Female Deacons and The Hermeneutic of Perpetual Innovation

Designer clerical wear for women in the Church of England. | Photo courtesy of Jonathan Self.

Designer clerical wear for women in the Church of England. | Photo courtesy of Jonathan Self.

In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, Cardinal Walter Kasper discusses Pope Francis’ intention to form a commission to study the issue of “female deacons”:

“There is going to be a fierce debate, I think. On this issue, the Church is split down the middle,” German Cardinal Walter Kasper said in an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica.

Kasper’s comments came a day after Francis said he would set up a commission to study the possibility of having women serving as deacons, ordained members of the clergy who can carry out many of the duties of priests.

Kasper, one of the most influential liberal voices in Catholicism, said Francis wanted the issues aired after years of demands for women to have a greater role in the Church hierarchy.

“I personally don’t have a clear position but I am always open to and ready for innovation,” Kasper said, adding it was impossible to predict the outcome of the review.

“If you look at what has happened in the past, it would lead you to say no (to female deacons). But anything is possible.”

Whenever the winds of change are blowing, it seems we can count on Kasper to be in the mix.

Yesterday, I can’t count the number of people who sent me the story about the female deacon issue and asked me what I thought. I’ve read a the whole transcript of that part of his address. Francis treats of the problem fairly accurately as I understand it, describing the non-ordained role of “deaconnesses” in the early Church, which dealt with propriety and modesty in cases like full immersion baptism rather than any sacramental or preaching role. It does appear that the question was pre-planned — not many people would have a fairly obscure reference to the Council of Chalcedon ready to go off the top of their head, not even a pope — so that’s a consideration. Why include that question if you don’t want to open a door?

In that respect, I would suggest to you that it’s yet another thing thrown at the wall. And the things being thrown at the wall seem to be coming in increasingly rapid succession. Here, a quote of Apb. Fernandez strikes me as having greater relevance:

“You have to realize that [Francis] is aiming at reform that is irreversible. If one day he should sense that he’s running out of time and doesn’t have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him, you can be sure he will speed up.”

Ultimately, I don’t expect much movement on female deacons. They’ll dredge it up and look at it all over again, and very little will come of it, despite the excitement of Fr. James Martin and company.

What will happen, though, is the continued battering down of any certainty that the Catholic faith is divinely revealed and immutable. The sense of constant change, perpetual flux, in something that is supposed to be unyieldingly stable is a huge problem. Cardinal Kasper may be “always open to and ready for innovation”; he may like to think that “anything is possible” — but most of the faithful are not and do not. 

There is a curious unmaking of some of the more important accomplishments in the pontificate of John Paul II happening here. First, the synods on family which then produce an exhortation that snubs and all but replaces his Familiaris Consortio. Now, a commision to revisit what was so well established in JPII’s  Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that it is referred to as “infallible.” You’ll see a particular syntax around the Catholic web about this “not being a question of opening a door; there is no door.” (EDIT: In response to an objection in the comments, I concede here that I am mistaken about OS. It treats of the all-male priesthood, but not the diaconate. Nonetheless, Canon 1024 does prohibit women’s ordination, and there is no evidence that women were “ordained” deacons in the sense of the ordination conferred as a part of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The “ordinations” of women that did happen, such as they were, were sacramentals not sacraments, and dealt with roles proper to the now-abolished minor orders. I hope to publish a piece treating of this more in the near future.) 

And yet, here we are.

It is difficult for me to conjure up an explanation other than a permanent state of rupture and confusion. The satirical Catholic website, Eye of the Tiber, handles the issue masterfully…but it somehow falls just short of comedy when it’s actually the way people feel.

The upshot of never-ending upheaval is nothing less than the crushing of faith and hope, the subsequent diminution of charity, and the loss of countless souls to despair.

I wonder if Pope Francis and his friends, always excited about novelty, ever contemplate that fact — or the terrifying accountability they will have before Our Lord.

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