Pope Francis’ recent suggestion that a commission should be formed to study the form and fucntion of female deacons in the early Church (with, one would think, an eye on their possible re-introduction into the life of the Church today) has led to much enthusiasm and outrage, both for all the wrong reasons.
The papal comments came as an answer to the question if the permanent diaconate could not be open to men and women alike. It being a spontaneous question-and-answer session, the Holy Father obviously did not have all the necessary information at the ready, so he chose to share what he recalled from conversations with a Syrian theologian he used to meet in Rome, well before he became Pope.
And those recollections immediately point out some of the problems in equating male and theoretical female deacons. The latter’s role was found in sensitive and private situations between women: baptism, which at that time was performed by full immersion, but also cases in which a woman would have to present the physical evidence of an abusive husband! The differences with the duties of a male deacon – who has financial and charitable responsibilities, as well as clearly-defined duties in the liturgy of the Mass – are clear.
A 2002 study by the International Theological Commission, summarised here, also states this, and further reaffirms the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders – the grades of deacon, priest and bishop. A deacon is, at least in theory, able to be ordained as priest and bishop. The Church only has the authority to ordain men, not women (as Pope Francis has pointed out more than once), so in regard to the sacrament, female deacons are not possible.
Many of the duties of a deacon can be performed perfectly well by a woman. In fact, as Father Dwight Longenecker points out, in many parishes, women are already in charge of finances and run the charitable efforts of the community. You don’t need to be ordained for that. Pope Francis is not wrong when he started his answer with the half-joke that the female deacons of the Church are the religious sisters.
That leaves the duties for which ordination is a prerequisite: the liturgy of Holy Mass, such as, for example, reading the Gospel and giving the homily. Here, the deacon or priest does not do anything for himself: he performs the duties of proclamation and teaching of Christ. He is an alter Christus. The Church teaches that this is no act or show, but a sacramental reality, which we are asked to acknowledge in faith.
Some have chosen to see Pope Francis willingness to look into this matter as evidence that he wants female deacons, which is a ridiculous conclusion to draw. By that reasoning, Pope St. John Paul II wanted the same thing when he asked to International Theological Commission to study the matter…
Pope Francis said he wants clarification in this matter, and a conclusion along the lines of the 2002 study is no less a clarification than one that says, yes, there can be female deacons. But, it has to be said, all signs indicate that we should not expect the latter conclusion to be drawn.