VIDEO: How would women deacons change the church?

 

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Moderator
James Martin, S.J.
Editor-at-large for America Media 
 
Panelists
Nancy Dallavalle
Theologian and vice president for mission and identity at Fairfield University
 
Deacon Greg Kandra
Blogger at Aleteia’s “The Deacon’s Bench,” editor of CNEWA’s “One” magazine
 
Rita Ferrone
Contributing editor at Commonweal and blogger at “Pray Tell Blog”
 
George Demacopoulos
Theologian and founding co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University
 
Full Transcript

JAMES MARTIN: Hi. I am Father Jim Martin. I am a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at America Media, and I am here in the third segment of our Web series, “Deacons, Women and the Call to Serve,” which is sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and America Media. I am joined by four distinguished panelists: Nancy Dellavalle, Greg Kandra, Rita Ferrone, and George Demacopoulos.

In this segment we are going to be talking about the deaconate within the larger scope of ministry. In our last segment, we talked about the very topical issue of women deacons.

I would like to ask our group to think about how the introduction of women deacons, which the papal commission is looking at, might transform pastoral ministry. When you think about the possibility of women serving as deacons, how does that change or shake up the Church?

RITA FERRONE: One of the things I think that it would do — and I hope that it would do — would be to bring a greater sensitivity to the justice issues of how lay women in general are treated in the Church. A lot of people who are in ministry can be fired with no consequence; they do not have proper benefits; they are not paid a living salary. All of those things are justice issues, and we tend to exploit the women who volunteer in our churches as well.

I see women in the role of deacon as being part of the clergy. They are going to have a foot in the door in terms of making some strategic decisions about how it is that we treat women in general as they serve the Church.

It does not mean it is a panacea — they could just decide also to keep on being unjust to women — but it is going to be at least harder to do that without even noticing, as today you could have pastoral associates who do a great job, and then a new pastor comes and they are fired; they have no recourse.

If you had women as a class being represented in the clerical community, I think that this would be something that would cause an uproar, as it does not today.

GREG KANDRA: You could also have a situation where a husband and wife would

serve together as ordained clergy. If you had men deacons and women deacons — which I know they do in some Protestant denominations — which could be a very interesting model I think in some places, interesting for the people in the pews to see that.

It also comes with its own challenges and its own problems when you have something like that. I had dinner a couple of weeks ago in San Diego with a Byzantine priest and his

wife, and I was asking her, “How do you like being the wife of a priest?” She said, “It is

very challenging. You live in a fishbowl” — things that were familiar to me as a deacon — but she also said that their community is so small that she has to do a lot of things herself that would normally be done by committees of people in a Latin Rite parish. If it was a husband-and-wife ministerial team like that, that could have its own set of problems and challenges.

GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: You raise an interesting issue, just thinking about it. From the Orthodox perspective, obviously we have married clergy. In fact, my wife is the daughter of a priest, so she grew up in this very fishbowl you are talking about.

What you do have in a lot of Orthodox parishes — certainly not all — is the wife of the priest does very much take on a very active ministry. In the old country they literally run the Church. Here in the United States they might take over the Sunday school or some youth program or something like that.

It is interesting that you propose that you would have both a husband and wife serving as deacons. In the Orthodox Church that is not likely to happen when it gets reintroduced — and it will get reintroduced — because the way the Orthodox Church works is you have fourteen independent churches and they can make these decisions on their own because there is already a historical precedent for it, and it was in existence in the 19th century.

It will come back, but it will almost certainly come back exclusively with nuns. At least in the beginning it will be women who have been in monastic vocation for many years. It will be almost a sign of merit —

NANCY DALLAVALLE: A recognition.

GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: — a recognition of spirituality, of leadership, and so forth.

What is unfortunate is they might just stay there, they might just stay in the convent, rather than really be active in the diocese or active in the parish the way they should be.

NANCY DALLAVALLE: But I want to ask you a question. You moved quickly to the example of married priests and the vast amount of unpaid servant labor that their wives take on by virtue of marrying a priest. That is hopefully not what we are talking about.

You mentioned the idea of a married couple. Am I right that the wife often does go through a lot of the training with the deacon?

