Thursday, May 12, 2016

Oops! He Did It Again: Francis and Female Deacons

Well, Pope Francis did it again:  he went and melted the ecclesiastical episcotwitterblogogramsphere.  In a meeting today, he announced that we would appoint a commission to consider the question of female deacons!  Quickly the Washington Post, National Catholic Reporter, and other outlets such as the respected Jesuit Fr James Martin breathlessly reported that Francis has established a commission
Crusty prefers the Richard Thompson version of Oops!
which could "end an all-male clergy" by considering female deacons who could "baptize, officiate at weddings, and deliver the homily at the Mass."

Oops! He -- or They -- did it again?

The problem is, naturally, that Pope Francis did no such thing:  like so many other instances with this Pope, media has taken remarks given in an informal setting and extrapolated widely from them. 

Let's look at what we know of what happened.  Pope Francis was meeting with the International Union of Superiors General (which, to Crusty, does sound vaguely Teamsters-like), and, during a question and answer session, was asked about the possibility of female deacons.  In the transcripts that Crusty has seen so far, the Pope did three things

1)  Acknowledged, by way of recounting a conversation he had with a former professor, that while there were clearly mentions of female deacons in the early church, nobody knows exactly what they did apart from assisting in the baptism of women (since converts were normally adults and baptism was performed by full immersion), and it wasn't clear that they were "ordained."  As a history
Yes, but would they make it through TODAY's ordination process?
professor himself, Crusty certainly hopes that former students will be likewise guided by everything he told them when they ascend to high office.  Note that the Pope did not state his own historical opinion, but recounted a conversation he had with an unnamed professor.  And, BTW, this conversation the Pope recounts is more or less an accurate summary of what we do know about mentions of female deacons -- while keeping in mind we do not possess a full, accurate, and universal accounting of just what male deacons, presbyters, and bishops did across the breadth of the Christian world in those first centuries, either.  There's been a quite a bit of really excellent historical work done in the area specifically of women deacons, including the outstanding scholarship and advocacy of Phyllis Zagano.

2)  Offered this ringing endorsement of a commission to study the matter -- again, in response to specific question from the gathered Union members."Constituting an official commission that might study the question?" the pontiff asked aloud. "I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this....It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well."  

Not entirely the most ringing endorsement in the world, not a bold proclamation.  It seems like a good idea to "clarify this point."  Having been around the church long enough, Crusty can tell you about all the problems that specially appointed commissions have solved...on one finger of one hand.  Crusty's just saying that media reports that the Pope established a commission to consider whether institute a female diaconate is not exactly what he said.  He thinks it might be a good idea to study the question.

3)  He reaffirmed the church's teaching on ordination: in elaborating on who may preach the Homily at the Mass, he stated it must be the priest because the priest stands "in persona Christi."  A quick reminder, friends, of the theological reason why women may not be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church:  because the priest stands in the place of Jesus, Jesus was a man, and thus the priest has to be a man (this is an oversimplification to be sure but that's it in a nutshell).  So, while thinking it might be a good idea to study female deacons, Francis also made sure to restate and reaffirm the Roman Catholic Church's traditional teaching that only men may be ordained.

It is simply a ludicrous, and huge, jump to leap from the Pope thinking it would be a good idea to study the question to saying there is a commission which will decide whether women can be ordained female deacons and do all the same things as male deacons, including sacramental functions like baptizing, officiating at weddings, and preaching in the context of the Mass.  Here are all the steps that would have to happen:

--The Pope would need to appoint the commission.  That'll take time.
--The scope of the commission would need to be defined (just study the early church? make recommendations about current context or not?)
--Even if the commission were to recommend something, the Pope doesn't have to accept it.  Pope Leo sent the commission to study Anglican orders back to redraft its conclusions to condemn Anglican orders (instead of its original mixed verdict) because that's what he wanted.
--Even if the commission were to recommend, and the Pope were to act, it doesn't mean a diaconate equivalent to the male diaconate.  The Episcopal Church, for instance, formally created the office of deaconess by canon in 1889.  However, deaconesses were clearly defined as "consecrated", not ordained; had no sacramental functions; and were specifically considered not to be clergy.  It would be almost a hundred years later, in 1970, that The Episcopal Church would declare that deaconesses.  The Roman Catholic Church doesn't have to restore a female diaconate equivalent to the male diaconate even if it restores the female diaconate!
He also wrote Uncle Vanya.


It's also crucial to keep in mind the witness of certain Eastern Orthodox Churches, for whom the female diaconate is not something confined to ages past.  There have been female deacons in more recent memory in the Armenian Orthodox Church, which ordained women deacons well into the 20th century.  The Church of Greece voted to restore the female diaconate in 2004.  But, as the Western media's fascination with the Pope is concerned, we all know nothing is real unless the Roman Catholic Church does it.  So let's spill a lot more ink about Pope Francis speculating on a possible commission to study the question than point out an actual, real, Eastern Orthodox Church has voted to restore the female diaconate.

To be clear, Crusty would welcome the Roman Catholic Church joining an emerging ecumenical consensus and supporting restoration of a female diaconate.  COD is just noting his bemusement at the perpetual flights of fancy that seem to accompany anything which comes out of this Pope's mouth.  We've seen this phenomenon over and again with Francis:  he makes a comment in an unrehearsed or informal setting (like a press conference, or in a Q&A session), the secular and some religious media outlets blow this entirely out of proportion, while all the while Francis is also clear to reaffirm traditional Catholic teaching and practice.  This happened with his remarks about gay and lesbian persons, and it happened around the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics would be able to receive Communion.  It's remarkable that it continues to happen time and again.

As the old Russian saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." 

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