Casey StantonSeptember 24, 2021
Pontifical North American College seminarians pray as their classmates lie prostrate to be ordained as deacons in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 7. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (Oct. 7, 2010)

Is the church being called to receive women into the permanent order of deacons?

Are women being called by God to serve as deacons in the church? And what role do Sunday Mass-goers, lapsed Catholics and daily communicants play in discerning responses to such questions?

In the form of theological studies, sociological research and papal commissions, the church has been discerning the question of female deacons for decades. And now, thanks to the synod that begins this October, the whole church has an opportunity to engage in a discernment about the diaconate.

In the synod, Pope Francis has called the church to consider the shape of our life together and to listen to one another, to “plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.” In the context of the synod, “all are invited to speak with courage…integrating freedom, truth, and charity.” In other words: Every Catholic on planet Earth is invited to join together and ask fundamental questions about how we are to journey as the people of God in the 21st century.

The church has been discerning the question of female deacons for decades. And now the whole church has an opportunity to engage in a discernment about the diaconate.

One of those questions is, “What difference would it make for women to be ordained as deacons?”

Discerning Deacons, a project founded earlier this year for which I serve as co-director, seeks to create spaces for Catholics to faithfully engage in discernment about the diaconate for the life of our church. We encourage every Catholic to be a part of the growing conversation about female deacons. We offer resources for discernment grounded in history and tradition and the prophetic ministry of deacons today. And we consider the needs of the church today and of the communities in which we live and serve as co-laborers in God’s kingdom.

One practice of discernment is conversation. Discerning Deacons invites people to talk with their neighbors and family members and fellow parishioners. You don’t have to know that everyone will agree. Indeed, it is best if that is not the case, so that everyone can learn something new about the diaconate, about calling and about ecclesial service.

St. Phoebe, 2018 Laura James. Used with Artist Permission.
St. Phoebe, 2018 Laura James. Used with Artist Permission.

This summer 1,500 people gathered in 70 parish halls and Zoom rooms or backyards to ponder the diaconate together. We began by praying with an image by Laura James, which reminded us we are called to be a barefoot church—humble, drawn together in a circle around the table of the Word and the Eucharist.

We prayed for the Holy Spirit to illuminate our hearts and conversation. We held the silence. And we considered: What would it mean if the church opened the diaconate to women?

Most recently, the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon region provided a site of discernment for the wider church. In the Amazon, some women are delegated by their bishops to serve as de facto deacons. These women bind their own work and ministry to that of their bishop—and in so doing, draw the church deeper into service in the world. The women in the Amazon would appreciate their service being received for what it is: a ministry of deacons. And the church would benefit if these women received the sacramental graces needed for ordained ministry.

The synod Pope Francis has convened does not have an agenda. It simply seeks deep listening and an openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

It is not only along the Amazon River that women are called to serve and contribute. A national study released this week shares findings from interviews with U.S. Catholic women. Among them: Catholic women feel called into service, yet constrained by barriers to ordination and service reserved for men in the church. They adapt creatively to do “de facto deacon” ministry, and contribute to their communities in ways that enrich both. (Discerning Deacons commissioned the research and helped to invite women to participate in the study.)

The synod Pope Francis has convened does not have an agenda. It simply seeks deep listening and an openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and no one should enter into the wide and holy space the synod creates clinging to any ideology. Yet neither should women and men who have heard the Holy Spirit calling the church to ordain women deacons check this vision at the door: a vision of the church enlivened by women preaching, presiding at baptisms and funerals and, perhaps most urgently, authorized to stand as the church’s formal representatives in marginal places—ministering to those in prison and on their deathbeds, accompanying migrants crossing borders and women facing crisis pregnancies, or standing in solidarity with workers seeking dignity and just pay.

How would opening the diaconate help the church more fully see Christ?

How would opening the diaconate embolden the church for the Gospel mission given to all of the baptized: to proclaim good news to the poor and justice for the oppressed?

How would opening the diaconate embolden the church for the Gospel mission given to all of the baptized: to proclaim good news to the poor and justice for the oppressed?

Would opening the diaconate to women help resist the clericalism that our pope rightly critiques?

How might we “awaken a dawn of hope” by considering the diaconate boldly, without fear? Will our bishops have the courage and freedom to give the question of an inclusive diaconate the discernment it deserves—the discernment of global prayer and a global conversation about how God is leading us as the people of God?

Pope Francis has set in motion a tremendous process of journeying together and of listening, especially to those who are outside the ecclesial perimeter—to those who have been marginalized by the church’s own practices and teachings, including women for whom the question of the diaconate is not an abstraction but presses directly on their daily prayer and a lifelong vocational desire.

Let us boldly participate and speak with courage and conviction the dreams we have for the church.

And then, let us practice good Ignatian detachment and allow our bishops to decide what to make of our witness, offered in faith and humility.

[Read next: America’s special issue on women in the Catholic Church]

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