No doubt, the big story on the Vatican beat this week was Pope Francis’ apparent willingness to entertain whether women can serve as deacons in the Catholic Church. The word “apparent" is required because, as with so many other things in the Francis era, exactly what the pontiff meant is disputed.
The question came up during a Thursday session with the International Union of Superiors General, a global umbrella group for superiors of women’s religious orders.
The pope was asked: “The permanent diaconate is open only to men, married and not. What prevents the Church from including women among permanent deacons, as happened in the primitive Church? Why not create an official commission that can study the question?"
Francis gave a longish answer, but the gist was that he agreed a commission could help shed light, and that he planned to do it. We know he was in earnest, because the number two official at the Vatican’s Secretariat for State, Italian Archbishop Angelo Becciu, tweeted out the next day that the pope had made a surprise call to say he was thinking about a commission on women deacons.
Becciu added, “Let’s not rush the conclusions!"
Because much of the pope’s answer on Thursday focused on what he had once been told by a Syrian theologian about the role of deaconesses in the early Church, some took a minimalist reading of his statement to mean that while he’s open to studying what happened centuries ago, that has nothing to do with permitting women deacons today.
That was the gist of a Friday “clarification" from the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, who insisted, “The pope did not say he intends to introduce a diaconal ordination for women."
That attempt to play down the significance, however, doesn’t quite persuade. The context of the question makes clear the nuns weren’t asking out of merely historical interest, but because they’d like to see women deacons now, and if Francis had wanted to say a clear “no," he could have – as he has, for instance, each time he’s been asked about women priests.
Assuming Francis is at least open to thinking about women deacons, is there any way to anticipate where that thought process might lead him?
The safe answer is “definitely not," since this pope is a master of surprise. Yet we can at least identify certain points that seem likely to be grist for his mill.
On the one hand, Francis repeatedly has called for more visible leadership roles for women in the Church, and this would certainly be one way to do it. Most ordinary Catholics will never attend a Vatican synod or a board meeting for the Vatican bank, but they do go to Mass, and seeing a woman helping to lead the community in worship would be powerful symbolism.
Francis also frequently has denounced violence and discrimination against women, and elevating them as deacons might be a way to send a counter-signal. That was part of the case made by Quebec Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher in the October 2015 Synod of Bishops when he floated the notion of female deacons.
Further, Francis is all about charity and serving the poor, which is a key part of the role deacons performed historically, and so re-energizing the diaconate presumably should be in his wheelhouse. (Though, it has to be said, in Argentina deacons often play a more limited role than in Europe or the United States, sometimes mostly just the distribution of Communion, and reportedly the future pope did little to change that during his years in Buenos Aires.)
Yet there are also reasons to believe Francis might be hesitant.
For one thing, he indicated on Thursday he would consult with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and when he does, he’ll discover they already looked into this question 14 years ago, with a lengthy study of the diaconate by the International Theological Commission.
While that document didn’t close the discussion, it clearly leaned against women deacons on the grounds that ancient “deaconesses" were not the same thing as deacons today, and that by now the diaconate is firmly part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, which is open only to men.
Francis may feel bound to respect those conclusions, especially given his oft-stated emphasis on collegiality.
Still facing upheaval over his cautious opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, it’s also possible that, upon reflection, Francis could simply decide that he just doesn’t need the grief that yet another controversial reform would generate.
Most basically, Francis may come to believe that opening the diaconate to women is the wrong way to empower them, on the grounds that it risks becoming another chapter in clericalism – meaning the notion, which Francis palpably detests, that the only way to be important in the Catholic Church is to be a member of the clergy.
On previous occasions, he’s rejected other forms of what he sees as a “clerical" response to women’s concerns.
In a December 2013 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, for instance, he was asked about the notion that he might name female cardinals.
“I don’t know where this idea sprang from," Francis replied. “Women in the Church must be valued, not ‘clericalized.’ Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism."
When Francis sits down to think about it, making women deacons may strike him as the same sort of creeping clericalism.
Of course, Pope Francis is the kind of leader who ought to come with a warning label like a pack of cigarettes – “Caution: Predictions are Hazardous to Your Health!" It would be foolhardy to try to forecast what he’s going to do.
On the basis of these considerations, however, it’s at least possible to say that his conclusions do not seem a slam-dunk.