Pope opens door to fe­male dea­cons

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Worldwide -

VATICAN CITY — Pope Fran­cis on Tues­day ap­pointed a com­mis­sion to study the is­sue of fe­male Church dea­cons in a move seen as a po­ten­tial first step to­wards women en­ter­ing the Catholic clergy.

The 13-mem­ber com­mis­sion, made up of seven men and six women, will ex­am­ine the ques­tion with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on the his­tory of women hav­ing played this role in the early years of the Church, the Vatican said in a state­ment re­veal­ing the com­mis­sion mem­bers.

The panel will be chaired by Span­ish Arch­bishop Luis Ladaria, the sec­re­tary of the Vatican’s the­o­log­i­cal watch­dog, the Con­gre­ga­tion for the Doc­trine of the Faith.

A Je­suit, Ladaria is seen as a neu­tral fig­ure with­out strong ties to ei­ther the pro­gres­sive or con­ser­va­tive wings of the Vatican hi­er­ar­chy.

The estab­lish­ment of the com­mis­sion fol­lows a pledge made by Fran­cis in May dur­ing a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion with mem­bers of fe­male re­li­gious or­ders.

That was warmly wel­comed by Catholic fem­i­nist groups such as the US-based Women’s Or­di­na­tion Con­fer­ence (WOC).

But Fran­cis sub­se­quently com­plained that the me­dia had blown his com­ments out of pro­por­tion, say­ing he had not raised the pos­si­bil­ity of women serv­ing as dea­cons.

Ad­vo­cates of such a move have long ar­gued that women are piti­fully un­der-rep­re­sented in the Church’s hi­er­ar­chy and de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses, de­spite the num­ber of women in re­li­gious or­ders far out­weigh­ing the to­tal of priests and monks com­bined.

Al­low­ing women to en­ter the clergy at a rank just be­low a priest would rep­re­sent a first step to­wards cor­rect­ing this im­bal­ance, they ar­gue.

They also in­sist there is no the­o­log­i­cal ob­sta­cle to the move be­cause of the prece­dent es­tab­lished by women per­form­ing the role in the early cen­turies of Chris­tian­ity.

Fran­cis said in May that he was un­clear about the his­tory and that it “would do good for the Church to clar­ify this point”.

He made it clear that he did not see women be­com­ing priests. That op­tion was ex­am­ined and cat­e­gor­i­cally re­jected by one of his pre­de­ces­sors, Pope John Paul II, in 1994.

In 2001, a com­mis­sion charged with look­ing into the term “dea­coness” con­cluded there was no ba­sis for or­dain­ing women to the role.

Lucetta Scaraf­fia, an ed­i­to­ri­al­ist for the Vatican daily Osser­va­tore Ro­mano, said study­ing the his­tory of fe­male dea­cons was tan­ta­mount to re-ex­am­in­ing the is­sue of whether the Church should al­low them again.

“I can­not say if it could hap­pen soon, but it is en­cour­ag­ing. The fact that the pope acted quickly on what he said in May is a good sign,” she said.

The Vatican did not set a dead­line for the com­mis­sion to reach con­clu­sions on what is a vexed is­sue.

Af­ter Fran­cis’s com­ments in May, one of his clos­est al­lies, the lib­eral Ger­man Car­di­nal Wal­ter Kasper, pre­dicted a fierce de­bate. “On this is­sue the Church is split down the mid­dle,” the lead­ing pro­gres­sive the­olo­gian said, while cau­tion­ing that all pre­vi­ous at­tempts to open the clergy’s door to women had been re­jected.

Al­though dea­cons can­not cel­e­brate mass on their own or hear con­fes­sions, they are or­dained and can carry out many tasks in place of a priest, while re­main­ing free to marry and have a fam­ily.

Their tasks can in­clude presiding over bap­tisms, wed­dings, fu­ner­als and prayer ser­vices. They of­ten help with par­ish man­age­ment and of­fer pas­toral guid­ance to be­liev­ers.

Fran­cis has of­ten cham­pi­oned the spe­cial qual­i­ties of the fe­male sex, say­ing in De­cem­ber 2014: “Women are like straw­ber­ries on a cake — you al­ways need more of them.”

He has also re­peat­edly said since be­com­ing pope in 2013 that he does not rep­re­sent all church teach­ing as be­ing set in stone. — AFP

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