Women deacons? Best not to talk about it.

The archdiocese of Philadelphia is looking for someone to address its deacons this spring. Former heads of the USCCB's secretariat for the diaconate need not apply. Not, that is, if they have publicly acknowledged the unsettled question of whether women may be ordained deacons. That might be "doctrinally confusing," and Catholics these days are just so easy to confuse.

Last week the National Catholic Reporter's Joshua J. McElwee reported that William Ditewig, former USCCB staffer and co-author of Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future, had been denied permission to speak "to the [Philadelphia] archdioceses deacons, [deacons'] wives, and deacon candidates" this coming March, based on the decision of the archdiocesan "speaker approval commission."Just so we're clear: it is an open question whether it's possible for the Catholic Church to admit women to the diaconate. The latest Commonweal happens to have an article by Phyllis Zagano, one of Ditewig's Women Deacons co-authors, explaining where the matter stands today. "The conversation continues," she reports -- even among bishops. Was the speaker approval commission in Philadelphia unaware of this fact? They wouldn't comment, but an archdiocesan spokesperson said it didn't matter:

[Kenneth] Gavin said that since the matter is still considered unanswered Ditewig's presence for the deacon event wasn't appropriate.This wouldn't be the best setting for an open question or something that is a matter of debate theologically at this point in time and how the diaconate is structured within the church itself, said Gavin. It wasn't the setting for discussion on theological debate-like topics. This was ongoing formation. It's educational for the deacons and their wives.

Uh-huh. Ditewig, not surprisingly, tells NCR he wasn't planning on introducing any "debate-like topics" when he spoke in Philadelphia. But of course the commission didn't get in touch with him before they made their "negative recommendation."I knew the paranoia was getting pretty bad out there. Nobody wants to risk running afoul of the orthodoxy police; easier to just preemptively cancel any speakers/visiting professors who might give you trouble, regardless of whether the objections are well founded. But this is the most ridiculous example I've heard of yet. This diocese is afraid to allow the former head of the USCCB office for the diaconate to speak to its deacons, because said deacon has demonstrated an awareness of and interest in scholarly study of...the diaconate? As the NCR article reminds us, "In his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II declared that the church 'has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.'" And as you know, that was followed by orders that the matter must not be spoken of again.

This is where that policy has gotten us: nearly two decades later, the mere mention of the words "women" and "ordained" in the same sentence, even in a sentence that does not actually run afoul of the no-women-priest-talk rule, is enough to shut everything down. It's a farce. It's like that Monty Python sketch where anytime anyone says "mattress" to the mattress salesman, he puts a bag over his head. Very hard to get anything done in that environment. In this case the archdiocese doesn't even have anything coherent to say for itself -- except this: "Speakers for archdiocesan events, said Gavin, are supposed to be reviewed by the speaker commission before an invitation is extended to them, which did not occur in Ditewig's case." That's an excuse I've heard before. It means, "It's not our fault you found out about this indefensible decision we were hoping not to have to defend." It's not really an explanation at all, and -- hey bishops! -- you should probably stop using it.

When the mere thought of someone maybe provoking a discussion of the possibility of women's ordination is enough to freak everyone out, I can't help wondering why the people who are most dedicated to supporting the official line -- that Rome simply doesn't have the authority to ordain women priests -- don't act like they believe it. This, I guess, is what I'm confused about. Because here's what they say: It's not sexism at all. It's not that the all-male hierarchy is unwilling to share any sort of authority with women. It's just that this particular role isn't open to women -- our hands are tied! If that's true, and if the members of the speaker approval commission in Philly (for example) believe it's true, shouldn't we all be thrilled to discover other areas in which the sharing of authority with women might be possible? Shouldn't the response from bishops and diocesan officials be: "Look, the historical record suggests that women might be eligible for the diaconate! Surely we should investigate this carefully, and respect the work of those who are doing just that, because ordaining women as deacons, if possible, would be an excellent way to live up to our church's own teachings about the equal dignity of men and women and their equal responsibilities as members of Christ's body." Or you might look, as you know I like to do, at the case of female altar servers. Rome has clarified that there is no doctrinal reason, absolutely none, that women cannot serve in this lay ministry alongside men. Here, then, is an opportunity to prove that the refusal to even discuss the possibility of women serving as priests is not, at its root, just squeamishness about the idea of women serving at or near the altar. "We can't admit women to the priesthood," I keep waiting for conservative bishops and theologians to say, "but happily we can include them in the fullness of the church's life and worship in a variety of other ways. What a positive thing for our church."I keep waiting for more bishops and diocesan officials and self-appointed keepers of orthodoxy to say things like that. Why don't they, do you think?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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