On May 10 Pope Francis had a long session of questions and answers in the Vatican with the 850-women strong International Union of Superiors General (UISG) gathered for their twenty-first plenary assembly. It was an important moment in the history of the ministry of women in the Catholic Church. The meeting took place three years after the previous meeting of May 12, 2016, which resulted in Francis’s decision to create a study commission on the women’s diaconate, announced on August 2016. Last May, in front of the assembly of superiors general, Francis announced that the result of the study commission was inconclusive, as there was still no consensus among the members about the nature of the women’s diaconate in the early church. The pope gave the outgoing president of UISG, Sr. Carmen Sammut, a copy of the commission’s report, which has yet to be published.
This is just the latest chapter in a story that begins in Francis’s pontificate with the bishops’ synod in October 2015, when Canadian bishop and former president of the Canadian bishops’ conference, Paul Durocher, proposed the ordination of women as deacons. It’s now almost four years later, and the issue won’t go away.
In fact, the debate over it has been underway for half a century. Following up on a proposal made during the Bishops’ Synod of 1971, in May 1973 Paul VI created a “special study commission on women in society and in the church.” It was made up twenty-five members: fifteen women and ten men (including both priests and laymen). The secretary in charge of the commission was an Italian bishop very close to Paul VI, Enrico Bartoletti (1905–1976). He was assisted by an Australian laywoman, Rosemary Goldie (1916–2010), the first woman to serve in an executive role in the Roman Curia. She was at the time the undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and one of the female auditors allowed to follow the work of Vatican II in 1964.
Paul VI’s commission on women initially seemed to have a very limited mandate: it was to last for only one year and its mission was not clear. The Roman Curia did not conceal its hostility to the project. As the commission began its work, someone from the Curia leaked to the press a memo making clear that the commission would not address the issue of women’s ordination. The memo insisted that the commission would concern itself only with the question of women in the apostolate, not women in ministry.
The commission gave an interim report to the 1974 Bishops’ Synod, as tensions mounted between the women members of the commission and Paul VI. In August 1975 Archbishop Bartoletti sent Paul VI a memo requesting that the pope provide a theological and ecclesiological rationale for the rule against the ordination of women, pointing out the insufficiency of a judgment based only on discipline and tradition. This was during the period when Inter insigniores was being drafted. That declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, release the following year, formally denied women access to the priesthood. In short, the whole ecclesiastical context in which the women’s commission had to do its work was hostile to any change on the issue of women and ministry. An earlier motu proprio Ministeria quaedam (1972), which instituted the ministries of the lectorate and the accolitate, also excluded women. The International Theological Commission, which had published a document on priestly ministry in 1970, was asked to prepare a report on women in the diaconate, which has never been published.
The work of Paul VI’s commission on women was also complicated by the deepening rift between the papacy and the ultraconservative circles around the French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Two Francophone members of the curia openly expressed their opposition to giving women a greater role in ministry: the Canadian archbishop Edouard Gagnon, who later became the papal emissary to Lefebvre, and Fr. Louis Ligier, SJ, a professor at the Gregorian University in Rome who was in charge of preparing the first draft of Inter Insigniores.