An Explainer: Synod on Synodality to Rehash Possibility of Women Deacons
The Vatican just released its much-anticipated working document for the Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops in Rome, and few Catholic watchers will be surprised that “the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate” will be among the topics for discussion. This has been an issue for some Church leaders and other delegates, as they ponder Pope Francis’ call for a more inclusive, synodal Church that listens and discerns the will of the Holy Spirit.
“Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered,” reported the instrumentum laboris, or working document, which marked the beginning of the third phase of the multiyear Synod on Synodality global process that began with parish and diocesan surveys and listening sessions and then continued with national and continental synodal gatherings.
“Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?” the document stated.
Additional questions included in “worksheets” provided by the instrumentum laboris underscore the need for women to assume more influential roles within the Church and urged delegates to think outside the box. “What new ministries could be created to provide the means and opportunities for women’s effective participation in discernment and decision-making bodies?” read one worksheet question.
Amid a steady chorus of demands that the Church open up leadership positions to women, since his election in 2013 Pope Francis has boosted their presence in the Roman Curia and also appointed two papal commissions to study the historical and theological record on women deaconesses.
In the process, he has raised the hopes of those who seek a more radical break with Church tradition regarding the role of women. While those aspirations have not materialized, the Synod on Synodality has provided a new platform for advocates to make their case, and some, like Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, have seized the opportunity.
The Pope’s Position
In 2016, Pope Francis endorsed Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope St. John Paul’s authoritative 1994 statement that the Church is permanently precluded from ordaining women as priests, as the “final word” on the matter.
But during that year, under the auspices of the now-Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, he appointed a commission to examine the historical role of female deacons, and in 2020, a second Commission on Women and the Diaconate focused on the theological aspects of this teaching.
No formal guidance from the two commissions has been made public. However, in 2019, shortly before delegates at the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian region pressed for approval of women deaconess as a solution to a regional priest shortage, Francis emphasized the dearth of historical support for this change. “[The] formulas of female deacons’ ‘ordination’ found until now,” he said “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.”
And during an address to the Amazonian synod immediately after its final report had been approved with the inclusion of language supportive of female deacons, Francis suggested the document had failed to grapple with women’s full role in the Church, particularly “in the transmission of faith, in the preservation of culture,” he said. Rather, “we focus on the functional aspect, which is important,” but not everything.
Earlier in 2019, during the 21st assembly of the International Union of Women Superiors, he tackled the subject in an unusually direct manner as he explained why he could not upend tradition and doctrine.
“I can’t do a decree of a sacramental nature without having a theological, historical foundation for it,” Francis told the assembly of women superiors, the Jesuit news outlet America reported.
“In regard to the diaconate, we must see what was there in the beginning of Revelation. If there was something, let it grow and it arrives, but if there was not, if the Lord did not want a sacramental ministry for women, it can’t go forward.”
The following year, his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia ducked questions about deaconess, even as the Church’s first Latin American Pope recognized the role of many laywomen running isolated parishes in the Amazon where the faithful rarely saw a priest.
Women have a “central part to play in Amazonian communities,” including “access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders,” Francis stated in Querida Amazonia.
“Here it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop. This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood.”
Francis sought to clarify his views about the role of women in the Church and the licitness of women’s ordination during a November 2022 interview with America.
“And why can a woman not enter ordained ministry?” he asked during the interview. “It is because the Petrine principle has no place for that.”
He emphasized, however, that the dignity of women reflected the spousal nature of the Church, which he called the “Marian principle.”
“The way is not only [ordained] ministry. The Church is woman. The Church is a spouse. We have not developed a theology of women that reflects this,” he suggested.
The Holy Father framed the Petrine ministry and the Marian dimension of the Church as “theological” concepts. He contrasted these teachings with another practical path, which he called “the third way: the administrative way.”
This administrative path, he suggested, provided an opportunity to properly address legitimate demands for women to play a greater role in Church governance.
Indeed, Pope Francis has increased the number of women in senior, second and third-level management positions within the Roman Curia and Vatican City.
“[F]ive women hold the rank of undersecretary and one the rank of secretary of a dicastery,” Vatican News reported in May, in coverage timed to highlight the momentum of change within the Holy See.
