Don't Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

The funny thing about having an open conversation is that sometimes people take the conversation in directions you don't really want it to go.  Witness the currently ongoing Synod on the Family in Rome.  Pope Francis wants to talk about economic and social issues affecting families, and lots of folks want to talk about divorce and/or LGBT issues.  But then here comes Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, and he wants to talk about women.  Specifically, he wants to talk about two things.  First, he wants the Catholic Church to explicitly reject the idea that Paul's discussion of gender roles means that women must be subordinate to men--itself a big statement, and one that would undermine problematic complementarian ideas that still circulate in Catholic thought.  But the real bombshell is that Archbishop Durocher wants a full, public discussion of ordaining women as deacons.

Now, Pope Francis has gone out of his way to say that he supports (or, at least, feels himself bound by) the statements of Pope John Paul II that women cannot be priests, and thus by extension, bishops.  But this leaves, in theory, space for the idea of women as deacons, and Archbishop Durocher thinks we should explore this space posthaste.

Reactions from both sides to this proposal have been mixed.  On the more progressive side, there are some who have characterized this as throwing crumbs to the ladies, and they have urged women to accept no substitute for full ordination to every office in the Church.  On the conservative side, as expressed by our old buddy Dwight Longenecker, the view is that this is the tip of the spear in the direction of ordaining women as priests, and thus it must be resisted at all costs.

To my more progressive friends, I say--do not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.  Progressive Catholics and those concerned with gender equality issues in the Church should full-throatedly embrace this proposal, precisely because Fr. Longenecker is absolutely correct.  Allowing women as deacons substantially increases the chance that we will see women as priests and bishops.  Perhaps not soon, if one defines "soon" as five to ten years, but eventually.

Here's why.  At the heart of Catholic reflection on women and the priesthood is a basic discontinuity.  Catholic theology and Catholic history show that the following three things are true: (1) Catholic theology has traditionally understood the sacrament of Holy Orders to be a unitary sacrament expressed in three levels of deacon, priest, and bishop, as opposed to three different sacraments with three different theological predicates and rules; (2) at least in the post-Constantinian history of the Church, only men have been ordained as priests and bishops, and this was understood to reflect some normative practice; and (3) there is unambiguous history in the first millennium of the Church of women serving as deacons.

The discontinuity comes from that fact that you can only reconcile two of these three facts with each other into a coherent narrative.
In other words, you basically have to pick which of these two ideas you are going to keep together and which one you are going to exclude or relativize.  If you say that women can be deacons but not priests or bishops, you are being completely consistent with the historical practice of the Church but not the theological principle that ordination to the diaconate is part of a continuum with ordination to the priesthood or episcopacy.  Likewise, one can (as the Episcopalians do) simply minimize the historical prohibition on women priests by saying the ban was based on misogyny (not real theological principle), in favor of the emphasis on the unity of the sacrament and the historical witness of women deacons in the early Church.  Finally, one can take the current line of the Catholic Church, which focuses on the linkage between the first two and is left to explain away the third by arguing that the women deacons of antiquity were not "real" deacons in some nebulous sense (as Longenecker, unpersuasively, attempts to do).

The point of going through all of this is to point out that there is no solution to the question of women's ordination, including the status quo, that perfectly encompasses the historical experience of the Church.  Something always has to give way.  This means that if one wants to move to a different one of the three potential solutions for this basic problem, one can always do so in reference to the one leg of the stool that is being left out of the equation.

For example, suppose the Vatican embraced Durocher's proposal and said that women could be deacons but not priests or bishops.  Surely, the justification that would be provided would be primarily historical--the record of the early Church is that women were deacons but not priests or bishops.  There is no historical argument for excluding women from the diaconate in toto.  This would make the change more palatable for people who are deeply concerned with the continuity of Church practice.  It would also allow the Vatican to argue that it would be in keeping with the spirit of John Paul II's firm "no" on the ordination of women to the priesthood (while glossing over the letter of the statement).  While sure some folks would freak out, it would be less disruptive and less likely to provoke a split than full embrace of women's ordination.

Lingering the in the background, of course, is the fact that this makes the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders hard to grasp.  Surely there would be some attempts to square that circle, likely not tremendously convincing.  But those explanations would churn around in the theological academy and the Vatican for a while.  Meanwhile, people would get used to the idea of women on the altar, hopefully the place of women in all cultures would move toward a more equal position, and the more extreme partisans of this issue would, frankly, go to their eternal reward.

When the time was right, whoever the Pope is at the time could write an encyclical which stated that the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate was of course good and proper due to the long standing theological principle that there is unity in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and since we already ordain women to the diaconate, there is no reason they should not be allowed to be priests.  The historical ban?  Well, you know, for a long time we were rather misogynist in the way we talked about women, we are are all past that now.  And that could very well result in general rejoicing, with a few people shouting in the corner that this was all a big conspiracy who could be safely ignored.

This is how change happens in the Catholic Church.  Or rather, it is how change should happen in the Church if the goal is to keep everyone on board the ship as it moves through the radical change in our understanding and views regarding gender.  People who are argue for full gender equality in the Church will not be satisfied, nor should they.  But it moves the ball forward while keeping open the possibility that we won't lose a big chunk of the folks that are having a harder time with this gender equality thing in the process.  Slow and steady wins the race.

Durocher seems to get this.  The key is to find a way to work around the current taboos while advancing and supporting the role of women in the life of the Church, until such time as people are ready to loosen their grip on the idols that undergird the taboo.  Durocher seems to think, and this makes sense to me, that ordaining women to the diaconate is a vehicle that will move us toward those ends.

Is suspect Pope Francis would have just assumed Archbishop Durocher not have brought this topic up.  Well, that's what happens when you let people speak their mind.  Let's see where it goes.


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