The Vatican said Wednesday that Pope Francis has created a new commission of experts to examine whether women can be deacons, an ordained role in the Catholic Church currently reserved for men.
The 10-member commission, the second of Francis’ pontificate to study the fraught issue, includes equal numbers of men and women representing the United States and six European countries.
Deacons are ordained ministers who perform many of the same functions as priests. They preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals, and they can preach. They cannot celebrate Mass.
Married men can be ordained as deacons. Women cannot, though historians say women served as deacons in the early Christian church.
In response to women demanding to be given greater roles in the 21st century, Francis established a commission in 2016 to study female deacons in the early Christian church. But the members failed to reach a consensus and the group effectively ended its work.
The issue was revived during Francis’ 2019 summit on the Amazon. The region’s bishops called for the question of women deacons to be revisited given the shortage or priests in the vast territory. Francis agreed at the time, and the new commission appears to be his follow-up.
Significantly, the scope of the commission’s mandate does not appear to be limited to the early church, as was the 2016 commission. Amazonian bishops had called for the real-life experiences of their region’s Catholic faithful to be taken into consideration in any new evaluation.
Advocates for expanding the ministry to include women say doing so would give women greater say in the ministry and governance of the church, while also helping address priest shortages in several parts of the world.
Opponents say allowing women to be deacons would become a slippery slope toward ordaining women to the priesthood. The Catholic Church reserves the priesthood for men, saying Christ chose only men as his 12 apostles. Francis has repeatedly reaffirmed the teaching.
The new commission has as its president the archbishop of the central Italian city of L’Aquila, Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi. An official from the Holy See’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was named to serve as No. 2.
The Irish Catholic Church has been likened by a priest to an old car that has gone off the road and “sunk into the bog and is stuck”.
“The engine is still running, but the wheels are spinning and going nowhere,” said Fr Roy Donovan of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), who said it was like the U2 lyric about being “stuck in a moment you can’t get out of”.
Fr Donovan, who is parish priest in Cahersonlish, Co Limerick, said “the Catholic Church in its present state is in crisis and doesn’t seem to have any future”.
“There is also something very wrong with priesthood. It is not only young people who have become disassociated from the church as an institution but people across all the generations. The church is not on the radar of most people – it is largely irrelevant.”
He was speaking in Dublin on Monday night at a We are Church Ireland event entitled ‘What Does it Mean to be Catholic Today?’
Fr Donovan asked why the church in Ireland had not carried out research in an attempt to establish why “so many Catholics have become disconnected” with the institution.
“ (Archbishop) Diarmuid Martin remarks that, ‘the low standing of women in the Catholic Church is the most significant reason for the feeling of alienation towards it in Ireland today’, ” Fr Donovan said.
‘Christendom is over’
“Pope Francis perceptively remarked ‘we are not living in an era of change but a change of era’. Christendom is over, he stated recently. There are huge losses accompanying a change of era.”
Meanwhile “a lot of priests are saying ‘sure it will see me out’ and continue to work out of the old model. There is not enough appetite for change which would require major reversals. We never implemented the Vat 2 (Second Vatican Council) idea of empowering the people.”
Fr Donovan said he did not understand “how a church that attracted some of the best brains in the country as priests could have allowed us to end up where we are today!? What is left of us are tired and haven’t got the energy to change and move on.”
He recalled how “Pope Francis in his Christmas message said ‘the world has changed and so must the church’” but he feared the church was not up “ to the massive changes required”.
“Our systems/ structures/ parishes are no longer fit for purpose. We have too many dioceses, parishes, too many churches – more than we need. We have too many celebrations of masses on Sundays with small gatherings,” he said.
Conservatives, particularly in the U.S., greet the prospect with alarm
By Francis X. Rocca
Germany’s Catholic bishops will meet in Frankfurt on Thursday to launch their most ambitious effort yet in their role as the church’s liberal vanguard: a two-year series of talks rethinking church teaching and practice on topics including homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and the ordination of women.
Conservatives in Germany and abroad are greeting the prospect with alarm, and nowhere more so than in the U.S., whose episcopate has emerged as the western world’s foremost resistance to progressive trends under Pope Francis.
The tension between the groups epitomizes significant divisions in the church, which some warn could lead to a permanent split.