In 2021, Italian religious Sister Alessandra Smerilli was appointed secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The appointment of the Daughter of Mary, Help of Christians sister marked the first time a woman was appointed to that position.
Likewise, Francis on March 9, 2021, named Sister Nuria Calduch-Benages, a Spanish religious sister of the Congregation of Missionary Daughters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and biblical scholar, the secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission; and on July 26, 2021, he appointed Emilce Cuda, an Argentinian theologian, the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
But while Francis has not endorsed proposals for female deacons, he has yet to issue formal guidance on the matter or present his insights on the many ways women enrich the Church and engage in work of evangelization as formators of culture. And that may help explain why the issue of women’s ordination remains on the front burner and why his efforts to broaden the discussion have failed to develop much traction.
New Synodal Platform
In fact, the Synod on Synodality has provided advocates for change with a new platform to make their case, and synod officials themselves have signaled a measure of support for the issue as well.
Last October, when the Synod on Synodality secretariat released its working document for the continental stage, titled “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” it noted that submissions made during the preceding national stage of the process supported the Church’s ongoing “discernment regarding a female diaconate,” while a “greater diversity of opinion was expressed on the subject of priestly ordination for women.”
And during a March 2023 interview, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the influential relator general of the synod who was recently appointed to Francis’ “council of cardinals,” asserted that John Paul’s 1994 authoritative teaching on women’s ordination was not infallible and therefore could be overturned someday.
“Pope Francis does not want the ordination of women,” added Cardinal Hollerich, “and I am completely obedient to that. But people continue to discuss it.”
Shortly afterward, the North American delegates participating in the Synod on Synodality called for an examination of women’s involvement in Church life, including “decision-making roles, leadership and ordination” in their continental document, which was compiled following 12 virtual meetings held in February and March for parts of the United States and Canada.
The delegates of the six other international assemblies taking part in the synod’s continental stage pressed for similar goals, according to the recently released documents synthesizing their discussions.
Meanwhile, some Church leaders, including Cardinal McElroy, have expressed support for admitting women to the diaconate and linked this proposal to the Synod on Synodality’s call for a more inclusive Church.
“As the synod prepares to meet in Rome this fall, it should seek fundamental changes in the role of women in the Church,” Cardinal McElroy argued in a March 2023 commentary for Commonweal. “This would include eliminating barriers to women in the leadership of parishes and dioceses, allowing women to preach and admitting women to the diaconate.”
The recently released working document for the October assembly at the Vatican — the first of two assemblies, with a second scheduled for October 2024 — made clear that the push for female deacons was still very much in play. At the same time, some commentators have noted that the priorities on display may not adequately reflect the concerns or experience of many Catholic women.
For example, the word “woman” surfaces in the document more than 40 times, mostly in the context of possible roles of authorized influence in the Church, but the word “mother” only appears as it relates to Mary, the Mother of God.
The document’s foreword does not attempt to defend the judgment calls that produced the working document. Rather, it promises that the next stage of the synodal process will identify “which pathways the Spirit invites us to walk along more decisively as one People of God.”
Going forward, the small-group discussions at the assembly will give delegates the opportunity to address two questions included in worksheets that point to the options before the Church, as the authors understand it:
“What new ministries could be created to provide the means and opportunities for women’s effective participation in discernment and decision-making bodies?” and “Is it possible to envisage [women’s inclusion in the diaconate]?”
Some delegates will likely be puzzled by the second query, given Francis’ decision not to support the Amazonian synod’s call for female deacons.
But the working document explains that the worksheets “are not meant to be considered as a questionnaire which requires an answer to every question” and cautions that a fresh review of questions addressed in past synods or magisterial teaching “should not be hastily dismissed,” as the synodal assembly is “a privileged forum” for returning to important issues.
The instrumentum laboris further explains that the final part of the October assembly will determine the Church’s next steps for addressing high-profile topics like the question of women’s role in the Church and more specifically women deacons. And after the close of the 2023 assembly, “the necessary in-depth theological and canonical studies in preparation” for the final assembly in October 2024 will soon be underway.
Register correspondent Susan Klemond contributed to this report.