April 09, 2020

Pope Francis and the discussion on women deacons: looking for a lateral way of thinking

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis arrives for the afternoon session of the Amazon Synod at the entrance of the Vatican's Synod Hall, October 15, 2019. / credit:  Daniel Ibanez / ACI Group
Pope Francis arrives for the afternoon session of the Amazon Synod at the entrance of the Vatican's Synod Hall, October 15, 2019. / credit: Daniel Ibanez / ACI Group

Pope Francis promised it at the end of the Special Synod on the Amazon: he would create a commission on the diaconate for women – again – and he’s kept his promise.

The new commission was established on Apr. 8, with a completely new lineup.

The president is Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi, archbishop of L’Aquila, and the secretary is Msgr. Denis Dupont-Fauville, an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Along with them, the commission is composed of ten members (five men and five women). 

The commission replaces the earlier one, which Pope Francis established in 2016 and placed in the hands of his erstwhile confrere, Cardinal Luis Ladaria SJ, now Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith CDF. At the time Francis’s first commission was created, however, Ladaria was archbishop and secretary of the CDF.

That commission was composed of theologians who held a range of opinions on the question: some strongly in favor of the ordination of women deacons, and others equally strong in opposition. 

The commission drafted a document given to Pope Francis in 2018, which contained no hard conclusions, nor even any real agreements. The Pope asked the members to keep on studying the issue.

Pope Francis never proved to be a fan of the proposal. Speaking to the members of the Union of the Sisters Superior General in 2019, the Pope said: “We need to look back at the beginning of the revelation. If there was something (concerning the women deacons, editor note), we should let it grow. If there was not anything, it means that the Lord did not want the ministry. The sacramental ministry is not fit for women.” 

Despite his perplexity on the matter, Pope Francis established another commission.

This is the third time the issue goes under study: the International Theological Commission dedicated a paper to the challenges of the diaconate, published in 2003. What does Pope Francis want to get with this new commission?

There is the impression that Pope Francis is looking fora a “creative” way to solve the issue, not to consent the ordination of women deacons, and at the same time to meet expectations. The composition of the new commission itself suggests this scenario.

The first commission was born in a split: the progressives wanted to overturn the 2003 ITC document, while the conservatives wanted to keep the ITC’s conclusions and – if possible – close the door.

The stalemate and stall-out of Francis’s first commission was almost an inevitable consequence of its composition, but this second commission is a game-changer.

Pope Francis chose as chairman Cardinal Petrocchi, who is not even a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The secretary is the Congregation's representative: he is Denis Dupont-Fauville, a Frenchman who has been a diocesan delegate in Paris for the permanent diaconate. 

Looking at the members, none of them took strong stances to back the ordination of women deacons. 

The theologian Anne Marie Pellettier is the most prominent member. She is the recipient of the 2014 Ratzinger Prize for Theology and the author of the meditation for the 2017 Way of the Cross at the Colosseum. 

Her last book is titled The Church, some women with some men (L’Eglise, des femmes aves des hommes). Although a feminist advocate, she does not advocate for women’s ordination. She has said that the magisterium already said what it had to say on the issue. 

Pellettier aims instead of forming a Church “less male” in mentality. The women in the Church – she says – already work in the Church, in many areas of service. So, there is no need for ordination, since this would “clericalize” the problem. Pellettier asks for a way somehow to institutionalize women’s service in the Church.

Another member of the commission is Msgr. Angelo Laneri, vice-dean of Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University. Before, he was director of the Italian Bishops Conference’s Liturgical office. He wrote just one paper on the issues of the diaconate, in 2008. He is a professor of “Ordained Ministries in the Church.” He is very much appreciated for his understatement. He does not seem to be progressive in his theology. 

Pope Francis also tapped two US permanent deacons int he commission.

Deacon James Keating recently published a book, The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ”. He proposed to include, in the path towards priesthood, a step as a permanent deacon. 

Dominic Cerrato is also a permanent deacon, married 36 years, father of seven and grandfather of many. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Theology from Franciscan University, a Master’s in Theology from Duquesne University where he also completed his PhD course work with a concentration in healthcare ethics.

None of that leads one to think Keating is going to take ultra-progressive positions in the coming discussions. He also published a book recently, titled, In the Person of Christ the Servant, A Theology of the Diaconate Based on the Personalist Thought of Pope John Paul II.

Fr. Manfred Hauke is another member with a profile that cannot be labeled as progressive. He has published monographs about the Priesthood of Women (doctorate), the doctrine of original sin in the Greek Fathers (habilitation),  Confirmation, and Feminist Theology. 

In 1988, he published “Observations on the Ordination of Women to the Diaconate” – a paper contained in The Church and Women, edited by Msgr. Helmut Moll.

Barbara Hallensblen, Caroline Farey, Rosalba Manes, and Catherine Brown Tacz are also part of the commission.

The last is an expert on Eastern Churches' issues, while Barbara Hallensblen teaches at the University of Freiburg and has also had experience in the field as a pastoral assistant. Caroline Farey works for the Shrewsbury diocese as a mission catechist. In 2012, she contributed to a working group chaired by Cardinal George Pell at the Synod on New Evangelisation.

The youngest member of the commission, Rosalba Manes, teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University and is a Sacred Scripture scholar.

Fr. Santiago del Cura Elena hails from Spain. A renewed theologian, member of the International Theological Commission from 1997 to 2009. He is one of the drafters of the 2003 document on the diaconate. He will likely stand to defend the conclusions of the paper on which he worked.  

The commission has many characteristics worth highlighting.

First of all, not all the members have any background studying in Rome. Secondly, the Pope appointed no historian to the commission, which makes one think that the Pope wants the commission to approach the issue from the pastoral, rather than the historical-theological point-of-view. Third, none of the members is an advocate for any real revolution in the Church.

At the same time, however, the commission as a whole is not invested in past discussions. Perhaps they will be able to set up a proposal that might fit the mind of the pope, who has said no to women’s ordination to the priesthood, and has shown himself to be skeptical about women deacons.

None of that is to say Pope Francis is not slowly working to carve out a more visible and more important role for women in the Vatican. Pope Francis tapped a woman – Francesca Di Giovanni – as undersecretary for the multilateral issues at the Secretariat of State, making of her the first woman “vice-minister” for foreign affairs. It is no secret that the Pope was thinking about appointing a woman as head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy. There are other, similar steps, to which one could point.

These appointments tend to suggest that Pope Francis does not care about ordination. He has also made statements in harmony with Pellettier’s opinion that ordination would be a clerical solution. 

Hence, the new commission: To respond to the requests of the Synod, and to look for a creative way out of the discussion. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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