Analysis & Comment

Michael Kelly: 'Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't – Pope faces conundrum on allowing female deacons'

The Vatican this week announced a new editorial committee for its magazine aimed at women. It follows the sudden resignation of its former editor and other staff over what they alleged is a “climate of distrust” of women.

Italian journalist Rita Pinci will now take over as “co-ordinator” of the monthly glossy ‘Women Church World’. Lucetta Scaraffia, who founded the magazine in 2012, and the majority of the editorial committee quit in late March over allegations that a senior Vatican editor was trying to interfere with and exert control over the coverage.

Their suspicion was that reporting on allegations of abuse of nuns by priests had angered the Vatican hierarchy. Amid claim and counter-claim about the resignations, the Vatican has now announced that at the magazine “there will no longer be a director, but a co-ordinator”. A cynic might see it as a position of office rather than power.

Whatever about the politics that went on behind the scenes, it was publicity that the Vatican and Pope Francis could’ve done without.

There has long been a sense from women – including many women in the Church – that Catholicism is deaf to female voices.

The fact that women are never at the table when key decisions are being made annoys many female members of the Church. On the other hand, men who are not priests are also absent when the most important decisions are being made such is the ongoing clerical nature of the Church.

But that’s for another day – back to the vexed issue of women in the Church. The sense of exclusion is often compounded by the fact that you’d have to live on planet Mars not to know that women are the backbone of the Church at a grassroots level.

In every parish in Ireland – and much of the rest of the world – the majority of volunteers are women. Traditionally, it was women rather than men who passed on the faith and it was mothers more so than their husbands who encouraged their sons to become priests.

In recent years, women have been in the vanguard in restoring trust in the Church in Ireland following the abuse revelations by taking leadership roles in the crucial area of child safeguarding. There is literally an army of volunteers – most of them women – in every part of Ireland dedicated at the parish’s safeguarding representative.

Pope Francis now has a decision to make which risks further alienating women or alienating his conservative critics within the Church even further. It’s an unenviable position: he has to decide whether or not the Church should have female deacons – clerics who baptise children, perform weddings and bury the dead but, crucially, are not priests and therefore don’t celebrate Mass.

He agreed to set up a special commission to investigate the matter almost three years ago. That expert group reported some months ago and the pontiff is now mulling his decision. My friend Phyllis Zagano was on the committee and is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the issue of female deacons.

“The contents of the report remain a papal secret, but the facts of history are well-known. Women deacons served the Latin Church at least until the 12th century,” she told me recently.

There is, indeed, ample evidence of female deacons in the early Church. Where theologians and ecclesiastical historians differ is whether male and female deacons were the same thing.

Ms Zagano is emphatic that it was exactly the same ministry and there was no difference at the time of the early Church. Others argue that female deacons were merely there for reasons of propriety to assist women being baptised since many converts to the faith were adults and were immersed in the faith in pools quite unlike our modern-day miniature baptismal fonts.

It’s now a call for Francis to make on who he thinks makes the most compelling case and what he – as the supreme guarantor of the unity of the faith – should do.

Francis is obviously a man of prayer and will be reflecting deeply on the best course of action. He’ll also need the wisdom of Solomon to weigh-up the pros and cons. You can’t please everyone as Pope. John Paul II didn’t, Benedict XVI certainty didn’t and Francis doesn’t either.

Whatever he decides, people will be disappointed and he will have his critics. He is also a vocal supporter of the Church’s tradition that it does not have the authority to ordain women as priests, so a move on female deacons could annoy conservatives and supporters of women priests in equal measure. Some will think it’s gone too far, others too little, too late.

One of the Argentine pontiff’s great heroes as a Pope is his predecessor Paul VI. Francis made him a saint last year and has frequently hailed him as a prophet.

But Francis will also know that Paul’s last 10 years in office were haunted by his 1968 decision to reaffirm in ‘Huamane Vitae’ – the Church’s ban on artificial birth control.

Not unlike the issue of female deacons, a head of steam had built up and many Catholics expected Paul to approve the use of contraception within marriage.

The widespread rejection of Paul’s teaching – including from many priests – dented his confidence as a leader and undoubtedly contributed to the drift away from the faith for many Catholics who came of age in the swinging ’60s.

Francis could certainly do with a win on women. His decision to establish the committee to investigate the issue has already raised expectations in some quarters that there will be a change and female deacons will once again emerge as part of the Catholic tradition. Whatever he decides, he will upset one camp or the other.

It’s a defining moment for his papacy.

Michael Kelly is editor of ‘The Irish Catholic’

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