GREG KANDRA: Well, this is something else that varies from diocese to diocese. In my diocese, the Diocese of Brooklyn, the wives attended classes the first year during aspirancy. Once we began candidacy, it was up to them whether they wanted to keep coming to the classes or not. The overwhelming majority did not. I could count on one hand — we had fifty-three people who were ordained in my class, and there was just a handful that continued going to the classes. I know there are other places that do require the wives to go.

NANCY DALLAVALLE: Wouldn’t it be a different dynamic, though, to have a male deacon and a female deacon serving in a church versus when you have a married couple — would that tend to reinscribe the story of the husband as the head of the family and the wife as the sub-deacon deacon? Do I have my minor orders straight here? How am I doing? I am not accusing. I am just asking if there are ways in which we could do that.

JAMES MARTIN: Also, in a sense, it might reinforce the idea that the real role of the woman is to be married versus having, say, a single woman deacon for whom that is her primary ministry.

How else, Nancy, would you see women deacons transforming the church, say, pastorally? What would that mean for a parish?

NANCY DALLAVALLE: Well, I think it could mean a lot. I think it would matter that there was a female face there. I think it would matter that there was a female speaking on her own about the scriptures in a way that is not invited or derived from someone else.

I think a lot of her position would depend on reception, and the first reception is the reception by the clergy. That may be given in some places easier than others. It may be a little easier for a single woman who is seen as herself standing alone, and so it may be interesting to see how the demographics of that shake out. It might also simply be that

we would draw on — we certainly have a number of Roman Catholic sisters who would be ideal candidates for this — and would be great candidates for this. That would be a different shape to the ministry.

JAMES MARTIN: And theologians, I have often thought.

NANCY DALLAVALLECatherine Lacugna of happy memory, my doktormutter, wrote an article many years ago in which she said that one of the losses for women going through the study of theology is that they are not also preparing to preach. She says that literally is a diminishment of them as theologians, that they do not have that training going on concomitantly with their development as theologians.

RITA FERRONE: I would also like to hope that if women were ordained to the deaconate that they would bring with them some of their experience in doing the work outside of the sanctuary and in the connection then to what happens in the liturgies. Too often now, it seems to me, clergy come on the scene at the end of a process and bless it.

Be it with the sacraments or with the eucharistic celebration or whatever it is, the priest comes in at the end. It is the women who have been preparing the parents for baptism of their child, and then she steps aside and the priest or the deacon does the baptism.

I think from all the experience women have had in cultivating and doing formation work, that they would see more clearly that the liturgy is integrally connected to what goes on before and that the process by which you get people into the sacramental moment is a part of what ministry is about, instead of the thing that somebody else does, and sacramental ministry is confecting the sacrament using your powers in the liturgical event as an isolated moment.

JAMES MARTIN: That’s a great point. How would you say that it differs from — this may be an obvious question, but I think it is one that is good to bring out — many people might say there are women and laymen who are doing lay ecclesial ministry, so basically people who are pastoral associates in parishes, and all sorts of work. How does the role of the deacon differ from a lay ecclesial minister? What would you say?

NANCY DALLAVALLE: It is a great question because the question really is: What do we want the future shape of ministry to look like? Are we going to find women who fit the criteria that we are going to lay forward for women deacons and make them into a new special class, further moving them away? You suggest that there might be dotted lines that would connect these. We can also imagine that they would move away from those lay ministers and form a new clerical — oh dear, there I go — caste and that could be a problem.

JAMES MARTIN: It’s not so bad to be a cleric all the time.

NANCY DALLAVALLE:  You’re my favorite cleric.

JAMES MARTIN: Thanks.

NANCY DALLAVALLE: But the thing is I think we need to see how it is going to be and to think of that other underlying widget that is going on here: If we add women, what does it do to the public role of being in the Church and how do we connect that back to the private role of the ministry?

GREG KANDRA: One of the interesting things — a friend of mine who is a deacon asked his bishop some years back: “If you had to have an administrator for the parish and you had a choice between a sister and a deacon, which one would you choose?”  This was twenty years ago. He said, “Without question a deacon.” And he said, “Really? Why?” And he said, “Obedience.”

That is a key difference, I think, and we touched on this in one of our earlier sessions. The person who is ordained takes a promise of obedience to his bishop or her bishop. That is a big difference between just being a lay ecclesial minister who comes in and out of different ministries and does it in their spare time.

