A LIMERICK priest has compared the Catholic Church to the Taliban on how they both treat women.
Fr Roy Donovan, parish priest of Caherconlish and Inch St. Laurence, has spoken out following a recent statement from Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy.
It was titled, “Change taking shape as greater lay involvement in the Church emerges”. The bishop also asked for expressions of interest from men over 35 years of age, married or single, interested in taking up roles as permanent deacons.
Fr Donovan said Bishop Leahy’s intention of introducing the male Diaconate into the diocese is a “return to the dark ages”.
“In recent weeks we have learned of the Taliban’s negative attitudes to women in Afghanistan, that of exclusion from education and the public domain.
“In the Catholic Church, women are excluded from the hierarchial (patriarchial) structures – no woman can be ordained a deacon, priest, bishop, cardinal or pope. Women are excluded from leadership, governance and decision making in the Church.
“Women have no vote in the upcoming Bishops’ Synod 2023 on Synodality. The Catholic Church at many levels, like the Taliban, treats women as second-class citizens,” said Fr Donovan, who is originally from Knockarron, Emly and served for many years in Dublin.
In his statement, Bishop Leahy said deacons had a ministry in the early Church which focused on service, both within the church community helping in the administration of the diocese and in reaching out to the marginalised in society.
Fr Donovan said up until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons, although by then their service was mostly restricted to women’s monasteries.
“Some Orthodox churches that split from the Catholic Church in the 11th century still do. In the New Testament Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul introduces Phoebe as a ‘deacon of the church at Cenchreae’.
“He also names Priscilla and Junia and several other women leaders,” said Fr Donovan, who is one of the leaders of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) but is speaking in a personal capacity.
The priest said this move towards male deacons “raises questions about how women in the Limerick Synod have allowed this to go forward or have they?”
“It also raises questions about having a meaningful Synod in the Irish Church. Men in every diocese in Ireland and throughout the world should join in solidarity with women and refuse the male Diaconate,” concluded Fr Donovan.
Like it or not, Catholicism is still enormously influential in Australia. It is Australia’s largest non-government employer through its schools, hospitals and aged care with around 230,000 people working directly for the church. It also runs many voluntary organisations, like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society with some 20,700 members and 41,150 volunteers with a huge impact on social welfare.
Despite this, Catholicism’s reputation has been effectively trashed in the media and wider community by the sexual abuse crisis and church leaders’ appalling, long-term failure to deal decisively with clerical abusers. The revelations of the royal commission reinforced the church’s toxic reputation.
In an attempt to respond, Australia’s 46 bishops are gathering with 99 invited priests, 25 religious sisters and around 110 laypeople from across Australia in a Plenary Council in early October to try to sort out the church’s future.
To prepare for the plenary, a nationwide consultation was held with Australian Catholics. The response was enormous: more than 222,000 people participated, with 17,457 written submissions from groups and individuals. Issues emerging from the consultation focused around clerical control, lack of leadership, accountability, marginalisation of laypeople in decision making, election of bishops, gender and sexual issues, ministry, especially that of women, married priests, the church’s role in a secular culture and relationships with the wider community.
But that’s where democracy and consultation ended. The plenary organisers watered down these issues into a 69-page, bland, cautious document lacking any sense of crisis, written by an archbishop, a priest and two laypeople, entitled Continuing the Journey.
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This document constitutes the agenda for the plenary. It doesn’t reflect community concerns and the hard questions expressed in the consultations, but replaces them with generic, vague and frustratingly generalised concerns like “prayer”, “conversion”, “formation”, “structures”, “institutions”, and “governance”. This rhetoric doesn’t encourage discussion of the practical and hard questions that the church faces and understandably many committed Catholics have already lost faith in the plenary process.
The plenary’s first session meets next Sunday. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it will employ a “multi-modal” format, combining in-person and online engagement. A second session will meet in October 2022. Bishops alone will have a deliberative vote. It will be their conclusions that go to the Vatican for approval and given the snail’s pace of Rome, it’ll be 2024 before anything practical begins.
