Pope Francis, in his post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia, praises women for their generous service, but then uses the improbable success of such work as an argument to keep their aspirations in check. Like Pope Benedict, Pope Francis did not mention the instituted ministries in his exhortation. Oddly, he offered instead various cautions and warnings that reinforce the all-male priesthood (ordaining women to the priesthood was not advocated by the synod, but it seems to come up, like an uneasy conscience, every time Church officials consider any proposition to expand the access of women to ministries in the Church). Yet Francis did raise the question of office (publicly recognized duties) with respect to women:
In a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs. Here it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop. This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood. (QA 103)
This echoes an earlier statement he made in the encyclical The Joy of the Gospel, which proposed a greater role for women in decision-making in the Church.
As it turns out, “stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop” are precisely the conditions that were fulfilled when Pope Francis determined in 2021 that it would be both permissible and “opportune” to change Canon 230 § 1 to include women in the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte. This dissolved the reservation of Ministeriam quaedam and allowed women a place in the instituted ministries, just as the Amazon Synod requested. He opened this prospect not only for the Amazonian region but for the universal Church.
Francis followed this decision with another motu proprio establishing the ministry of catechist as an instituted ministry. This corresponds loosely to the request of the synod for establishing an official designation for “women’s community leadership” (though it is also open to men) because the catechist is the de facto community leader in mission territories, and may be the sole official representative of the Church.
Now that this precedent has been established, however, new questions arise for which there are no easy or self-evident answers. What is the horizon of our expectations? How deep is our own commitment to “truthfulness” in the exercise of these ministries?
Let us be blunt here: the modes and models of the minor orders that we’ve inherited from the past were not substantially revised by the reforms of Paul VI. Yes, some minor orders were set aside, and others received new names, but underneath the nomenclature and sorting, little changed. The Church’s experience with the instituted ministries has been restricted almost entirely to men who are on their way to ordination, while most of the work is done by somebody else. This model has never been subjected to a searching critique.
A look at what remains on the books concerning the instituted ministries prior to Francis’s intervention shows a distinctly clerical bias. The norms are strict about order and privilege (if an instituted minister is present, the non-instituted minister must give way; those instituted must sit in the sanctuary, etc.), but silent on issues of collaboration and reciprocity. Francis’s letter to Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in contrast, envisions a vibrant experience of reciprocal collaboration between the baptismal priesthood and the ministerial priesthood played out in the exercise of these instituted ministries. Francis has introduced the instituted ministries as a significant opportunity for women to enter into decision-making in the ecclesial community, further the work of evangelization, inspire the laity, affect the life of parishes, and shape their mission. Yet how all this will happen remains vague.
The rhetoric Francis uses to describe the foundations of such ministries (“the royal priesthood of Baptism”) is robustly Christological, but our conception of what is going on continues to gravitate toward the merely functional. This is no doubt because lay liturgical ministries have developed in ways that reflect their ad hoc status. Right now, they are an extremely limited “plug and play” reality in our parishes. They presume no lateral relationships (catechists in the United States have peer organizations, but there is nothing comparable for lectors or acolytes). They carry within them no notion of public office. Nor do they lead to any structured participation in the counsels and decision-making of a local community. They enjoy no mandate from the bishop, and most people who exercise them have received only minimal training, formation, or education in liturgy. All that has to change, if instituted ministries are going to become a “real thing” in the Church and not mere window dressing.
We need more reflection on the intertwined yet different subjects of ministry, office, and the Christian participation in Christ’s threefold munera (priest, prophet, and king) in the Church. Yet there is no guarantee that this will happen. The prolonged period during which our horizon of expectations was foreshortened to a level of basic functionality and “helping Father” could very well lead to a failure of theological imagination and courage as we face this new moment in history. The blank stares that the news has elicited (“Don’t women already do these things?”) show that, for many of us, we’ve arrived at this moment ill prepared.
It’s important that we not pour the new wine of women’s participation into the old wineskins of a failed clericalist vision. In the clerical model, when an office is conferred, ministry is presumed to follow automatically. But if there is anything that the development of lay ecclesial ministry has taught us over the past decades, it is that genuine ministry doesn’t work like that. It is a sharing of gifts in response to needs. There is an authentic reciprocity between the service of those who minister and the needs of those who are served. Priests and pastors know this from experience, just as lay people do, yet our system has for a long time lagged behind. Being dubbed “lector” doesn’t confer on anyone the gift of reading the scriptures intelligently, passionately, or well. First, the gift must be discerned. Then the need must be acknowledged. (The proclamation of the word in liturgy is important; much is riding on this.) Only then does public office make sense. Questions of precedence and order are secondary to questions of charism and service. The credibility of the Church’s ministry demands that we get this right.
The opening of instituted ministries to women will also begin, really for the first time, a reckoning with an ecclesiology that divides the Church too simply into clergy and laity. A multiplicity of different ministries, each formally recognized and empowered by the bishop, and all ordered toward communion, are being established. This complicates things, but it is a wonderful complexity. We are being invited into new modes of collaboration with one another in the great work of the Church. We cannot walk into this with our eyes closed, as if we are simply putting a new label on an already-existing set of roles and relations. It is a new moment. To borrow the expression of the distinguished scholar Cesare Giraudo, SJ, who wrote about the instituted ministries in La Civiltà Cattolica, the inclusion of women in these ministries is “a milestone and a point of no return.”