Deacons, Women, and the Call to Serve: Parts II and III

After the first part of this video discussion, I began to reflect on the fact that the Catholic priesthood has consolidated its power over the centuries to such a degree that the discussion of permanent deacons—even after they have been restored for almost fifty years—remains in its infancy. From an efficiency point of view, many people just do not see a great argument in favor of a more diversified ministry. The clerical system we developed in the west: all males, taken out of the general population and trained separately, and taught to answer only to their clerical superiors and secondarily to the “band of brothers” (their fellow priests), has been durable and efficient in many ways. Why change? You need only one priest in a parish: that means only one to educate and support, and only one whose opinion must be considered when questions of authority arise.

Indeed, the only template many Catholics have nowadays is that of the priest. I am convinced that this is how the situation looks on the ground. Lay ministers are seen as helpers to the priests, not ministers whose calling is respected in its own right. Permanent deacons are a fill-in for priests, not clergy with a separate and unique vocation. The idea of women deacons comes up, and the immediate reaction is: if they can’t be priests, why ordain them? Even bishops are understood primarily in relation to priests: they have the fullness of Holy Orders, which makes them a kind of uber-priest. Women religious used to occupy a different niche in the Catholic imagination, but having suffered a decline in numbers and institutional clout they too are now compared to priests in a negative sense: they can’t do this, that, or the other, because they are not priests. Today, a generation has grown up without any memory of nuns in their former roles within the institution. We are left with all our ministerial eggs in one basket: the priesthood.

This is an unhealthy situation. Maybe it’s efficient in some ways, but it’s not productive of a wholesome and resilient community life. And it doesn’t have to be this way. This is why, even if we never get women deacons, we need to talk about women deacons. The very exercise of doing so can and should stretch our atrophied imagination concerning “order” and ministerial diversity in the church. Why ordain women to the diaconate (implied: if they can’t be priests, there’s no use to it)? If we discover there are some real answers to this question, it could change our whole conception of ministry from a mono-culture to a more diverse ecosystem.

The second and third videos of this series are now available from America Media. The second one deals with arguments for and against women deacons, the third with how women deacons might influence the shape of ministry in the future of the Church. Many thanks to the Fordham Center for Religion and Culture, co-sponsor of the series.

N.B. If you don’t have time to watch the videos, you can read the full transcript of Part II here, and Part III here.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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