Monday, May 16, 2016

From Strawberries on the Cake to the Diaconate: Commentary on Pope Francis's Remark About Studying Women and the Diaconate

As many of you will perhaps know, Pope Francis made an off-the-cuff remark to a closed-door meeting of superiors of religious women last week, about the possibility of studying whether women might be admitted to the diaconate, and the media and twitterverse lit up right away with reports that the pope of grand surprises might be opening the door to women's ordination to the priesthood. However, as AP reported almost immediately afterwards, Vatican officials then began "tamping down expectations" with alacrity as the Vatican media guru Father Lombardi announced that the pope had not meant to signal any openness to ordaining women deacons, let alone women priests.

This typical Vatican give-with-one-hand-then-take-away-with-the-other game led Questions from a Ewe to sum up what had just transpired in the following way: 

[I]nstead of blowing snow on a Spring day, it seemed to be a chinook wind bringing warmth in the deep of winter.  It seemed a remarkably rapid thaw after about 1,200 years of winter.  But, within days, the Vatican weather vane twisted again and the climate resumed its typical frigidity..."no, no, that's not what we mean…"

In the view of Questions from a Ewe,

The pope's statement contained weasel wording a la a marketing pitch.  He merely said he wanted to study women deacons in the early church.  He didn’t say he wanted to ordain women.  People jumped to that conclusion, because it's justified and logical…but justice and logic are not strong suits amongst many churchmen. 

Questions from a Ewe advises Catholic women who feel called by the Spirit to priestly ordination (she's not one eho feels this calling, though she strongly supports her sister Catholics who do experience this calling) to do the following:

Let the Spirit blow where it may. Walk without fear, and don't wear such heavy robes that the Spirit cannot touch you. 

In The Guardian, Christina Keneally echoes Questions from a Ewe's perception that Pope Francis was engaging in a bit of weaselspeak "a la a marketing pitch" in making his off-the-cuff remarks about studying the possibility that women might be ordained to the diaconate. Keneally writes,

Francis is the master of being all things to all people, using "off the cuff" remarks to sound progressive but changing nothing when it comes to actual church rules. 

And then she goes on to observe,

More likely we are going to hear the usual "feminine genius" and "complementarity of the sexes" claptrap. You know: women deacons played a particular role. They were a minor deaconate. They were not equivalent to men. They were only ordained in the early church to minister to women (eg, baptise them by full immersion when it would have been improper for men to see a woman naked). There is no need for such a ministry now. Their ordination did not equal "holy orders." Blah, blah, blah. 
I hope I'm wrong. Forty years of being a Catholic feminist tells me I'm not going to be. 
I'm not alone. The Women's Ordination Conference, while welcoming the study, notes that in the same meeting with the women, Pope Francis repeated the church's argument that women cannot act "in the person of Christ" and therefore cannot preach or preside over the Eucharist. The conference commented: 
"WOC rejects this flawed interpretation that a male body is a necessary condition representing the Body of Christ. Upholding this discrimination, as though it were the will of God, is simply indefensible." 
So study away, Pope Francis. Keep celebrating women as the "strawberries on the cake" and telling us we are "the most beautiful thing God has made". But until women are included on our own merits, ordained as priests and bishops in the church, you head up a sexist institution where equality is denied, where talents are unused, theology is flawed and ministry is left undone.

As Candida Moss points out at Daily Beast, even if a study commission did recommend ordaining women to the diaconate and if the top leaders of the church accepted such a recommendation, it might well argue — from the scant, difficult-to-decipher references we have to the role played by women deacons in early Christianity — that women deacons should play a "complementary" and decidedly subordinate role among ordained (male) members of the church: she writes, 

For Francis the idea of women as deacons is found in the New Testament, but Church tradition does not maintain that women ever (legitimately) performed priestly roles. The ecclesial glass ceiling would still be intact. If the Church ordains female deacons it will be a historic step forward but it will also be a return to the past. 

Also at Daily Beast, Barbie Latza Nadeau appears to reach a somewhat similar conclusion, though she underscores the novelty of a papal statement that seems at least to open the door to studying the possibility of ordaining women deacons: 

Even if the special commission Pope Francis promised today does pave the way to the ordination of women deacons, they may never have a hope in Hell of being allowed to enter the full priesthood. But they are certainly one step closer than they have ever been before. 

Patricia Miller, at Religion Dispatches, also thinks that the fact that Francis spoke of "reinstating" women and of studying what this might mean indicates that he's willing to find some way for a discussion of women's roles that circumvents the endless deadlocks created by the synodal process when family matters were discussed last year: she notes, 

But just that fact that he's not throwing the question open at this point to his fellow bishops to debate in another endless round of synods suggests that Francis may have learned his lesson the last time: the only real way to force change in the church is by executive action.

As these snippets from commentary that has caught my eye and seems valuable to me suggest, there's a gamut of responses among Catholic women scholars and journalists to Pope Francis's statement. For more of them, from all kinds of perspectives, see Carol Kuruvilla's article at Huffington Post gathering statements of Catholic women.

My own take? I incline strongly in the direction of Questions from a Ewe and Christina Keneally, and tend to see this pope repeatedly engaging in media massaging and image management, throwing out tantalizing possibilities of reform and change that he never intends to make a real possibility for the Catholic church. I see his willingness to convene synods and encourage endless discussion and to talk about organizing study groups as a technique designed to keep change at bay, rather than to pursue meaningful change.

I've seen bucketloads of this kind of behavior on the part of corrupt, self-serving top academic administrators with whom I have worked, whose sole purpose in commissioning studies and organizing discussions has been to assure that no systemic change might take place in the institutions they run — in institutions they run to benefit themselves, and to keep themselves highly paid. 

As Qoholeth famously observes, of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Martin Luther King Jr. called the endless rehashing of strategies, after moral trajectories (e.g., regarding racial segregation and the moral imperative to end it) had made very plain the path that a principled society and its institutions must take, the "paralysis of analysis."

King thought that we frequently engage in analysis topped with analysis and study towering over study and discussion heaped onto discussion precisely to avoid meaningful action. In a moral direction. As indicated by the moral arc of history.

I think he was right about this.

I find this graphic at numerous online sites, but without clear indicators in any website I've visited of its origins. 

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