It is good to welcome back George Ripon as a commentator on Catholica after some illness. George always writes a quintessentially Aussie commentary: calling a spade and bloody shovel and saying things bishops and theologians would be afraid to say lest it lead to their eternal damnation. Today he offers the solution to the problem the hierarchs have with women and in one fell swoop also solves the problem of the crisis in vocations the Catholic Church is experiencing. Welcome back, George. This is "tellin' it as it is!"
Women in the Church
What happens when, an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The old conundrum could well apply today in our Church when the movement for the ordination of women collides with the Vatican response that the Church does not have the power to ordain women to the priesthood.
I dug out Matthew and found at Ch 16-V19 Jesus addressing Peter said "and whatever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, shall loose an earth shall be loosed in Heaven". Later to all the apostles he said (Ch 18-VI8) "Amen I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven". So to Peter and his successors (Popes) and the successors of the apostles (bishops) He gave the power make laws which would be ratified by God. It goes without saying that these would be laws appropriate to the proper governance of the Church. So as women today aspire to senior roles in the business world the big question must be, why should it not be possible in our Church?
First a look at the basics. At the time of Jesus man worked by the sweat of this brow to provide shelter, food and clothing for his family, the woman cared for the home, looked after the children and prepared food for the table. So the men and women complemented each other in the family. The man was the leader but not in a way that diminished the role of women. So Jesus chose twelve male apostles and the first deacons were also male. And that's how the male role began.
Arguments in favour of the role of women suggest that some women were present at the Last Supper but there is no support for this in the Gospels. Another argument is that there were deaconesses in the early church but they, unlike male deacons, were not formally ordained. In his ministry Jesus had women followers and women stood at the foot of the Cross and were present following the Resurrection. So although women were involved at the time of Jesus, men were the acknowledged leaders. While dealing briefly with early Church history I think it should not be part of the agenda in the 21st century. Rather we must start with what we've got today and look forward in hope.
Why is Rome so dogmatic about women?
So back to our main question: Why is Rome so dogmatic on the issue of women? Did JPII have a unique revelation? Otherwise where is the assertion justified? Where are our Church historians, our theologians, our scripture scholars? Such an assertion must be justified somewhere. Otherwise in his declining years did JPII genuinely believe it and assert it accordingly? In the light of the powers given to Peter and the other Apostles the Church must have the authority to change, or otherwise provide good reasons. 'Father knows best' is simply not good enough anymore. To say that the church always had male governance – celibate after the 11th Century – does not set the situation in concrete in the 21st Century.
Well let's do a 'what if?' Suppose B16 asked the bishops to do a survey of seminaries world-wide as to the occupancy rate. When the results were in and put in the computer he would realise, at last, that he had a problem. Apart from some in Africa at near 100%, the picture is bleak The rate in the English-speaking world was less than one third and some of the great institutions built in the first half of the 20th century had long since closed as seminaries. So how should we advise B16 if he happened to ask. First the unmentionable...
Consider making celibacy optional and invited married men to study for the priesthood. Also to encourage ex-priests, now married to return to ministry, even part-time. Or even the unthinkable, swallow Vatican pride and consider the ordination of women. The Anglicans had been doing it for over 20 years without being demolished by thunderbolts and lightning. B16 could console himself by relying on the Gamaliel Principle [Acts 5:24-39] paraphrased: if this movement is not from God it will fizzle out but if it is from God you won't be able to stop it. Real reformers would advise B16 to gird his loins and courageously offer a feasibility study to women and invite them on a trial basis, into the present formation process. Celibacy plus seven years of hard study of philosophy, theology, Canon Law, church history and spirituality, scripture and liturgy. And the latest, of course, Latin, so that priests can be trained to say Mass in Latin with their back to the people of God. The program would be closely monitored with candidates required to pass strict examinations.
The trouble with the Curia...
Sadly there is no indication that anything like this will happen in the near future bearing in mind the present mind-set in Rome. There we have a male bureaucracy steeped in male tradition and control. Promotion is from within and when new officials are needed the jobs are filled by senior clergy around the world previously directly appointed by Rome. Curial officials in comfortable accommodation with good jobs for life would be unwilling to accept any change in the status quo that could affect their lifestyle. And the ultimate horror would be to allow women any role involving authority in the Church!!. Comments like "the end of civilization"; the "thin end of the wedge"; "where will it all end?"; would be regularly heard as senior dignitaries gathered for their morning lattes.
Would admitting women to the diaconate be a srep forward?
But change is in the air and I suspect many in Rome know it. Apart from Vatileaks there are rumours that exasperated by worldwide criticism on many fronts Rome might consider admitting women to the diaconate. When the Apostles [Acts 6] found themselves spending more and more time in prayer and ministry they needed help, hence the diaconate. It was originally male only and after falling into disuse for many centuries it is now being revised. Its still male only, celibate unless already married. They can not preach, hear confessions nor preside at the Eucharist. But they can Baptise, be marriage celebrants, do funeral services (No Mass) and the Last Rites (no confession). Several years part-time training is required with a preference for a Diploma in Theology. The last time I looked at the Melbourne model it included a condition that deacons were not allowed to serve in their own parishes.
The irony is that Pastoral Associates, the majority of whom are women, already perform many of the deacon's duties, With permission, they can train to baptise, become marriage celebrants, conduct funerals and the Last Rites. So the reality is that by the time the church realised the problem, the diaconate functions were already being carried out by lay people, mainly women, at the grass-roots level. So why not combine the two and invite Pastoral Associates women and men with good track records to apply for the diaconate? While this would be a major change for the Church it would just formalise the reality of what is already happening.
