Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Women and the diaconal ministry
June 8, 2013, 2:37 pm
Filed under: Opinion

A recent article in the Tablet by Fr Gerald O’Collins, SJ, makes some very helpful points about the distinction between priesthood and diaconate. He refers to a study made by a subcommission of the Catholic International Theological Commission, of which the current Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, was a member. He draws attention to two major conclusions of their research: First, that “The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the Ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.” He points out this implies the recognition of some equivalence, even if it was not “purely and simply” a perfect equivalence. Second, in the unity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, there exists a clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other.

The distinction was highlighted in an addition to canon 1009 introduced by Benedict XVI in October 2009: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the people of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word, and charity.”

This follows the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. On the one hand, the council clarified the unity of the Sacrament of Orders, a unity found in three different “grades”: bishop, priest and deacon, but while recognising the unity of holy orders, also taught that, unlike bishops and priests, deacons are ordained “not for priesthood but for service”. The diaconate is a grade of ministry, then, but it is not a grade of priesthood. The priesthood exists in only two grades.

The diaconate has both liturgical and non-liturgical functions, and as regards liturgical functions (e.g. proclaiming the Gospel) none involves any question of sacramental validity, such that the action would be null and void if carried out by a lay person. It follows that the Church could, for good and proper reasons, allow a lay person to exercise any of these functions, or even establish a particular ministry which would include them. The Church has in the past established “minor orders” such as readers and acolytes, and could make such orders open to both men and women. The Church could also establish a “quasi-diaconal” order, open to women as well as men, conferred by the laying on of Episcopal hands, which might exercise precisely the same functions as the diaconate, and which for all practical purposes would be indistinguishable from the diaconate. Such an order would certainly be a “sacramental”. How would it differ objectively from the sacrament of the diaconate? I leave that question to those who have more expertise than I have, and more time to spend on it.

The Church of England has women deacons, and even Archdeacons. I cannot, myself, see any problem here. Unfortunately, the Church of England, at least in its official pronouncements, has seemingly not understood the clear distinction between diaconal and priestly ministries. Evangelicals, with their concern for “headship”,  might find the quotation from Pope Benedict helpful here: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the people of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word, and charity.” There could be a meeting of Catholic and Evangelical concerns here.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: