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Cerrato: Understanding Pope Francis, women and holy orders

Deacon Rachid Murad offers the chalice to a communicant during his ordination to the diaconate at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Brooklyn, N.Y., May 25, 2019. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Gregory A. Shemitz)

(OSV News) — The issue of admitting women to the diaconate has been, over the past decade, a subject of intense theological debate. In a recent interview with CBS News, Pope Francis unequivocally stated that women cannot be ordained as deacons. This stance, delivered during a “60 Minutes” interview, has significant implications for ongoing discussions about the role of women in the church.

To understand the complexity of this issue, it is crucial to examine the main points from a broader contextual framework, and how they relate to Pope Francis’ current position.

The discussion of admitting women to holy orders must be situated within a wider theological context. This approach ensures coherence and alignment with the core principles of the Catholic faith. Indeed, the question of women in the diaconate is fundamentally theological, rooted in Christological, ecclesial and sacramental dimensions. This theological foundation is essential because it aligns with the mind of God as revealed through Divine Revelation, whose interpretation is the exclusive competency of the Magisterium.

To deviate from this theological framework and adopt a secular, egalitarian perspective would strip the issue of its Catholic identity and authenticity. In essence, it would rob it of its soul. As Pope Francis noted in off-the-cuff comments to the 21st assembly of the International Union of Women Superiors in 2019 on this very subject, he said, “I can’t do a decree of a sacramental nature without having a theological, historical foundation for it.” This underscores that any consideration of admitting women to the diaconate must be deeply rooted in the theological traditions of the church.

The question of admitting women to holy orders is not merely a matter of ecclesial discipline, as was the restoration of the permanent diaconate by the Second Vatican Council. Instead, it involves a significant doctrinal change. As such, proponents must provide cogent and compelling arguments grounded in Divine Revelation to justify such a development. This requirement places the burden of proof entirely on those advocating for the ordination of women. Thus far, no such argument has been provided. Instead, proponents offer a sociological response to a theological question. Not only is this completely inadequate, but it also renders theological dialogue virtually impossible.

The historical role of deaconesses in the early church is often cited by proponents of admitting women to holy orders. However, careful consideration reveals that deaconesses were not equivalent to male deacons. Their primary role was to assist bishops in baptizing women and catechizing female converts, emerging out of pastoral necessity rather than doctrinal development. Over time, as the practice of baptism evolved, the need for deaconesses declined, and their role was absorbed into other forms of ecclesial service, such as religious orders. This historical non-equivalency is crucial because it indicates that the existence of deaconesses does not provide a doctrinal basis for admitting women to the diaconate.

Proponents of ordaining women to the diaconate often argue that ancient ordination rites for deaconesses provide a doctrinal foundation for their admission to the diaconate. However, while these rites bore some similarities to those of male deacons, they were not identical.

According to the theologian Father Manfred Hauke, “we cannot identify the consecration of deaconesses with the ordination of deacons.” The term “ordination” in the ancient context referred to a form of religious consecration, not a sacramental ordination equivalent to that of male deacons. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1538) clarifies that “ordination” today is reserved for the sacramental act integrating a man into the order of bishops, presbyters or deacons. Thus, while deaconesses may have been “ordained” in an ancient sense, this does not equate to the sacramental ordination of deacons. The tradition concerning this reveals several essential differences between deaconesses and deacons.

These are:

— The ordination rites were different.
— Deaconesses did not serve in the liturgy as deacons did.
— Deaconesses did not exercise the same sacramental roles.
— Deaconesses did not minister in the community in the same way.
— Deaconesses did not relate to the bishop in the same manner.
— Deaconesses were never given grounds to aspire to the priesthood.
— The order of deaconess did not develop over time as the diaconate did.

These differences underscore that the roles of deaconesses and deacons were distinct and not interchangeable. Therefore, the historical presence of deaconesses does not support the ordination of women to the diaconate.

Pope Francis’ recent statement to CBS aligns with the theological and historical considerations outlined above. He emphasized that women cannot be ordained as deacons within the context of holy orders. Instead, he highlighted the important, non-sacramental roles that women play in the church, describing them as “masterful custodians of life” and integral to the church’s maternal nature.

While the universal Synod may continue to discuss the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate, Pope Francis’ clear and emphatic statement to Norah O’Donnell renders that discussion moot. His decisive “no” to the question of whether women will ever have the opportunity to be ordained as deacons within the context of holy orders leaves little room for ambiguity. Simply put, “no” means “no.”

As a private theologian, it is my opinion that this issue fundamentally touches on the church’s own self-identity and, because of this, is proper to the sacred deposit of the faith. The church’s teaching authority, the Magisterium, has consistently interpreted Divine Revelation in a manner that upholds the exclusivity of men to the sacramental ordination of holy orders. This is not a mere disciplinary matter that can be changed with time or cultural shifts but a doctrinal issue embedded within the church’s understanding of Divine Revelation and the sacramental nature of ordained ministry.

Therefore, it is my firm belief that the matter of ordaining women to holy orders should not be pursued further as it significantly distracts from any advancement of the theology of the diaconate and its role in the mission of the church and the mystery of salvation. The discussion, while valuable in its intent to recognize and enhance the role of women in the church, should not be allowed to evolve into an advocacy for a doctrinal change that the church does not have the authority to make. Instead, the focus should remain on exploring and expanding the many vital and irreplaceable roles that women already play within the church’s life and mission, roles that Pope Francis himself has praised and encouraged.

Deacon Dominic Cerrato, editor of The Deacon magazine, was a member of a recent Vatican commission to study the possibility of women deacons in the Catholic Church.

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