I have an investment in my ministry, in my parish, in my work with the Church, that a lay person doesn’t because of that connection to the bishop, because of what I have vowed my life to do and to be. It is completely different.

RITA FERRONE: I would contest that, though, because I know of a lot of places if they do have a lay ecclesial ministry program in the diocese, it is very much related to this and they are not doing something simply as a free agent. They really are working in concert with the Church, with the pastor, and with the bishop.

I think a lot of places do not have a lay ecclesial ministry program, and that is a problem unto itself. But this has been one of the things that is essential to lay ecclesial ministry, that you have to know that it is connected to everything else that the Church does and is not something that is a fly-by-night.

JAMES MARTIN: But wouldn’t you say there is a difference between, say, a lay ecclesial minister — commonly known as a pastoral associate — who is working in a parish and who could be, if he or she wants, a free agent and say, “I’m done with this parish” or “I’m done with this priest”; and a deacon, male or female, who makes a promise of obedience at his or her ordination to the bishop, who may say, “I want you to stay in that parish”? Isn’t that a difference in terms of freedom between a lay ecclesial minister and a woman or a male deacon?

RITA FERRONE: I tell you, in practice I haven’t found that to be the case. I have seen deacons who decided that they wanted to move and their bishop says “Go.” It does not really amount to the same thing, like the old religious orders where, “We are assigning you here and you must be here under a vow of obedience.”

JAMES MARTIN: And the new religious orders too.

RITA FERRONE: And the new ones, right, yeah.

JAMES MARTIN: We still do that, right? 

NANCY DALLAVALLE: That freedom cuts both ways I just want to say. Many of those lay ecclesial ministers are dependent upon the goodwill of the pastor to remain employed. So they do feel that they have to do quite a bit to make that position work. It is not the same, though.

GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: I think we are missing one of the most obvious differences between the two, though, which is the liturgical role.

NANCY DALLAVALLE: Exactly.

GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Right? I mean, a deacon, at least in the Orthodox Church, actually has more speaking parts during a divine liturgy or Mass than the priest or the cantor. Whether it is male or female, the deacon would have the primary liturgical role there. They are leading the petitions; they read the gospel. I see that as probably the single greatest difference.

GREG KANDRA: There is something that is also worth mentioning here. There seems to be this perception among a lot of people that when you are ordained you suddenly get a status that is different. In theory, yes; in reality, not so much.

I have spoken about this a little bit on my blog and on social media. There are ushers and there are sacristans who get more respect from their parishes than the deacon does. The deacon is very often marginalized. It depends on the pastor, it depends on the bishop, and it depends on the deacon too and what kind of a deacon he is and the relationship that he has.

But there are deacons who are routinely never given an opportunity to preach. They are glorified altar boys. Their role within the parish, by design and by the will of the pastor, is very limited and very small.

There is a story that I heard when I was in formation. This goes back almost fifteen years ago — I think a lot of this situation has changed. A deacon arrived at the cathedral in Brooklyn to serve at a Mass — it was not a Mass with a bishop; it was somebody else — and he went looking for the celebrant to let him know he was there.

He found the priest outside smoking a cigarette. He said, “Hi, I am so-and-so, I am here, I am going to be the deacon for your Mass.” The priest snorted and said, “If I’d wanted a potted plant, I would have called FTD.”

JAMES MARTIN: Wow.

GREG KANDRA: So that kind of attitude is out there, and I know a lot of guys around the country who can give witness to that. Anyone who is thinking of ordination being some exalted thing — not always.

JAMES MARTIN: And you could imagine what it would be like for woman.

GREG KANDRA: Exactly.

JAMES MARTIN: I was thinking as you were talking, Greg, if you have a bishop in a particular diocese who — let’s say this commission recommended and Pope Francis reinvigorates the female deaconate — the bishop ordains five female deacons and the next bishop decides he doesn’t like them or the next pastor decides he doesn’t want them and they do become potted plants. That is a very interesting question.

GREG KANDRA: And you would probably have a situation, if this were to come to pass, as it was when the deaconate first came back, where each bishop would decide whether or not he would want women deacons.

NANCY DALLAVALLE: Right. It would be like that. But I hadn’t thought about the bishop changing; that would be significant.

RITA FERRONE: I wanted to share a story too. I used to give the winter retreat for the lay ecclesial ministers in the program of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and I did that for a series of years, and it was a wonderful experience. But I noticed that it was women mostly; we had maybe one or two men over the course of half a dozen years.

