The Commission was formed to address a question Pope Francis frankly admits he doesn’t have the answer to: can women be deacons? What the Commission will do is study the history of female deacons in the church. What it won’t do is determine what the Pope will do with the information. As some will recall from 20th-century study commissions on birth control and women’s ordination to the priesthood, popes are free to reject the findings of such commissions and go their own way. The guy in Peter’s Chair gets to make the call.
Which is not to say the appointment of this commission is unimportant. Earlier popes, including most recently John Paul II, not only rejected ordained ministry for women at any level: John Paul emphatically said the church has no authority to ordain women. By calling a commission together, Francis suggests that the church may find such authority buried in historical precedent.
What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were. The record is clear, from Paul’s letters to church history, that the church employed female deacons as early as the year 55. Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (not deaconess) in Romans 16:1. In 1 Timothy 3:8-12, after a description of what makes for a good male candidate for diaconate, the letter states: “Women, similarly, should be dignified ... temperate and faithful … .” The next sentence continues the description of the ideal deacon. It’s evident both male and female candidates made viable deacons.
What the Commission will seek to determine is whether women deacons were “ordained” or “installed” to their office. It makes a difference to the sacramental character, if any, of their service. Here, lines are drawn in the sand. Some scholars insist the rites of diaconate for men and women were identical as evidenced by existing materials. Others disagree. Still others say it doesn’t matter whether the rites were the same; what matters is how they were understood. The differences in service rendered by male and female deacons are less clear to some scholars. Others question whether past practice must dictate present needs. A bishop was once required to be “the husband of one wife,” according to 1 Timothy 3:2. That’s no longer true. The church evolves. For the moment, it’s up to Francis: is it time for the church to restore the women’s diaconate? And how?
Scriptures: Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:2, 8-12
Books: A New Phoebe: Perspectives on Roman Catholic Women and the Permanent Diaconate – ed. Virginia K. Ratigan and Arlene A. Swidler (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1990)
Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate – Phyllis Zagano (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)
Women Deacons? Essays With Answers – Yves Congar, et.al. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)