Nearly three weeks after the Vatican’s announcement of the commission on women deacons, we still do not know much about its agenda or schedule. Nor do we know what it might result in: a report, a study, a recommendation to the pope? Will it be made public? But even if the commission does result in a female diaconate, does it necessarily mean there will be women deacons throughout the Catholic Church?
This is one of the interesting questions arising from my reading of America’s editorial in favor of a female diaconate. A qualifying passage seems to offer assurance to those who oppose the idea:
Should the church decide to ordain women deacons, therefore, the Holy See should render the practice licit but not mandatory. Owing to the wide variety of social, ecclesial and political situations throughout the world, discernment as to how, and when, female deacons can be integrated into the life of a local church should respect the autonomy of local churches under the leadership of the local bishop (in accordance with the call for greater subsidiarity that Pope Francis made repeatedly in ‘The Joy of Love’).
The problem is that in Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the concept of “subsidiarity” is used in reference to social-economic matters affecting the relationship among state, market, society, and families, and not to diversity in disciplinary and liturgical matters within the Church.
In this sense, subsidiarity comes most of all from the history of Catholic social teaching; in ecclesiology, most authors prefer to talk about the “autonomy” of the local churches when they think about subsidiarity. One of the greatest canon lawyers of the 20th century, Eugenio Corecco (1931-1995), wrote very powerfully on the inadequacy of using subsidiarity to deal with theological issues that have universal value and therefore involve the whole Church.
How the ecclesiology on “autonomy” developed in the 20th century was largely based on the historical theology and the experience of the national bishops’ conferences (think about the liturgical reform during and after Vatican II). The problem is that the way partisanship and politicization in the West play out in the Catholic Church is in large degree a reflection of the crisis in national bishops’ conferences (with Germany a possible exception). The impact of this on the issue of women deacons is that a case-by-case approach for the introduction of a female diaconate could actually lead to a diocese-by-diocese implementation, with some bishops happy to advertise their local parishes as welcoming to women deacons and others happy to present themselves as just the opposite. (Something like that might be happening already with the reception of Amoris Laetitia in terms of what it says on the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics.)
How (and whether) this reform is eventually undertaken would say a lot about how global Catholicism is structured today. For centuries, empires made rules for the Church and vice versa; then, in the last few centuries, the operational space for the Church was the nation-state. The national bishops’ conferences were in the 20th century the Catholic translation of nationalism into the Church’s structure, with more or less a century of delay after the rising tide of nationalism. Now, the crises of the nation-state and nationalism correspond to a paralysis of the bishops’ conferences. It is not just the aversion in some of them to a full reception of Pope Francis’s pontificate; it is also one of the prices that Catholicism has to pay for globalization.
One wonders what would happen if we had to implement a major reform, such as the liturgical reform of fifty years ago, in today’s globalized but fragmented Catholic Church. What the America editorial seems to hint at (I think) is not the possibility that some episcopates on separate continents might decide against having women deacons. Rather, it suggests the fragmentation goes all the way down to local regions within a specific country, or even to the level of individual dioceses. Should we begin to see such fissures, we could be looking at a very different kind of map of the global Church.