Earlier in January, a group of conservative Catholics from various countries, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican envoy to the U.S. who has become one of the pope’s harshest critics, gathered in Munich to warn that the German initiative would result in “the constitution of a church separate from Rome.”
The event starting this week originated as a response to the scandal over sex abuse of minors by Catholic priests. A 2018 report on the crisis in Germany called for a more positive attitude to homosexuality and more attention to the challenge of celibacy. Catholic women’s groups later prevailed on the gathering to also address the question of gender equity in the church’s leadership.
The decline of the Catholic Church in Germany has accelerated amid the scandals and growing secularization. According to the church’s latest statistics, 216,078 people left the church in 2018—a leap of 29% from the previous year. A poll published in January by the Forsa Institute showed that only 14% of Germans trusted the Catholic Church, down from 18% the previous year. Trust in Pope Francis fell to 29% from 34%.
However, the church in Germany is prospering as never before in material terms, receiving a record €6.6 billion ($7.3 billion) through a state-collected tax in 2018. German bishops are among the biggest financial supporters of the Vatican and of Catholic institutions in the developing world.
German bishops have enjoyed rising influence under Pope Francis, reflected in his policies of greater leniency on divorce and more autonomy for local church authorities on matters such as liturgy—moves long advocated by German theologians.
The leaders of the German synod, which will include representatives of Catholic laypeople, say they are offering it as a model for the church at large.
Ludwig Ring-Eifel, head of the German bishops’ news agency, estimates that around two thirds of the bishops—the threshold for passing a resolution—support the ordination of married men and women deacons and half are in favor of blessings for same-sex unions.
American conservatives say that for a branch of the church even to consider such moves poses a threat to unity.
“The German bishops continue move toward #schism from the universal Church,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver said on Twitter in September.
A minority of German bishops share such fears—and look to the U.S. for support. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, leader of the German conservatives, traveled last summer to the U.S., where he visited various church institutions and met with some of his most prominent American counterparts.
“Everywhere, I encountered concern about the current developments in Germany,” the cardinal later told his diocesan newspaper. “In many meetings, the worry was tangible that the ’synodal path’ is leading us on a German special path, that in the worst case we could even put communion with the universal church at risk and become a German national church.”
“Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome,” the pope said in an open letter to German Catholics in June.
But after meeting with the pope and Vatican officials in September, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, chairman of the German bishops conference, said: “There are no stop signs from Rome.”
In fact, when Pope Francis has publicly entertained the possibility of a split in the church, it has been in regards to the U.S., not Germany.
“There is always the option for schism,” the pope said in September, in response to a reporter’s question about conservative American opposition to his agenda. “I pray that schisms do not happen, but I am not afraid of them.”
That lack of fear could be because only the pope can decide whether or not a state of schism even exists, said Adam DeVille, a professor of theology at Indiana’s University of Saint Francis.
“If things get too far out of hand one way or another, I can see him acting in extreme but selective cases,” to stop any separatist moves, Mr. DeVille said.
“All it would take would be the sudden forced ‘retirement’ of a couple especially outspoken or perceived troublemakers, in Germany or anywhere else, for the others to shut up, and fall docilely in line,” he added.
In the sprawling Amazon region, the Catholic Church is severely short on priests. Clerics trek from one town to the next, sometimes requiring military transport to get to their remote destinations. Communities can go months without a visit. The church, as a result, is struggling to hold its influence.
One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests.
South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case. But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.
A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy.
“I see a destruction of the priesthood,” Swiss Bishop Marian Eleganti said in a phone interview, claiming that liberal bishops and cardinals under Francis’s “shadow and protection” were working to enact the changes. “This is the beginning of the end for celibacy.”
The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions. And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.
But conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.
“It is the elevation of a model,” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation in Rome.
The discussion has gained steam ahead of a Vatican meeting, scheduled for October, focused on the church in the Amazon. Although the meeting has many broad aims — helping the environment, aiding indigenous communities — one paragraph in the event’s working document mentions the possibility of ordaining older men “even if they have an existing and stable family” as a way to make up for the Amazon’s severe priest shortage. The text affirms the standard church teaching that celibacy is a “gift for the Church” and says the proposed exception is a “way to sustain the Christian life.”
