Callings Unanswered

Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI asked whether women could be deacons. With the acute need for such servant leaders in the Church, the faithful still question, why not?

Author: Anna Keating ’06

When I was a lay Catholic chaplain at a secular liberal arts college, an atheist student came to me. She’d had a supernatural experience and had come to believe in God. She began attending Mass and taking classes in the Church’s initiation program, and she eventually asked to be baptized and received into the Church. Hers was one of many conversions during my time on campus.

I made an appointment with my bishop to tell him about these students. He didn’t smile or nod during my visit. He just stared at me in silence as I spoke. I asked if he would meet with them. He said he was too busy. I asked if he would baptize them — adult converts in the Catholic Church must be baptized by a bishop. “I’m very busy,” he repeated, as he opened the door of his office and gestured for me to leave. I would have to find a retired bishop in his late 90s to baptize and confirm my catechumens.

Working in the Church as a woman, even in 2022, is a great way to lose your faith. I began to fall out of love with Catholicism. I began to see corners of the Catholic world so misogynistic that their denizens would rather people not hear about Jesus at all than hear about him from a laywoman like me.

The question of ordaining women as deacons in the Church, or rather of restoring the ordination of women as deacons, has been “under study” since before I was born. At the height of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI restored the permanent diaconate for men. It had fallen out of favor in the Middle Ages, when the Church had a greater need for priests who could celebrate Mass.

Vatican II decreed that, because men were already doing diaconal work — virtually everything priests do save celebrating the Mass and hearing confessions — it made sense to strengthen them by sacramental grace. Catholics believe that a sacrament, in this case holy orders, is a visible sign of God’s presence. The laying on of hands by a bishop at ordination imparts this grace, a real and new way of being in the world.

In restoring the permanent diaconate, Paul VI asked whether women also could be made deacons. More than 50 years later, his question still awaits an answer. Will Francis be remembered as the pope who let Catholic women preach and serve sacramentally in the Church? Or will women’s silence in the sanctuary continue? Because as things stand, from the Church’s point of view, there are no women in official ministry.

Governance is another important matter. During the sex abuse crisis, Catholic women have been notably absent from the rooms where decisions are being made: In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that canon law reserves to clergy the power to make legally binding decisions within the Church. However, he added, “I believe that women themselves, with their energy and strength, with their superiority . . . with their ‘spiritual power,’ will know how to make their own space. And we will have to try to listen to God so as not to oppose him.”


What’s a permanent deacon?

The word “deacon” means servant. The Apostles created the diaconate in response to a need: Deacons cared for widows who were being neglected in the distribution of food. Today, deacons can preach at Mass or prayer services, perform weddings, baptisms and funerals, and care for the poor. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reported some 18,000 permanent deacons — and 35,000 priests — in the United States in 2020. Not all of these permanent deacons are active, but they are all men, and most are married.

Because men studying for the priesthood are first ordained as “transitional” deacons, permanent deacons are often confused with priests, but they are not the same. A permanent deacon is, by definition, a deacon for life. Deacons cannot forgive sins or consecrate the Eucharist, but they are clergy. They go through several years of formation in theology and pastoral ministry, make promises to live in a certain way and are obedient to their local bishop.

Permanent deacons share the workload of priests and parish staff and provide much needed continuity in parishes. Priests are typically moved from their parishes every three to six years, but these deacons often stay until they retire or die. It is servant work. And unless they’re otherwise employed by the Church, they’re often not paid for their time — typically about 10 to 20 hours a week.

Their wives often stand in a peculiar position in relation to both their husbands’ recognized vocations and their own callings. In most formation programs, as one explained to me, wives are required to go through several years of training alongside their spouses “so that we could support our husbands in their ministry.”

Many Catholic women feel called to serve Jesus and the Church and do so even if they’re not ordained or recognized. More than 24,000 Catholic women currently work in the American Church, making up more than 80 percent of all lay ministers in the U.S.

