It must be difficult for a mainstream journalist covering the Vatican beat on days like January 11, when Pope Francis’s motu proprio, Spiritus Domini, was announced. How to convey the significance of a tweak to canon law that clarifies women’s eligibility to be lectors and acolytes at Mass? Aren’t they...already doing those things?
Pity the reporter who must quickly explain the existence of “stable ministries” in the Church, and the now-obscure practice of formally instituting lay men into those roles. Even the most committed American Catholics were perplexed when the news broke, because, as Anthony Ruff, OSB, wrote at the Pray Tell blog, “Up until now, females couldn’t be installed in these ministries, but they could do these ministries anyway.” It’s no wonder so many outlets framed the news in terms of what hadn’t happened: “Pope says women can read at Mass, but still can’t be priests” ran a typical headline.
“The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women,” Pope John Paul II declared in 1994 in an attempt to shut down that debate. Francis quoted that pronouncement in a letter accompanying Spiritus Domini, but he also wrote that he hoped the change he was making to canon law would help men preparing for ordination “better understand they are participants in a ministry shared with other baptized men and women.” Francis’s modification to one canon—changing “lay men” to “lay persons”—eliminates a long-standing excuse for discrimination against women, although you won’t find him or any other Vatican official putting it in those terms.
Speaking as a non-man, I confess to difficulty in keeping track of when the word “men” is supposed to include me (as in the English translation of the Nicene Creed, “for us men and for our salvation”) and when it is not meant to include me (as in the original language of Canon 230, at least according to those who prefer their liturgical ministers to be male). The truth is, even when the Church’s own teaching clearly declares that it does have the authority to acknowledge, empower, or elevate women, those charged with applying that teaching have always maintained the prerogative of keeping women out. The post–Vatican II teaching that laypeople had a significant role in ministry was undercut by accommodations for bishops who felt women should be subject to special restrictions. In this light, the significance of Pope Francis’s action is less that it expands what women are permitted to do, and more that it limits men’s ability to hinder them.
Establishing and protecting men’s authority and privileges has been the Vatican’s consistent framework for defining women’s roles in liturgy going at least as far back as Liturgicae instaurationes, the document the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) issued in 1970 to govern post-conciliar reforms. In setting the terms of what should be allowed, the CDW wrote, “the first appeal must be made to the authority of the individual bishops.” Bishops, for their part, were encouraged to “use all the options the new rites provide” to determine what did and did not promote “unity” and serve the spiritual needs of their flocks.