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The announcement that the Pope has instituted a commission of inquiry into whether the Church should have women deacons raises, again, a question we have aired here before (Jessica’s last piece garnering a record 295 comments which generated as much heat as light). That there were women in the early Church who bore the title ‘deacon’ is not contested; what is contested is the role of these women. They seem to have prepared women converts for baptism. Why was this necessary? In the early Church people were baptised by full immersion – and it was necessary that women should be taken through that process by women. But this whole business is, of course, as Tina Beattie admitted (at 39 minutes here) this morning, an opportunity to discuss (yet again) the issue of the ordaining of women as priests. That the arguments for the latter are discussed purely in terms of secular notions of equality, suggests that the theological arguments in Catholic terms do not exist. Those who listen to the ‘BBC Sunday’ programme to which I linked, will be able to savour Professor Beattie in full cultural appropriation mode telling us what it is African women want – a line of argument curiously old-fashioned now, which perhaps tells us something about where that sort of old-fashioned Catholic liberalism has become stuck. We might, perhaps, let African women speak for themselves, they do not need white people to ‘rescue’ them or to speak on their behalf. By contrast, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith rests securely in the teaching of the Church and the faith that it is guided by God through the Holy Spirit.

The whole Ressourcement argument – that is that we go back to the early Church to see how things were done then and recover early practice – is an essentially Protestant trope. It assumes too much and forgets too much. It assumes we can know with precise accuracy the practice of the early Church, when, in practice, we can recover some things about what it did in some areas; so, yes, there were female deacons, but no, we cannot be sure what they did. What we can be sure of is that in patriarchal societies they did not do the sort of things that modern feminists would have wanted them to have done. So the best that could be hoped for here would be to construct your own Catholic history, in which you say there were women deacons but they should not do what they did back then because we are now post-patriarchal. That is simply to to admit that you knew what conclusion you wanted before you began; it would be refreshingly honest were this simply to be admitted. What does it forget? It forgets that the Church is an organic body which grows. The oak was once an acorn, but it cannot become an acorn again, it had grown beyond that stage.

Now, that last argument need, of course, not work in favour of the traditional position which the Church has taken, although there is strong evidence that St John Paul II was speaking authoritatively when he ruled out women’s ordination. It might well be that the Church is developing to a stage where its age-old teaching on women’s ordination is falling away, but if this is so at the moment, it requires us to believe that the Spirit is speaking in the language of modern secular feminism rather than in the terms He has usually employed. Pope Francis is certainly not of the opinion that the Spirit is speaking in favour of female ordination, having said that ‘”The church has spoken and says no … That door is closed” – to the evident disappointment of the more liberal elements in the media. The Church does not, he holds, as all his predecessors have held, possess the authority to ordain women. The Canon Law Society of America has issued a report showing that the diaconate is a clerical office:

Distinct from lay people in the church by divine institution are the sacred ministers, whom canon law calls clerics (c. 207). One becomes a cleric when one is ordained deacon (c. 266). Only clerics can obtain offices the exercise of which requires the power of orders or the power of ecclesiastical governance (c. 274). Deacons thus are clerics by virtue of their ordination and this makes them capable of exercising sacred office and sacred power. All clerics must be incardinated in a diocese or personal prelature or in some religious institute (c. 266). By ordination to the diaconate one becomes incardinated in the entity for which one is ordained (c. 266), and a cleric becomes entitled to suitable remuneration (c. 281). 

In 2002, the International Theological Commission concluded a five-year study of the question of women deacons, initiated at the request of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and after more than 40,000 words, concluded that: 1) deaconesses in the early Church were not participating in some form of holy orders, 2) nor were they even equivalent to deacons. But, of course, many of those pushing for deaconesses today are doing so for the sole purpose of having leverage for the ordination of women to the priesthood.”

It may be that Pope Francis’ Commission will find some hitherto unknown ‘third way’, but it won’t find it in the sources, or in the tradition of the Church. In the meantime, the best advice is that offered by Fr Lucie Smith – trust in the Holy Spirit who guides God’s Church. If it really is the wish of God that His Church has women deacons and women priests, it will happen regardless of the fears of any of us, and if it not, it won’t, regardless of the hopes of any of us.