Pope Francis greets Sister Carmen Sammut, president of the International Union of Superiors General, in 2016 (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

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.

Both the theological debate about women deacons and the sensus fidei in the global church are not what they were in the 1970s.

These groundworks of the 1970s magisterium led to John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which stated that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” It is worth noting that Ordinatio sacerdotalis is about women in the priesthood, not women in the diaconate. On the other hand, the 2001 joint document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Clergy, and the Congregation for Divine Worship also shut the door to a women’s diaconate. And a 2002 document on the diaconate issued by the International Theological Commission appeared to lock it. John Paul II tried to silence the debate, and the election of Benedict XVI was taken by many as proof that the debate about women and ministry in the Catholic Church was over. But the issue did not disappear.

The history of Paul VI’s commission and its aftermath helps us understand the current situation of the commission on women deacons. First of all, the commission created by Francis had (or has, in case it is still in existence) more freedom than the “commission on women” of the early 1970s, which had to contend not only with papal teaching that seemed to discourage their work, but also with the entire Curia. Today the situation is different: the ecclesiastical-theological establishment is now much more divided than it was forty years ago. A year ago the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, published “In Response to Certain Doubts Regarding the Definitive Character of the Doctrine of Ordinatio sacerdotalis,” stressing the continuity from John Paul II to Francis of the teaching against women’s ordination to the priesthood, but not to the diaconate.

But among the bishops—not to mention the whole people of God, including theologians—there is a wide variety of opinions about women deacons, a wider variety than there was in the 1970s. In the past two or three decades, and especially during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the debate about women deacons has remained limited mostly to specialists, but the theological reflection supporting the women’s diaconate and the current ecumenical situation (some Orthodox Churches have recently reintroduced women deacons) are much more favorable to such a development in the Catholic Church than they were in the 1970s. The role of women in the church is now an important one throughout the church in a way that it was not in the 1970s. It is no longer an issue only in the Northern hemisphere; it is being discussed in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And the discussion is likely to continue and grow in intensity no matter what the pope’s position on the issue.

But the Catholic Church today is also more divided than it was in the 1970s. On Vatican II, for example, Paul VI adopted a line of firm defense that Francis cannot take because of the effects of Benedict XVI’s pontificate—especially on liturgical issues closely related to the debate over the diaconate. Despite Francis’s severe criticisms of clericalism, it is again on the rise, sacralizing the hierarchical priesthood as an ordo. The trend was away from clericalism in the 1970s, not toward it. The debate on women in ministry has to face the same problem of traditionalism that Paul VI had to deal with, but back then the traditionalism of Lefebvre was more isolated. Now traditionalism has become mainstream among certain groups of young Catholics, including young priests and seminarians. These young traditionalists and their supporters in the higher clergy would mount a strong resistance against any proposal to reintroduce women deacons.

In short, the Catholic Church now has a stronger theology of women deacons than it did during the time of Paul VI, but the political conditions for such a development are now less auspicious. Still, Francis has said we should continue the discussion. How can we make sure this discussion does not lead to the same impasses that it led to in the 1970s?

A first step would be to publish all the reports on the women’s diaconate, starting with those commissioned in the 1970s and including those commissioned under Francis. The discussion needs to be an open discussion if it is going to get anywhere. A second step would be to make the discussion synodal—which would require a synod ad hoc on women in the church. Why a synod? Because the discussion should be about not only the history of women’s ministry (the preserve of experts) but also the theology. A commission of experts can and should go only so far in this issue. I repeat here what I wrote in 2016 before the announcement of the commission by Francis: we should disabuse ourselves of the naïve belief that agreement about the historical evidence of women deacons and the role of the diaconate in the early church can resolve this controversy. Appeals to history are rarely conclusive in theological debates, and they can easily backfire. It is traditionalist Catholics, not progressives, who are supposed to believe that something is legitimate only to the degree that it is not new.

The good news is that both the theological debate about women deacons and the sensus fidei in the global church are not what they were in the 1970s. Today it is unlikely that Rome could get away with dismissing requests for the diaconal ministry of women simply by pointing to lack of consensus on the historical findings. People are now demanding better answers.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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