Australia is an object lesson in what not to do when planning church renewal. Don’t go the way that gets you caught-up in a morass of church law and hands over all decision-making power to bishops, not all of whom, it is clear, are really committed to the plenary process, let alone to reforming the church. The fundamental mistake was using a church law-regulated plenary process as the way of confronting Catholicism’s woes. The suspicion is that the bishops chose this precisely because it was tightly controlled by law, allowing them to manage it.
It would have been much better to have had a less-structured national assembly, where a variety of views could be expressed freely, and indicative votes could show what the local Catholic community wanted, leading to concrete actions. While Catholicism remains very influential in Australia through its ministries, the number of active Catholics continues to shrink and the church is increasingly a hollowed-out institution. It’s unlikely that the Plenary Council will do much to halt that decay.
That is unless the bishops put aside their clerical habits and let the faithful in the pews have a much greater say.
Pope Francis’ plan is for ordinary Catholics to have their say. It begins with the coming synod, which opens in Rome on Oct. 9 and in every diocese in the world on Oct. 17.
The problem: No one seems to know about it. The bigger problem: U.S. bishops don’t seem to care.
It’s called “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.” While Pope Francis truly wants all Catholics to pray and talk about the needs of today’s church, his plan depends on diocesan participation. As the U.S. bishops fulminate over which Catholic politician can receive Communion, they’ve done little to plan for the worldwide discussion on the needs of the church. They were asked to get organized last May. They haven’t.
Here’s how things are supposed to work. Last May, Rome asked every bishop for the name of the person managing his diocesan synodal process. The bishop then is to open his local synod Oct. 17, collect input from parishes, and report to his national episcopal conference.
The conferences — in North America the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops — will then gather the results for the members of the 16Ordinary General assembly of the Synod of Bishops, scheduled for October 2023 in Rome.
Folks in Central and South America, as well as in Australia, Germany and Ireland, jumped at the idea. Their meetings are already underway. The USCCB named an elegantly trained and experienced national coordinator, Richard Coll, but U.S. dioceses seem behind the curve.
If a sample of the 10 New York dioceses is any indication, the diocesan synods will have a bumpy start even once they get going. While Rome asked all dioceses to submit the names of their synod coordinators in May, few, if any, seem to have plans.
One week after being queried, only three of the 10 New York dioceses had responded. Two sent the names of diocesan coordinators, and one said it was too early to give any information. (One of the two offered up the bishop and the coordinator for a phone call. But only one.)
To be fair, the Vatican’s synod office published the synod handbook, called a vademecum, and the synod’s preparatory document just a few weeks ago, on Sept. 7.
But “synodality” has been in the air for years, gaining prominence after the Second Vatican Council.
Rome announced the next synod’s theme in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Lockdown-time pushed the culminating Rome meeting back one year, to October 2023, giving interested bishops and episcopal conferences more planning time.
So, what does all this talking (or not talking) mean? Synodality — the word comes from the Greek, meaning “common road” — is Francis’ way of listening to the periphery. Francis is known to have said “the periphery is the center,” and he wants the bishops atop the pyramid in the hierarchical church to recognize that. He wants to hear from ordinary Catholics, as well as from their bishops.
Francis has already acted on a few requests for changes from 2019’s Pan-Amazon synod aimed at broadening participation. In January of this year, he changed canon law to allow women to be installed as lectors (readers during Mass) and acolytes (altar servers), lay ministries required prior to diaconal ordination.
The synodal process, when properly done, brings about prayerful discernment and an understanding of what the church needs going forward.
The process itself is the beginning and the end of synodality. If everyone has a voice, not on defined doctrine but on the relatively mundane issues of who gets to do what (married priests, women deacons, parish leadership, control of funds and properties), then the process will have met its goal.
What are the chances of success? That depends on whom you ask.
For bishops cemented in clericalism, they will begin to pay lip service at best to a process deeply inserted into the church. They are likely to survey the usual suspects, choosing whom to hear and what to report. Their “success” will be maintaining control.
Success for bishops not focused on controlling power will be listening and honestly reporting the needs of the people.
