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 conversation began in typical fashion, with a question many grandparents ask: “When you grow up,” Kori Pacyniak’s grandmother wondered, “what would you like to be?”
At that point, the chat took an atypical turn.
“I want to be a priest,” said Kori, then an 8-year-old girl from a devout Polish Catholic family.
Grandmother: “Only boys can be priests.”
Kori: “OK, I want to grow up to be a boy.”
Now 37, Kori Pacyniak no longer wants to be male — or female. Pacyniak now identifies as nonbinary, someone who is not strictly feminine or masculine. (And someone who has abandoned gender-specific pronouns like “he” or “she” in favor of the more inclusive, if sometimes confusing, “they.”)
While Pacyniak left behind standard gender roles, the youthful fascination with the priesthood never faded. On Feb. 1, Pacyniak was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement.
The Rev. Kori Pacyniak is now pastor of San Diego’s Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, a Serra Mesa church that preaches “A New Way to be Catholic.” For this parish, Pacyniak also represents a new way, as they are believed to be the first transgender, nonbinary priest.
Founded in 2005 by Jane Via and Rod Stephens, Mary Magdalene celebrates the Mass with a liturgy that, aside from some tweaks in the wording, would be familiar to most Roman Catholics. The church is not recognized by the San Diego diocese, however, and the Vatican has excommunicated several of the women ordained in what has become a global movement.
Mary Magdalene now has about 120 registered parishioners; 60 to 70 regularly attend 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at the church’s temporary home, Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Most in the congregation were raised as Catholics, yet were disillusioned by the church’s refusal to ordain women. Even among these believers, though, there was some initial hesitation about a nonbinary cleric.
“For some congregants,” said Esther LaPorta, president of Mary Magdalene’s board, “I think at first it might have been something to get used to.”
Among those who have had to adjust: Via, the 73-year-old pastor emeritus.
“I’m struggling to refer to Kori as ‘they,’” Via said. “When there is a single person and we know that is just one person, well, I’ve never used the word ‘they’ for a single person. I know Kori gets frustrated with me at times.”
Usually, though, the priest responds to this confusion with a charitable laugh.
“This is hard?” Pacyniak said. “Learning to spell my last name as a child was hard. Welcome to my world!”
A restless search
Kori Pacyniak grew up in Edison Park, a neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. The tightly-knit Polish community shared a common language, customs and beliefs. Friends, neighbors and family, Kori’s comrades in the Polish Scout troop and Polish folkdancing troupe — all were Catholic.
Like many children, Kori daydreamed about careers. Some days, the goal was to become a Navy SEAL. On other days, a professional soccer goalie. Or a Catholic nun. Always, though, there was the hope that the impossible dream Kori had shared with a grandmother would, somehow, become possible.
“As they went through college and started studying theology, this really became a topic of conversation,” said Basia Pacyniak, 67, Kori’s mother. “It was very much what Kori wanted to do.”
Majoring in religious studies and Portuguese — “no employable skills,” Kori cracked — the undergraduate came out as bisexual. Pacyniak was still searching, though, still examining gender identity and career paths. Although president of Smith’s Newman Association, an off-campus Catholic organization, Pacyniak was frustrated by the church’s positions on women and sexuality.
“Other people wanted to become president,” Pacyniak said. “I wanted to overthrow the Vatican.”
This restlessness continued post-graduation. After an administrative job in Los Angeles, Pacyniak enrolled in Harvard Divinity School’s master’s degree program. The new grad student came out as transgender and started to identify as male. This venture into masculinity was brief and unsatisfactory.
“I realized that box was just as restrictive as female,” Pacyniak said. “Neither male nor female identification works for me.”
For a time, Pacyniak considered converting to a church that, while similar in some ways to Catholicism, ordains women and welcomes LGBTQ clergy. Again, though, something didn’t seem quite right.
“I thought that might be my church home,” Pacyniak said of the Episcopal Church. “But am I too Catholic to be Episcopalian?”
Yet Catholicism posed barriers to Pacyniak. For one thing, Rome only recognizes two genders, male and female. And…
“Right now,” said Kevin Eckery a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, “ordination is only open to natural born males.”
Pacyniak completed studies at Harvard, and later enrolled at Boston University’s School of Theology. There, Pacyniak studied how to minister to LGBTQ military service members in the years following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But in 2016, a friend forwarded a job listing. Mary Magdalene needed a pastor. Candidates didn’t have to be ordained, if he, she or they were willing to work toward ordination.
In January 2017, Pacyniak began serving as Mary Magdalene’s pastor.
The Rev. Caedmon Grace is a minister at the Metropolitan Church of San Diego, a church that grew out of the LGBTQ community. Even here, there are ongoing discussions about the language of worship.
Consider John 3:16. A familiar New Testament verse, it’s often translated as “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…”
“Our practice in the MCC is to use inclusive language,” said Grace. “So that has become ‘For God so loved the world that God sent the begotten one.’ We’re not identifying God as male or female.”
This may not be the translation heard in most Christian churches, yet the emerging field of “queer theology” questions many of the assumptions of traditional religious prayer and practice.
