Some Thoughts on the Women Deacon's Commission

[T]he whole body of the Church hath power to alter, with general consent and upon necessary occasions, even the positive laws of the apostles, if there be no command to the contrary, and it manifestly appears to her, that change of times have clearly taken away the very reasons of God's first institution. 


--Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book VII, v, 8 (1594).

Last week, the Vatican announced that it would be following through on one of Pope Francis's promises to the world's religious sisters--to appoint a commission to study the issue of women deacons.  The panel is half men and half women, which is surely a first for the Vatican.  It also includes Phyllis Zagano, who is a well known expert on the issue.  All of that seems positive.

Nevertheless, I am skeptical that this commission will produce any useful fruit.  The focus of the commission will be the status of the female diaconate in "the earliest times in the Church."  It is of course not completely clear what that charge will encompass, but I am concerned that this directive pushes the commission in the wrong direction from the start.  The most obvious reading of that charge would have the commission focus on historical facts regarding the female diaconate--how widespread the institution was, how many of them there were in various periods of time, what tasks they handled, etc.

This seems to me to be off-target for two reasons.  First, all of this work has already been done, by Zagano and others.  There is value, I suppose, in having an official Vatican body explicitly endorse the conclusions of people like Zagano, but that value is limited if that is all it does.  I mean, the Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded that there was no Scriptural reason not to ordain women to the priesthood, and fat lot of effect that had.  Replowing the ground that has already been plowed, without some commitment to implementing the conclusions, raises the specter of a make-work project to shut people up.

But the other, more fundamental, problem is that I think it is asking the wrong question.  The key issue is not whether and how women were deacons in the earlier eras of Christianity, but why they stopped being named deacons.  As early as St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, there were women like Phoebe who were referred to as "diakonos" just as the men were (Romans 16:1-2), and then at some point that practiced stopped.  Why?  There had to be some point where someone said "we used to do this, but we no longer think it is appropriate."  And that person or people surely provided reasons why it was no longer appropriate to place women in that role.  It is those reasons, not so much the historical facts, that we need to understand and interrogate.

Likewise, one of the key arguments from the more conservative side is that "deaconesses" were not really deacons in the way the men were, because they were not ordained and had only a limited role.  OK, well, why was that?  What rationale was given for not ordaining "deaconesses" in the same way the men were?  If "deaconesses" did not have the full liturgical functions that male deacons did, there had to have been a reason for why women were not allowed to serve in the same manner.

I think these are better questions because tradition doesn't just appear fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  
Someone at some point decided to do something, and over time that something became a tradition.  And, more importantly, that something was done for a reason or reasons.  We need to understand the reasons why the something was put in place in order to fully understand the tradition.  Because it may be that those reasons are no longer relevant to our present situation, or perhaps even that we would find those reasons to be wrong or abhorrent today.  If we don't take seriously the reasons why a particular tradition came to be, then we are basically a Cargo Cult.

All of this is especially important in the case of anything involving women and Christianity, because there is a massive elephant in the room that no one--and certainly no one in the Vatican hierarchy--is willing to talk about.  Many of the reasons given historically for why women are not in particular roles in Church life are reasons that we (or, at least, most of us) now see as false and nonsensical.  To take one example, one argument I have heard from the Orthodox Church on why women can't be around the altar is that their menstruation (or, I guess, the possibility of their menstruation) makes them impure (in a Levitical sense, I suppose?).  No doubt that was a cogent argument to the (mostly celibate) men who were making it 1500 years ago.  But, I mean, seriously?  It is to us in 2016 either superstitious (somehow the fact that a women is having her period throws off the chi of the service) or misogynistic (punishing women for a normal, healthy, non-damaging biological function) or both.  To the vast majority of modern people, you might as well say women can't be on the altar because they have cooties.  In any event, it seems to be utterly ridiculous as a reason to limit the role of women in the Church of 2016.

Backstopping all of this is the Gender Revolution--the radical and unprecedented cultural change from an assumption that women were essentially and necessarily inferior to men to one where men and women are assumed to be equal and identical in capability and dignity in almost everything.  As I have said before, this revolution is not nearly complete, but it has gone far enough that the vast majority of reasons given throughout history for excluding women seem incomprehensible to us today.  That's why no one on the traditional side is willing to talk about periods or "moist south winds" or anything like that--they know that they will be laughed out of the room. 

So, instead, these questions get papered over through pitching the issue in terms of a neutral discussion of "tradition."  But by saying you are going to stick with tradition, you are at least tacitly embracing the rationale under which the tradition was formed.  You can't cut out the rationale and leave behind the rule without distorting the historical picture of what the tradition is.  To say that we can't have women deacons because of tradition is to implicitly say that we can't have women on the altar because their periods make them impure, and/or because they are the misbegotten products of the "moist south wind."  If you want to do that, then you should own that and say that.  Otherwise, it is all just blowing smoke.  

I am pretty confident that this commission will recommend that women be allowed to be included in the diaconate.  I support that, and I hope such a recommendation is implemented.  But until the Catholic Church reckons with the real basis behind the traditions it has inherited in connection with women, we are never going to make any real progress on these questions.  And I am deeply skeptical that the Church is willing to seriously grapple with its own tradition in this way--it is too deeply locked in the scandal of its own past.  The Catholic Church has proven itself entirely resistant to the wisdom contained in that Richard Hooker quote that begins this post.  Our times have changed completely and radically with regard to gender, and those changes call into question everything the Church has ever said that implicates women.

It would be great if the Catholic Church was willing to face up to that.  But I am not holding my breath.    

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