On the assumption that Rome decides to move I am proposing a diaconate common to men and women, in line with this article I will concentrate on the woman's involvement. For too long women have been treated as second class citizens in our Church. This despite the fact that 2 out of 3 (?) church attendees are women. The commissioning of women to the Diaconate would go some way to easing the pain felt at their present treatment. While it may seem trifling we would need a sensible dress code for deacons in contrast to Rome's pathological obsession with cappa magna, croziers, birettas and other ancient exotic garments. So, the KISS rule for the diaconate: "Keep it Simple!" For church duties like weddings, baptisms and funerals, a simple white alb with a cincture (belt) and, for outside duties, a black soutane and a surplice. Such a dress code would allow in hot conditions the alb over shorts and a tee shirt or otherwise over jeans and a top. This would obviate the need for women and men to wear expensive black suits and Roman collars.
And now to a critical issue in parish management, money. Here I see signs of hope. At present many Pastoral Associates not needing income are happy to work on a voluntary basis as their gift to the Church. A similar situation could apply with deacons. After all priesthood and the diaconate are vocations not jobs. Women with family off their hands would make ideal candidates. This of course does not exclude other women or men willing to serve. Church costs could be minimal though in the end it would be a private matter between the parish and the deacon.
Details of changes, would of course need Church approval and here I see a major challenge for our bishops. Have a look at Isaiah 35; 3:
"Strengthen ye the feeble hands and confirm the weak knees. Say to the fainthearted: Take courage and fear not: behold your God will bring the revenge of recompense."
Take the message to Rome, We need more priests and deacons in our parishes and don't be fobbed oft by authority and platitudes. Don't meekly accept the predictable "No Way" response. If our Church is to remain relevant our bishops will need to take courage and speak up on behalf of the people.
Accepting the lesser of two "evils" women deacons, as against women priests, Rome might well agree, not without sufferance, to a feasibility study as to the merits of the proposal? Rome would not be permitted to end the process without reference to parish clergy with some input from parishioners. Neither would bishops be allowed to frustrate the process. It would also be clear that change would not in any way affect the work already being performed by pastoral associates.
So given the opportunity of a lifetime, parish clergy and the people would move quickly to get the ball rolling. Pastoral Associates, particularly women, would be encouraged to apply for the Diaconate. The initial applicants would form the basis for the training agenda. Some basic studies in spirituality, scripture and liturgy along with counselling and personal relationship skills would be involved. Training would be at the local seminary with live-n facilities for country candidates and others if required. Flexibility would be the order of the day as the programme evolved. Apart from the admission of women, the whole diaconate process would be simplified to respond to the spiritual and pastoral needs of the parish to-day as discerned through prayer and discernment at the local level.
Speed would be essence before Rome changed its mind so candidates would be screened and start training ASAP. Even with a quick start it would take some time for new deacons to be available for parish work. However as they became established parish clergy and the people would wonder how they survived without them especially in view of the ongoing decline in priestly vocations. And here comes the crunch... As deacons take on more of the parish work and priests retire, will the question be raised? Do we still need celibate priests with seven years academic training? Personally I think not. So why not promote the diaconate to celebrate the Eucharist and gradually take on more and more of the priestly duties? After all an academic degree is not required to say Mass. In addition to week-end Eucharists, this would allow deacons to celebrate Mass for weddings and funerals. As deacons, women would also be fully involved, thus removing much of the pain from the treatment of those women seeking ordination.
The end of the priesthood as we know it?
Getting back to this article after a long break I asked myself where I was going and it struck me that I was looking ahead to the inevitable, the end of the priesthood as we know it. Not by prescript but by default as vocations dwindle, certainly in the English-speaking world. While we have in the past been well served by male celibate clergy the time has cone for change. Here I draw a comparison with the business world where many corporations have vertical management with a CEO very much in control at the top of the organisation. Below sit assistants and deputies; lower again are section leaders and at the bottom, "the workers". Sounds like something familiar to us all. On the other hand in flat management the CEO (Primus inter Pares — First among equals) works closely with the deputies. Likewise deputies are close the next level down and supervisors relate well with the "workers".
Flat management would be the norm in parishes under the leadership of a deacon. He or she would work with the Pastoral Council [Canon 536] and the Finance committee [Canon 537] and the other groups, Maintenance, Liturgy, Caregroups, RCIA etc. etc.. The new deacon would be "One of Us". Acceptance would take time as many Catholics would still prefer an ordained priest for the sacraments. But the reality is that the priesthood as we know it is on the way out. In fact the decline of the priesthood is nothing short of a scandal where Rome, well aware of the problem since the early eighties, has done nothing to acknowledge the situation. More heads in the sand?
So, having, after a long break, reviewed what I have written I an convinced that the future leadership of our parishes lies with a revised diaconate, women and men. Regional confessors would be appointed to visit parishes from time to time for formal Confession. These visits would be published in deanery and parish notices so that on most week-ends Confession would be available locally to those seeking it. Having, in a sense replaced the declining priesthood with a renewed diaconate I realise that much needs to be done to redefine the diaconate with a new programme of formation and commissioning. Perhaps a subject for further discussion at a later date. So as always I will end in joyful hope for the future of our Church.
George Ripon, Melbourne. Submitted to Catholica 16 Oct 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?