“Our wives took every course with us, did every assignment, took every exam,” says Deacon Manuel Valencia. “At ordination our wives [were] given a piece of paper indicating that they had received a number of academic credits. At that moment, I realized an injustice had been permitted to be done to them because they were not allowed to become deacons. It was my Damascus moment. The scales fell from my eyes.”

The tension is not felt the same way by everyone. Kim Nguyen, a deacon’s wife who does not feel called to ordination, says, “It’s a blessing in so many ways. I am an art therapist, so I have my own form of ministry.” But the supportive role deacons’ wives must play is more challenging for women who feel called to the diaconate.

The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that men and women, though biologically distinct, are nonetheless equal. The unofficial teaching is that men are called to headship and women to service. Official practice reflects this unofficial teaching, which explains why even a nun — a celibate monastic — with advanced degrees in theology may not preach at Mass.

As a college chaplain, I hosted a weekly community supper at my house. One evening, a student asked the priest eating with us why women could not be ordained. He explained to her that this was so because the male is active and the female is passive. He was referring to sex. Feeling the awkwardness in the room, I tried lamely to smooth things over. “Well, in that case,” I said, “everyone plays an important part.”


Pope Francis makes waves

Will women ever be made deacons in the Catholic Church? Or is the diaconate for women, like the priesthood, a question simply off the table? Pope Francis has reopened this conversation in a serious way. In 2016, at the request of religious sisters, he created a commission to study the history of women in the diaconate. He named 12 scholars as members, six men and six women. The pope later said in an interview that the commission “found agreement up to a certain point. But each one of them has their own vision, which doesn’t accord with that of the others.”

In the two years leading up to the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in 2019, more than 87,000 people participated in listening sessions and assemblies, and the issue of women’s leadership kept coming up. Many women in remote Amazonian communities have already been delegated by their local bishops to lead communion services in the absence of a priest, even in some cases performing baptisms, weddings or burials.

In Bolivia, Sister Círia Mees has presided at almost 700 licit and valid baptisms, having received the authority from her bishop. She says, “I prepared myself to officiate the sacrament with immense responsibility.” A Sister of Divine Providence, she travels by boat to serve 300 indigenous and rural communities, some as far as 375 miles away by river. She knows the local languages. “This ministry demands a lot of effort, study, listening, silence, and total dedication and trust in God,” she says.

In 2020, in response to the Amazon Synod’s request to share such experiences and reflections, Francis established a second commission on female deacons. The world’s 1.3 billion Catholics await a final decision from the Holy Father that could have far-ranging implications. Ordaining more deacons would mean that more Catholics around the globe would have access to the sacraments. Catholicism is a sacramental religion, and there are simply not enough clergy to meet the need. How many people died of COVID-19 without receiving the anointing of the sick?

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This sixth-century pyx (left), used to carry consecrated hosts, depicts women incensing the altar at Christ’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Still, more than 2,000 years of teaching that a woman’s nature is essentially fixed and subordinate does not evaporate simply because Vatican II instructed laywomen to take a more active role in the Church. I have to admit that it would shock me to see a woman wearing vestments and assisting at the altar after a lifetime of not seeing that, just as it was once shocking for me to see a female lector or altar server.

Meanwhile, women are often blamed for problems in the Church, including the lack of vocations to the priesthood. Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American prelate, has argued that having so many women active in parish ministry has “feminized” churches and driven men away. “Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women,” he said in a 2015 interview. “The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.”

Blaming women is an old trope. In The Laywoman Project: Remaking Catholic Womanhood in the Vatican II Era, historian Mary J. Henold writes that between 1948 and 1958, Catholic schools in the U.S. saw an 89 percent increase in pupils but only a 20 percent increase in the unpaid Catholic nuns who taught them. At the time, Catholic media typically blamed mothers for selfishly resisting their daughters’ vocations to religious life.

But if Catholics believe in the power of the sacraments, then we should worry about how many baptized Catholics die every year without an opportunity to make a confession or receive communion due to the shortage of priests. Many living on society’s margins lack access to baptism and the Eucharist, a situation that should trouble us more than the image of a woman helping a man — an image that, after all, was put forth as an ideal in the early Church and, today, in the family.