“We have to get out of the hetero-nomative lens we use for understanding everything,” said Pacyniak, who is completing a doctorate in University of California Riverside’s queer and trans theology program. “We have to make trans and queer folks see themselves as part of the liturgy.”
Even at Mary Magdalene, a church that prides itself on its inclusive nature, this requires some work. When Pacyniak arrived, the liturgy included a line, “We believe that all women and men are created in God’s image.”
“This is great,” Pacyniak told Via after Mass. “But for people who don’t identify as women or men, that doesn’t work.”
The line was rewritten: “We believe that all people of all genders are created in God’s image.”
Creating a “spiritual support community” for trans and nonbinary people is a key goal of Mary Magdalene’s newly ordained priest. So is reaching out to the congregation’s men and women.
“Let’s make the tent as big and as open as we can,” Pacyniak said. “It’s an ongoing opportunity. Don’t get too comfortable; have conversations with people on the margins.”
All in good time
Through this past January, Via assisted Pacyniak on the altar during Mass. The new pastor studied, learning theology, liturgy and administrative duties, before being ordained as deacon in June 2019 and then, on Feb. 1, as a priest. More than 100 attended the ordination, so the ceremony was moved from Mary Magdalene’s small space to the soaring Gothic sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.
The pews held Pacyniak’s parents, Basia and Bernard; brother, sister-in-law, two nephews and several cousins; friends from high school, Smith, Harvard and Boston U.; plus dozens of congregants from Mary Magdalene.
“Kori is very open and kind,” said Carol Kramer, who has attended Mary Magdalene for a decade. “I think they’ll be a really good pastor.”
Many religious traditions teach that we’re all created as complex, multi-faceted, beloved children of God. Pacyniak is a pastor and a student of queer theology, yes, but so much more: a baseball fan — with shifting allegiances, from Cubs to Red Sox to Padres — a regular Comic-Con attendee and, this priest insists, a Catholic. This brand of Catholicism may not be recognized by the Vatican, but that doesn’t bother Pacyniak’s parents, who remain practicing Roman Catholics.
“We are very proud of Kori,” said Basia Pacyniak. “The movement and the community is very welcoming, very open, and we are very supportive of that community. I feel that it is not in conflict with the Catholicism that we practice.”
The Pacyniaks foresee a day when their church will include women priests. Give it time, counseled Bernard Pacyniak, 66.
Lots of time.
“I imagine,” he said, “in 100 years this will all be part of one organization.”
Len Schreiner couldn’t help falling in love. So he wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II and waited.
by Danya Issawi
I grew up in a very Roman Catholic atmosphere in western Kansas and had always been drawn to the priesthood.
I joined the Capuchin religious order in 1976, and I was ordained in 1978 at age 28. Almost immediately, the underlying tension I had felt about intimate relationships really came to the fore. I struggled greatly.
I was in various flirtations with women, or little romantic relationships, but that’s a normal part of life. The Roman Catholic priesthood, though, with its mandatory celibacy, discourages any close contact with women.
I would look at my brothers and sister and the families they raised, and I couldn’t accept the notion that I was making a greater sacrifice than they were in their jobs and raising children.
I went on a leave of absence from the priesthood in 1989 and started dispensation two years later, which means I had to write up a paper to John Paul II in Rome to explain why I wasn’t able to continue. I wrote that there were two things that prompted my leaving: that I wanted to be more involved in social justice and peace work, and that I felt I could not successfully live a celibate life.
I sought dispensation both for my own peace of my mind and for my family. I knew it would soften the blow for my parents — it was a heartbreak for them.
A lot of priests did not get dispensations. Their applications would be in a pile someplace for years. One priest said to me, “They haven’t gotten back to me in 11 years.”
In my case, by the grace of God, I received a letter and document in January of 1992 granting me “a dispensation from the obligations of priestly ordination, including celibacy, and from religious vows.”
Then I was considered, in the eyes of the church, a lay person. I was free, and in June of that same year, I got married in a Catholic church in Seattle.
I knew my wife for seven years before we got married. I had met her when I was still a pastor of a church in Denver. She had been in a religious order of nuns, but had left three years prior to our meeting.
We became friends, and by the time I left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1989 we were in a relationship. We weren’t married until 1992, and part of that was just my slowness to mature. I had to work through a lot.
The transition was huge. I had gone to a high school seminary and a college seminary, where it’s a celibate atmosphere and an all-male atmosphere, and both psychologically and on a sexual level, I was quite immature. The first 10 years of my relationship with my wife, Nancy, were about learning how to be in a romantic relationship, and it was a long learning curve.
By the grace of God we have been married now for 26 years. You have to learn how to be a “we” rather than a “me” — the celibate priesthood is kind of honing you to be individualistic, yet also an overly generous servant of the church.
When you leave, you have very little financially. I worked in lots of labor jobs. I was a furniture laborer. I worked day jobs for $5 an hour. I dug ditches. I unloaded trucks. During what I call the 14-year hiatus, I wanted to get back to ministry as a priest, but there wasn’t an avenue to do that in the Roman Catholic church.
