VATICAN CITY — A Brazilian bishop has called for the ordination of women to the diaconate for service in the Amazon region. The bishop said that 2009 revisions to canon law could allow for the ordination of women deacons, but a leading canon lawyer in the Vatican has disputed that idea.
Franciscan Bishop Evaristo Pascoal Spengler leads the territorial prelature of Marajó in Brazil and is participating as a member of the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian Region in Rome.
During a news conference on Oct. 25, Bishop Spengler said that “there is a path that is open for the ordination of women,” citing a 2009 document from Pope Benedict XVI.
While referencing the role of women leaders, saints and teachers in the history of the Church, Bishop Spengler did not account for the theological and sacramental impediments to such a development.
“We know that in the history of the Church there are women deacons, a role that should be expanded on,” he said.
Bishop Spengler said a canonical possibility for the ordination of women was created by Pope Benedict in 2009.
“In 2009 the Pope made a change in canon law, according to which the bishop, the priest and the deacon receive their mission and the faculty to act in the name of Christ. But this was changed by Pope Benedict, who changed this paragraph [which] said that, from that moment onward, that deacons were no longer linked to Christ but be able to serve the People of God in the diaconate in the Liturgy of the Word and in charity,” Bishop Spengler said.
“So we realize that there is a path that is open for the ordination of women.”
The bishop was referencing Benedict’s 2009 motu proprio Omnium in Mentem, which revised Canons 1008 and 1009 of the Code of Canon Law.
Benedict’s document noted that some language in canon law did not fully reflect the teaching of Vatican Council II on the nature of the diaconate and that Pope John Paul II had already updated the Catechism of the Catholic Church to address the same issue. Benedict’s document revised the law to emphasize the distinction between diaconal and priestly ministry.
“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,” the revised Canon 1009 says.
While the new wording reflects that deacons do not act in the person of Christ through the celebration of Mass, Benedict left intact canonical wording which reflects the unity of the sacrament of orders at all three grades of deacon, priest and bishop.
Canon 1008 states: “By divine institution, some of the Christian faithful are marked with an indelible character and constituted as sacred ministers by the sacrament of holy orders. They are thus consecrated and deputed so that, each according to his own grade, they may serve the People of God by a new and specific title.”
Benedict’s reforms left intact the essential provision of Canon 1024, which states: “A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.”
Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, told CNA that Benedict made revisions to canon law to “better distinguish the ministry of priests and deacons.”
“The canon was changed to reflect the Catechism,” he added.
“Nothing is said or mentioned regarding women,” Bishop Arietta said.
Bishop Arrieta mentioned that Pope Francis established in 2016 a commission to study the female diaconate, which has thus far reached no definitive conclusion. Earlier this year, the Pope said that while there is no consensus on questions related to the issue, the matter will continue to be studied.
Bishop Spengler also said that “we know that in the history of the Church there are women deacons, a role that should be expanded on — deaconess — and how to include this in the Church.”
In May, the Pope said that the deaconesses described by St. Paul in the New Testament and referenced by Bishop Spengler on Friday cannot be understood as an equivalent to the modern sacramental notion of the diaconate.
A 2002 document published by the International Theological Commission concluded that female deacons in the early Church did not have the same functions as male deacons and had “no liturgical function,” nor a sacramental one. It also said that even in the fourth century “the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns.”
“The formulas of female deacons’ ‘ordination’ found until now, according to the commission, are not the same for the ordination of a male deacon and are more similar to what today would be the abbatial blessing of an abbess,” Francis said May 7 during an in-flight news conference returning from North Macedonia and Bulgaria.
“For the female diaconate, there is a way to imagine it with a different view from the male diaconate,” said the Pope, while insisting that the issue needed further study.
Bishop Spengler did not mention either Pope Francis or the commission for the study of women deacons on Friday.
During the news conference, several journalists groaned when Bishop Spengler was asked about the Church’s sacramental theology and its restriction of ordination to men alone.
Earlier in the session, applause broke out among some journalists after Paulo Ruffini, prefect for the Vatican Dicastery of Communications, intervened to correct a question from veteran Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister.
Magister had made reference to an earlier event held in the Vatican gardens, during which a group of participants knelt in a circle around several carved items arranged around a controversial statue, variously identified as an earth-mother figure or fertility symbol.
Ruffini insisted that the event was not an “official” synod event and that questions about such events did not have to be answered. He also said that “there was no ritual” and “no prostration,” to applause from several journalists present at the news conference.