Teresa story may be little more than an anecdote, it nonetheless expresses both the Church’s newfound openness and Mother Teresa’s humility beautifully. What is key here is the acknowledgement by one of the cardinals that his office is in principle not restricted to women.

I hope it is clear what I am getting at: the role of women in the Church is certainly not what it ought to be, but I see clear signs of a desire to change that, including at the highest levels. What it won’t be is an opening of the priesthood to women, but the diaconate and the office of cardinal are both on the horizon (hopefully even in my own lifetime). One point I would like to emphasize though is that the role of women in the Church needs to be all-pervasive and not only constrained to “women’s issues.” When one of the 23 women present at the Second Vatican Council – one of the Council Mothers – was asked what topics were discussed that related to women, she responded “We are now interested in everything.” As Fr. Fabio Ciardi, who was taught by Rosemary Goldie (another Council Mother) during his time at the Lateran University, said: “The temptation is to constrain women in the Church to dealing with topics that are about women, not knowing that all topics are about them and that they have a contribution to make to all of them.”

1 Thanks to YYM also for giving me probably the most acceptable label: “progressive orthodox.” It may sound like an oxymoron, but I shall wear it with pride :).