It wasn’t until 2004 when I found the Ecumenical Catholic Communion that I could be a priest again.
We are one of the expressions of independent Catholicism, which are churches that follow the practices, the beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic church but are not under Rome, not under the pope. The pope is not our superior. I’m still functioning as a priest because I was accepted by the founding bishop of this Ecumenical Catholic Communion.
There’s another way of being Catholic. There’s another way of being to be complete. That’s what all transitions are about. I’ve taken everything that I learned in my life as a Capuchin and as a Roman Catholic priest.
It’s with me all the time, but I have gone beyond the limitations of that to a much more extensive consciousness.
The Roman Catholic bishop of Buffalo, New York, Richard Malone, became the seventh U.S. bishop since 2015 to be forced out of power for his role in covering up clergy sexual abuse cases. Malone resigned on Dec. 4, stating that his departure stemmed from a recognition that “the people of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed.”
By comparison, during the prior 35 years, only three U.S. bishops had resigned because of the scandal, even though there were more than 10,000 cases of clergy sexual abuse reported to the American bishops during that time.
In my research, I have found that this increase in bishop accountability is due not to an improvement in the Vatican’s protocols, but rather to the activism of local Catholic reform groups.
Start of survivor-advocacy groups
I study how survivors and their advocates have exposed the problem of clergy sexual abuse.
Survivors first went public with their stories of abuse in the 1980s. But other Catholics did not begin forming survivor-advocacy groups until 2002, when a series of reports detailing how Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop of Boston, had protected more than 230 abusive priests.
Energized by the Boston Globe’s investigation, Boston parishioners founded Voice of the Faithful in 2002, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting clergy abuse survivors and increasing transparency in the Catholic Church.
Within months, Voice of the Faithful had grown into a national movement of 50,000 members organized into 220 local chapters. It was through their public protests and petitions that Cardinal Law was forced to resign in December 2002.
Seeking reforms, not revolutions
Voice of the Faithful’s rapid ascension came in part, sociologists have concluded, because their leaders were highly educated professionals with a proven track record as activists.
Founding Voice of the Faithful president James Muller, for example, was a recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which joined Soviet and American doctors during the Cold War. With Muller and other accomplished professionals in their leadership, Voice of the Faithful was able to quickly attract national media attention and financial support.
The group was never declared schismatic, and the top archbishops and cardinals in the United States met with its leaders from the very start. Several bishops also openly supported the group.
Its motto, “Keep the faith, change the church,” indicates how Voice of the Faithful worked toward specific reforms without upending the broader institutional framework of the Catholic Church. For example, they stressed the value of women’s leadership, but they did not demand that the Church begin ordaining women priests.
For Catholics who felt betrayed by their bishops – even if they were not sexually abused – Voice of the Faithful provided a mechanism to voice their dissatisfaction. Through listening sessions held in dioceses across the country, Voice of the Faithful provided more direct access to the cardinals and bishops. These sessions offered Catholics a glimpse of democratic participation, and they also helped shape the American bishops’ new policies to protect children.
In Buffalo, New York, a community of affluent and highly educated Catholics formed the Movement to Restore Trust in 2018. The group is led by executives in business, law and education, and they were the most powerful of several Catholic organizations in calling on Bishop Malone to resign.
Other Catholics in Buffalo staged protests and created an online petition demanding Malone’s departure. Borrowing a strategy that Catholic survivors began using in the 1990s, some parishioners placed protest notes instead of money into the weekly collection basket. The notes said they were withholding donations to the church until Malone stepped down.
Priests join groups in supporting survivors
Like Voice of the Faithful, the Movement to Restore Trust and other Catholic survivor-advocate groups in Buffalo have tried to work within the Church, maintaining close ties with clergy.
These strong relationships allowed Buffalo Catholics to eventually win the public support of their local priests.
In September 2019, a second key whistleblower emerged in Buffalo. Malone’s priest secretary, the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, leaked audio recordings in which the bishop admitted to hiding a suspected abuser in order to protect his own reputation.
Holding bishops accountable
After O’Connor leaked diocesan files to the media, the FBI and the New York attorney general initiated their own investigations into Bishop Malone, adding to the pressure for him to resign.
This year, there has been an avalanche of new lawsuits filed by survivors across the country. Lawmakers in nearly half of the country’s 50 states reacted to the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report by changing their state’s laws for child sexual abuse.
In February 2019, legislators in New York enacted the Child Victims Act, which extended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse to age 55. The new legislation also opened a one-year window for survivors of any age to file suit if they were abused prior to the new law taking effect.
Within the Diocese of Buffalo alone, the Child Victims Act resulted in more than 200 new clergy sexual abuse lawsuits filed by victims who were unable to seek justice under the prior laws.
Bishop Malone’s resignation represents the dramatic increase in Catholic support for survivors since 2002. No longer alone in their calls for bishop accountability, survivors now have the support of fellow Catholics, whistleblowers, their parish priests, state lawmakers and federal prosecutors.