With Francis more willing than his predecessors to consider how the faith might adjust in the modern age, and with a conservative pope emeritus still living in Vatican City, the church has been riven by cultural battles over everything from homosexuality to Communion for divorcés. But the idea of altering a tenet of the priesthood has caused an unusually public conservative backlash, even by the standards of Francis’s papacy.
Traditionalist groups have scheduled counterprogramming in Rome for the days leading up to the summit. Conservative religious media groups have given detailed coverage to objections about the event, while publishing treatises written by like-minded prelates.
In a representative missive, Kazakh Bishop Athanasius Schneider argued that “everybody knows” introducing married clergy in the Amazon would produce a “domino effect” across the Western church. He warned that were Francis to support such a move, the pontiff would “violate his duty” and “cause an intermittent spiritual eclipse in the Church.” Though Schneider predicted that Christ would send “holy, courageous, and faithful popes” in future.
A German cardinal, Walter Brandmüller, warned about “the abolition of priestly celibacy and the introduction of a female priesthood,” and took issue with other theological aspects of the summit document, which he called “heretical.”
The working document mentions, vaguely, the possibility of looking at expanded ministry positions for women. But Francis has shown little interest in ordaining women as deacons — ministers below the rank of priests who can perform some sacraments.
A final document would be voted on at the conclusion of the summit.
In an interview last week with Italian newspaper La Stampa, Francis said that ordaining married men will “absolutely not” be one of the Amazon meeting’s main themes.
Francis has stated clearly that he has no desire to significantly overhaul celibacy or make the practice optional. But during a news conference in January, he referenced what he described as an “interesting” book by retired bishop Fritz Lobinger, an advocate for married priests. Francis said he would consider ordaining “viri probati” — men of proven virtue — in “very far places . . . when there is a pastoral necessity.”
“I’m not saying that it should be done, because I have not reflected,” Francis said. “I have not prayed sufficiently about it.”
Lobinger, a German who spent his career in South Africa, said in a phone interview that, based on his assessment of the needs of dioceses across Asia, Africa and South America, the “possibility to ordain viri probati exists in all countries across the Southern Hemisphere.”
Progressive Catholics note that celibacy was not uniformly practiced during the church’s first millennium — and they say church teaching on the matter can be changed. Some early popes fathered children. Others were alleged to be sexually active during their pontificates. Celibacy was made law only during the Middle Ages, in part as a way to keep priestly wealth inside the church, rather than being divvied up among heirs.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI published a lengthy defense of the celibacy, calling it a “golden law” that should uphold every priest in dedication “to the public worship of God.” Four years later, bishops discussed a similar allowance for married men. A slight majority rejected the idea.
Today, some theologians and pundits, in a viewpoint with little support inside the Vatican, say celibacy has fueled the clerical sexual abuse crisis, fostering a culture in which even a consensual adult relationship becomes something to hide.
Some clerics make a different point: that legions of good would-be priests have stayed away, choosing instead to start families, to the detriment of the church.
“I think that we need married priests because we need more priests,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst at Religion News Service. “It’s as simple as that.”
According to Catholic tradition, priests are the only people who can perform all the sacraments of the church, including the Eucharist — the center of the Mass that Catholics are supposed to attend at least weekly. So the Catholic Church hasn’t been able to appoint lay people to fully substitute for clergy, as other denominations might.
German church historian Hubert Wolf, a celibacy critic who was invited by a summit organizer to Vatican City this summer, said in a phone interview that the Catholic Church “will be at its end” if it doesn’t incorporate married priests.
“This is the reason why the conservative part of the church is so aggressive,” Wolf said. “They are well aware that now is the time to talk about it.”
But traditionalists, instead, say they are on guard because they are suspicious that Francis, from Argentina, has chosen to hold a bishops’ meeting in Rome not on a universal theological issue, but on a particular region — a fairly small part of the Catholic empire.
Organizers have said the meeting is globally relevant for an obvious reason: because the church needs to evangelize in hard-to-reach places, and because the Amazon’s health is vital to the planet.
But Juan Miguel Montes, the Rome representative of the Plinio Correa di Oliveira Institute, a conservative Brazil-based Catholic group, said the meeting instead was a “laboratory experiment.”
With celibacy, he said, “they are trying to send a universal message.”