I talked to the director. I said, “Why is it all women?” He said, “Oh, well, you know, I really worked on this too, but all the men go into the deaconate program.”

I think you are talking withlay ecclesial ministry, often people with the same level of commitment as those men who go into the deaconate program, the same theological interests. This was a really good program, in that the diocese paid for half of their theological education; they made a commitment to give them retreats and spiritual direction; all of these things were in place.

But guess what? Overwhelmingly, lay ecclesial ministers are women. Why? Because they cannot be deacons.

JAMES MARTIN: To wrap up our wonderful conversation, let’s broaden it out a little bit. I would like to ask you:  As you look at the deaconate — male and/or female — in what ways is the deaconate suited or not suited to the needs of Church communities today? Maybe we can go one by one.

GREG KANDRA: Well, the deaconate is becoming more and more important in the Church in the West, certainly in the United States. One of the things that I have noticed — it will be ten years that I was ordained next year — is deacons are being given more and more responsibility within dioceses and within parishes.

And the demographic of the deaconate is changing. I think there are younger deacons; there are more deacons that have young families; there are more deacons who are better educated. That is changing the characteristic of the vocation.

And I think it is reflecting very well. The people are hearing a different voice from the pulpit; they are seeing a different kind of life reflected on the altar during the liturgies.

And the deacon is able to speak to the concerns of the people in a unique, very powerful, and I think unique way. He is one of them and he intercedes for them — whenever he does the prayers of the faithful at Mass, he is interceding on their behalf because he is one of them. There is something beautiful and very enriching about that, and I don’t see any downside.

JAMES MARTIN: Nancy?

NANCY DALLAVALLE: What I wonder about — and this is heresy, I know — is the element of permanence. Going forward, in terms of how young people are today, will they be able to make that kind of a commitment in a life that they are imagining will have many very significant changes?

Does that mean that the deaconate becomes more for older persons and not this wonderful sense that you have, that there are younger men coming in who do this, they are doing it as they are growing their family? That sort of arc might be different if we have women in the deaconate, in terms of when your children are young is this a commitment that you can make? There may be some other questions that are involved.

The demographics of who the Church is are changing, and I think we will need to be a little sensitive to that in terms of cashing this out for the future.

RITA FERRONE: I think that if we do not recover a robust sense of our baptism all of this talk is something dead in the water. It seems to me the only reason why we can expect good things from this development in the future will be if we have really done our homework about baptism and understand how the baptized are the foundation of everything that we do and how out of that the ordained ministry then functions in a healthy, robust, and life-giving interaction with the other orders in the Church.

GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Thank you. I like all your answers. Now, what’s mine?

Speaking again for the Orthodox Church, I think the revival in the United States of a lay deaconate is really important. A typical parish in the United States might have 300 families; historically — we think long, 2000 years — a parish that size would have four priests and eight deacons; today it has one priest. It is just pastorally impossible for one individual to serve all the pastoral needs of 300 families.

The recreation, or the reinstitutionalization, of a deaconal program is a vital need for the Church. These communities have needs, they are trying to negotiate a modern world, and this is something that the institution can do to meet the reality of the needs of its believers.

JAMES MARTIN: I want to thank our four distinguished panelists for this wonderful series — Nancy Dellavalle, Greg Kandra, Rita Ferrone, and George Demacopoulos.

I want you to encourage you to look at the other two segments we filled on the deaconate. Segment One was on the deaconate, its history and present practice; and Segment Two was on the question of women deacons.

I hope you have enjoyed this three-part series from America Media. I am Father Jim Martin. I want to thank Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture for this wonderful series, “Deacons, Women and the Call to Serve.”

Thank you.

Deacons, Women and the Call to Serve: A special web round-table discussion sponsored by America Media and the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
alan macdonald
11 months 2 weeks ago
The American Jesuits are quite shameless in their promotion of female ordination.
Lisa Weber
11 months 2 weeks ago
If women deacons are allowed in the Church, there should be some who are married or have been married. Marriage is a type of spiritual formation that cannot be understood by those who have not been married. Women deacons would be leaders for the women of the Church. A person who cannot speak to the usual experience of women will not be able to lead. It is part of the reason that nuns are not considered leaders by many of the laywomen.

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