What gets to Rome from individual national conferences is critical, but what remains to be seen is how the periphery makes its voices heard. The coming synod may depend more on social media and less on diocesan bishops. But you never know.
During his time at Notre Dame from 1978 to 1982, Greg Bourke’s identity as a gay man was something to be discussed only through student-run hotlines and covert off-campus meetings.
Now, almost 40 years later, Bourke is in the midst of a book tour for his new memoir “Gay, Catholic, and American: My Legal Battle for Marriage Equality and Inclusion” — and he said one of the most surprising parts things to him is that the book was published through Notre Dame Press, the University’s official publishing house.
“This is really significant for [Notre Dame Press] because I don’t know that they’ve ever had a queer-friendly title before,” Bourke said.
“Gay, Catholic, and American” is the first book about LGBTQ identity to be released through Notre Dame Press, soon to be followed by Darrel Alejandro Holnes’ “Stepmotherland” in February 2022.
“Gay, Catholic, and American” follows the history of the American LGBTQ rights movement through the lens of Bourke’s personal life. After being dismissed as a troop leader from the Boy Scouts of America in 2012 on the basis of his sexuality, Bourke began a life of activism with his husband Michael De Leon, with the two eventually being named plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case decided in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage across the nation. Both devout Catholics, Bourke and De Leon have also advocated for LGBTQ liberation within the Church, and their efforts earned them the title of 2015 persons of the year by the National Catholic Reporter.
But before he made strides for equality on the national stage, Bourke started small. Throughout his four years at Notre Dame, he worked with other students to sustain and expand an underground network of solidarity — despite the administration’s oppositional efforts.
“Back in 1980, when I started at Notre Dame, being gay was still against the law,” Bourke said. “So the University certainly would not grant any kind of recognition or resources to a gay student group. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have one.”
Bourke was an active member of the Gay Students of Notre Dame (GSND), the student-led coalition of gay students throughout most of the ’70s. Under specific circumstances, the group was able to meet freely on campus — Bourke recalled the solidarity and fellowship that formed over shared meals in South Dining Hall.
“Suddenly, I discovered this community that got together every day and had meals together, and they talked and they shared information,” he said. “It was really a wonderful experience for me.”
But in most other instances, GSND’s attempts to organize on campus were met with resistance. In addition to anecdotes of students tearing down informational flyers and the University refusing to provide meeting spaces, Bourke recalled a particular incident of administrative antagonism. In hopes of reaching and recruiting gay students without endangering their privacy, the group set up a “gay hotline” that connected interested students to organizers over the phone, allowing gay students to learn more about the GSND and its events while maintaining anonymity.
But after the group advertised the hotline’s phone number in The Observer, Bourke said his rector shut down the hotline, citing that students cannot use campus phone numbers for “anything like that.”
“It was kind of a harrowing experience for me personally,” Bourke said. “So that was the culture that we had to deal with in 1980 — it was very different from what you all have there now.”
But despite his vivid remembrance of certain details, Bourke said that much of the LGBTQ student experience of the ’70s and ’80s remains unremembered. This ignorance of history, he said, was one reason he chose to write his book — because “a lot of gay history has not been captured.”
“I don’t think a lot of people today appreciate what it was like to be queer in the 1970s,” Bourke said. “I came out in 1976, and lived through a lot of change. I saw the sodomy laws beaten down; I saw the AIDS crisis come and go. And I think a lot of people today, in the gay community, don’t really have an appreciation of that history. So I do think it’s important for people to try to remember — there are other books that are out there, and there are other attempts to capture history.”
Honoring October’s observance of LGBTQ History Month, Bourke will continue his memoir’s promotional tour through a visit to his alma mater, holding a book-signing event in Notre Dame’s Hammes Bookstore on Oct. 1 from 3:30-5:00 p.m.
Casey Stanton wanted to offer encouragement, love and healing to the inmates at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, where she served as a chaplain intern a few years ago.
But as a Catholic woman she could not represent her church there in any official capacity.
The state of North Carolina requires chaplains in its state prison system to be ordained. And the Catholic Church does not ordain women — neither as priests, nor as deacons.
