What the debate over deacons gets wrong about Catholic women in leadership
Two years ago I was on a panel at the University of Notre Dame where a fellow presenter lamented the almost total absence of women in leadership in the church. Perhaps she did not read my bio or listen to my presentation. During the panel discussion, I finally had to interject that I was the chancellor of one of the largest dioceses in the country and fourth on the organization chart for the Diocese of Orange.
I was reminded of this exchange when Pope Francis, returning from his trip to North Macedonia and Bulgaria on May 7, gave his long-awaited, if somewhat indirect, response to the question of whether the Catholic Church would allow the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate. As a woman in leadership in the church, I think we are having the wrong conversation when we focus so narrowly on the question of women deacons that we fail to see the ways Catholic women can—and already do—lead.
The group the pope commissioned in 2016 to study the historical role of women deacons was unable to reach a consensus on a number of issues. Put simply, there are records from the early church of women being identified as deacons. But there is no conclusive evidence that the role of female deacons has ever been tied to the ordained sacramental role that male deacons exercise. In a conversation with women religious superiors on May 10, Pope Francis said any change to the diaconate must be grounded in revelation. “If the Lord didn’t want a sacramental ministry for women,” he said, “it can’t go forward.”
When we focus so narrowly on the question of women deacons we fail to see the ways Catholic women can—and already do—lead.
But Pope Francis also said that “there is a way of conceiving [the female diaconate] with a different vision to that of the male diaconate.” In other words, one could imagine women deacons serving in some roles traditionally fulfilled by male deacons but in a way that is detached from sacramental ordination. It is unclear, however, whether such a solution would bring about the greater equality between men and women in the church that many proponents of women deacons wish to see.
In addition to their role of administering certain sacraments and proclaiming the Gospel, men in the permanent diaconate, which was first restored in 1967, fulfill many tasks—like fostering parish life, providing faith formation and promoting social justice initiatives—that could be done by any non-ordained person. I admire the selflessness with which these men serve. After all, theirs is not a paid role. And perhaps a radical redefinition of the permanent diaconate is in order, one which would recognize the important ways lay men and women build up the church and the people of God.
I worry, however, that by focusing so intensely on the question of women deacons, we miss the larger challenge facing our church. The church has a global mission to sanctify the entire world through her members. Most of that work will be done not by ordained ministers or the hierarchy, whether that includes more women or not, but by lay women and men. So long as we are focused on the diaconate, we are ignoring the reality articulated in the Second Vatican Council document “Lumen Gentium”: Our job as lay people is to go where the clergy cannot.
I worry that by focusing so intensely on the question of women deacons, we miss the larger challenge facing our church.
Every Catholic has the power to influence our culture, but too often the influence flows in the opposite direction. Catholic parents, for example, lament that neither they nor the church have the same pull on their children that the culture does. Instagram and “Game of Thrones” probably shape the values of young people more directly than all of the great homilists put together. The current sex abuse crisis suggest that the church herself is afflicted by the sins of the surrounding culture and is, in fact, a microcosm of that culture.
If Catholics want to have influence, even power, it seems to me that we would advance the conversation much more by talking about the role of the laity in the culture and in the world.
At the close of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI asked women “to bring the spirit of this council into institutions, schools, homes and daily life” and said, “It is for you to save the peace of the world.” If that truly is the case, then we should be following the directive that women have a role in every aspect of society, enunciated in the Vatican document “On the Collaboration of Men and Women in Society” in 2004.
As it stands, the ordained vocations of permanent deacon, priest and bishop are held by a relatively small number of men. To take such a narrow vocation and then try to fit a general discussion about women into it seems myopic at best. Most men are called to live their relationship with Christ differently. Could not the same apply to all women without offending their equal dignity? Meanwhile, we leave the shaping of our culture, and in turn our families and even our church, to other men and women who have identified the real positions of influence: social media, politics, science, the arts, education and business.
While the church certainly needs competent lay women and men in leadership roles, we need exponentially more competent lay women and men living out every aspect of their lives influenced by their faith and an authentic understanding of the dignity of the human person. The hierarchy spends lots of time talking about human dignity, but it is the actual doctors, scientists, teachers, social workers and many others, including parents, who make this a reality for us.
While I am grateful to be able to serve in the role I currently hold, I see so many opportunities for women outside the church, in places where the church will always struggle to have an impact. Lay men and women are called to the tremendous honor of building up the kingdom in these places, and we do not need any title, besides Catholic, to do so.