Catholics pray for vocations. But what if the answer to their prayers is sitting in the first pew? She is the one taking the Eucharist to the sick and homebound, the one already doing diaconal work — only without the sacramental grace or the consecration of her calling through ordination.

“There is a glove somewhere that has been thrown down,” Pope Francis has said. “The women have put up a sign and said, ‘Please listen to us. May we be heard.’ And I pick up the gauntlet.” This pledge to listen to the wide range of women’s experiences in the Catholic Church is rare.


Why the opposition?

Opponents to women in the diaconate say they don’t want women in the priesthood, which the Church has said is impossible. They say they don’t want to “change” the Church. Part of the comfort of being a Catholic is how the Church preserves an ancient way of life in an ever-changing world. It’s reassuring.

For Catholics, the two sources of authority are Scripture and Tradition. Female deacons are an ancient tradition. There’s no question women cooperated and helped in Jesus’ ministry. St. Phoebe, St. Prisca, Euodia, St. Mary and many others played important roles in the early Church. Indeed, Phoebe is the only person explicitly named as a diakonos in the Bible.

In Romans 16:1-2, St. Paul sends Phoebe to preach a message in Rome that for some reason he cannot deliver himself: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” The New Testament scholar Adela Yarbro Collins of Yale says, “Phoebe not only carried the letter but must have been articulate and theologically knowledgeable, because those who brought letters had to be able to answer questions from those who received them and to elaborate and explain Paul’s teachings and practical instructions.”

So, while the Apostle found it necessary and appropriate to send a woman to preach the good news in the first century, the priests I worked with as a chaplain in the 21st century typically preferred another passage from his epistles, namely that “it is improper for a woman to speak in church.” But Pope Benedict has affirmed that this passage of Scripture “had to be considered relative” or put into context: In the early Church, men and women were separated at Mass, and the service was preached in a language that the women, who were not allowed to attend school, often did not understand. Thus Paul, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, chastises them for talking amongst themselves during the liturgy.

Both the councils of Nicaea in 325 and Chalcedon in 451 mention the ordination of women to the diaconate. Chalcedon states, “No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon,” suggesting that older female deacons were permitted. As late as the 11th century, the right of the diocesan ordinary to ordain women as deacons was confirmed by three consecutive popes. Pope Benedict VIII wrote in 1017, “We concede and confirm to your successors in perpetuity every episcopal ordination not only of presbyters but also of deacons or deaconesses.”

Some opponents argue that the responsibilities of deaconesses in the early Church were not identical to those of permanent deacons today. This is true. Catechumens in the early Church were baptized nude, so modesty required women to assist other women, and men to assist other men, at the baptismal font. Of course, the responsibilities of male deacons have also changed since the early Church: Living traditions involve change as well as continuity.

Something about a woman in a position of authority still discomfits some Catholics today. Not long ago, many white Catholics in the U.S. were uncomfortable with the idea of Black priests. They had absorbed the world’s categories (black, white) and wanted to impose them upon the Church, where they had no place. Women were only in 2021 allowed to be formally installed as lectors and acolytes, even though in practice women were already serving as lectors and acolytes all over the world. And yet that tension regarding the testimony of women goes back to the first days of the Church. Had St. Mary Magdalene not preached Christ’s resurrection to the Apostles in hiding, there would be no Church. Imagine an alternate ending to the Passion narrative in which the Apostle to the Apostles, having witnessed the resurrected Christ, says, “Who am I, a woman, to preach the resurrection to the (all male) Apostles? I’ll go live a hidden life of love.”

The fear of women in male spaces is ancient and new. In the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Martha wants Jesus to rebuke Mary for sitting at Jesus’ feet in the male part of the home instead of helping her in the kitchen. Only men were permitted to study under a rabbi, that is, to become rabbis themselves, but in a surprise twist Jesus instead corrects Martha, saying, “Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.” Father Greg Boyle, S.J., writes in his new book, The Whole Language, “What was ultimately treasonous about Jesus was his inclusivity. He ignored boundaries.”