Stanton, who is 35 and holds a master of divinity from Duke Divinity School, is not seeking to become a priest, which canon law forbids. She would, however, jump at the chance to be ordained a deacon — a position that would allow her and other women to serve as Catholic chaplains in prisons, hospitals and other settings.
“I’d like to be able to represent the church in these places where I feel like we’re called to go,” Stanton said.
She tried the Veterans Affairs hospital next. But there too, she found a similar obstacle to full-time chaplaincy.
“I thought I could find some workaround,” she said. Instead, she added, Catholic chaplaincy “felt like a dead-end.”
In April, Stanton co-founded Discerning Deacons, an organization that urges conversation in the Catholic Church around ordaining women deacons. Stanton hopes it might add to ongoing efforts on multiple continents to restore women to the ordained diaconate, which the church in its early centuries allowed.
On Monday (Sept. 13), a new commission set up by Pope Francis to study women in the diaconate began meeting for one week in Rome. It is the fourth group since the 1970s to discuss ordaining women deacons, and many are hoping they will release their recommendations publicly so the church can lay the groundwork for restoring the order.
Francis has repeatedly called for a greater female presence in church leadership, and while he has continued church teachings against women priests, he changed church law to allow women to be installed as lectors and acolytes.
Up until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons, although by then their service was mostly restricted to women’s monasteries. Some Orthodox churches that split from the Catholic Church in the 11th century still do. In the New Testament Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul introduces Phoebe as a “deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” He also names Priscilla and Aquila among other women given titles of “fellow workers.”
In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reinstated the role of deacon for men. (It had previously reserved the diaconate as a transitional ministry for men studying to be priests) but not for women.
Partly due to the shortage of priests, there is growing momentum to restore women to the diaconate. At the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, a large number of bishops requested the permanent diaconate for women. Many are now hoping the next synod, which will culminate in Rome in 2023, will take up the issue again.
“If the church expresses its need, the Holy Father would have an easier time restoring women deacons,” said Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and the foremost expert on women deacons in the Catholic Church.
The work of the deacon as defined by canon law is to minister to the people of God in word, liturgy and charity. Though not a paid position in most instances, it does require a person to undergo a course of study and a laying on of hands through ordination.
“Typically, the deacon manages the charity on behalf of the bishop or pastor in any given parish. That would include managing the food bank, taking care of the poor, visiting the sick,” said Zagano.
Deacons may also proclaim the Gospel, preach, witness marriages, baptize and conduct funeral services. They cannot lead a Mass, consecrate the Eucharist or hear confessions.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates there are about 19,000 male deacons in the United States today, a 1% drop from last year. Formation programs for deacons reported a 2% drop in enrollments. Perhaps most troubling, the share of deacon candidates in their 30s and 40s has declined to 22% in 2020, down from 44% in 2002, a June report found.
In some parts of the country, Catholic laywomen are already serving as administrators in lieu of priests, often as parish life coordinators, but without ordination.
“Right now, when you are a woman serving in any capacity, there’s often a cloud of suspicion hanging over your work, the sense that your work would be better done by a man or a priest,” said Anna Nussbaum Keating, a Catholic writer living in Colorado who supports restoring the diaconate for women. “There’s a sense she is inferior or maybe she’s there because she wants to change the church, versus understanding that there have always been women in ministry in the church and that their contributions are holy and valid and good.”
The coronavirus, which has killed more than 650,000 Americans, has only accentuated the need for more Catholic hospital chaplains as people died alone and without the comfort of a priest or a deacon during their final days.
On Sept. 3, the feast day of St. Phoebe, the group Discerning Deacons held a Zoom prayer service celebrating the legacy of the 1st-century saint with some 500 women from across the world. It included videotaped stories of women who were passionately called to serve the church and hurt by their inability to do so formally.
Documentary filmmakers Pilar Timpane and Andrea Patiño Contreras have filmed “Called to Serve” about some of the U.S. women now pushing the church for ordination as deacons. A longer documentary, with producer Christine Delp, is now in the works.
“We’re looking at the needs of the church today,” said Stanton, who lives in Durham, North Carolina. “Might including women in this order help further the church’s mission in the world?”