The cloud of suspicion

Many Catholic women feel called to serve Jesus and the Church and do so even if they’re not ordained or recognized. More than 24,000 Catholic women currently work in the American Church, making up more than 80 percent of all lay ministers in the U.S. And yet, because they are women, they are often held in suspicion, regardless of their orthodoxy. Too many clergy treat them not as faithful collaborators but as clandestine operators with a nefarious agenda. They want power. They want to get in and change things. They want to feminize the men. And assuming Paul’s apparent teaching that it’s an abomination for women to speak in church, where does one draw the line? Down in the church basement? Or perhaps that Scripture class, too, should be canceled, because it’s taught by a woman instead of a priest.

I experienced this cloud of suspicion and hostility as I prepared my catechumens to receive the sacraments of initiation. A priest who had never met me circulated a letter to every priest in the diocese in which he argued that it was inappropriate for me, a laywoman, to be teaching in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program; that RCIA should only be taught by an ordained person. It was a strange argument, because laypeople teach RCIA classes every day. The message I received was, “We don’t need your service.” And when I suggested once that female deacons might help the Church, one priest told me, “We’ve gotten this far without you.”

But that, too, is incorrect. Without women, Catholic schools, hospitals, charities, churches and homes — where future Catholics are formed — would cease to exist. Might not some of these women be called to be deacons?


Who is called?

Organizations like Discerning Deacons, led by Casey Stanton and Ellie Hidalgo, are asking such questions about need and vocation. They are taking up Pope Francis’ vision for a more participatory Church in which the faithful are consulted on matters of importance.

Jessica Morel is a 43-year-old Army reservist and Mexican American mother of four who feels called to be a chaplain but discovered that Catholic women are not permitted to serve in this way. “I experienced a calling [to the diaconate] about six or seven years ago,” she says. “I volunteered for organizations that served veterans who had experienced trauma, [and] I began to wonder how I could be more involved in a spiritual capacity to help people who have encountered moral injury, sexual trauma, all of the pain and sorrow that a lot of people experience while serving in the military.”

Morel has been a catechist, a Eucharistic minister and a lector and has completed a two-year program in parish leadership. “When I called the Army recruiter, he asked what denomination I was, and I said, ‘I’m Catholic.’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry we don’t help women in this department.’ That was my first awareness that you can’t be a Catholic woman in ministry in the military. There’s no path for me.”

She notes how vital spiritual needs of female soldiers often cannot be met by men. “I’ve heard over and over from women who say, ‘I did not reach out for spiritual support because I had been violated by a man, and so I could not talk to a man about my trauma.’”

Her pastor offered no empathy. “He wouldn’t even sign my paperwork for the military saying that I’m an active parishioner,” Morel says. “He was telling me that I’m setting myself up for excommunication. Now I just sit in the back at Mass and try to be invisible.”

She cries as she speaks. “I wish people could understand the sorrow that women have. If we didn’t love [the faith] we would just leave, we would go and find another religion. Just become Anglican, just become nondenominational: That’s what people say. I’m Mexican. That’s like saying to me just become another ethnicity. I cannot even process that. I am a Catholic. If people could understand the sorrow of wanting to preach about the love of Christ but not being allowed to — the sorrow is so intense.”

It can be hard to hear God’s voice amid the power struggles that threaten the unity within the Church. People fear that saying “yes” to female deacons means they must check other so-called progressive boxes, when that is not the case. To be religious is to not fit neatly within contemporary American political categories. To be faithful requires believers to assess each issue in light of their traditions and sacred texts.

What’s at stake is enormous. As Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. I can think of some women Jesus might send. I bet you can, too.

Anna Keating is the co-author of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life (Penguin Random House). She co-owns and lives above Keating Woodworks, a handmade furniture studio. Her essays appear in The Hedgehog Review, Church Life Journal, America, Salon, First Things, U.S. Catholic and elsewhere.