“Most Catholics, starting with the Pope, favour a recognition of the role of women” in the Church, a member of the new Vatican female deacons commission has affirmed.
– Acknowledgement of the contribution of women, a matter still “pending” for the Church
“It must be admitted that a public and ecclesial recognition of the role of women in the Church, on an equal footing [to men], remains a pending matter”, Spanish priest and theologian Santiago del Cura Elena told news agency Europa Press in an interview published May 26.
“The vast majority of Catholics, starting with Pope Francis, are in favour of such a recognition. And I believe that the possibilities are many already today and that they will be greater in the future”, del Cura continued.
The theologian, a professor at the Faculty of Theology of the North of Spain, in the city of Burgos, was named by the Pope April 8 to a new Study Commission on the female diaconate after a previous commission on the same topic, formed in August 2016, was disbanded last year.
By the Pope’s own admission, that first commission could not give a unanimous “definitive response” to the form and scope of the women’s diaconate in the early Church, since each of its members “thought differently” on the matter.
“They worked together. And they found agreement up to a certain point. But each one of them has their own vision, which doesn’t accord with that of the others. They stopped there as a commission, and each one is studying and going ahead”, Francis explained at the time.
– Women deacons in the early Church, “an unquestionable historical fact”
Del Cura is renowned as a theologian and as an expert on the diaconate, having formed part of the Vatican International Theological Commission from 1997-2009 and, specifically, of the subcommission of that body that produced the 2003 document The diaconate: evolution and perspectives.
In terms of the work of the new commission on women deacons, the Spanish priest said the key question confronting members was not whether to simply revive an antiquated order, since, in his opinion, laywomen today can carry out more ministries than could the women deacons of past centuries.
Having said that, del Cura acknowledged that women deacons in the early Church are “an unquestionable historical fact”, and that they carried out such ministries as assisting other women during baptism, teaching the faith, visiting the sick and the poor and administering convents.
“In other words, their [women deacons’] tasks were quite diversified throughout history, without being reduced to a single function”, del Cura admitted.
– The study of the female diaconate can serve as “inspiration” for ways to guarantee women’s “equality” today
Despite the fact that most everybody agrees that women served as deacons until at least the 7th century, del Cura said the sticking point was over the nature of womens’ commissioning to that ministry.
“It remains to be seen whether the feminine diaconal ministry will end up being recognised as an integral part of the sacrament of Holy Orders – on the same level as the masculine diaconate – or whether it should be understood as a non-sacramental ministry, although undoubtedly of ecclesial relevance and reinforced by a blessing similar to that which today takes place today in the case of abbesses of convents”, the priest explained.
“Using more technical terms from theological-canonical language, [the question is] whether the female diaconate should be understood as a ‘sacrament’ in the strict sense or rather as a ‘sacramental’. And it is in this interpretation that we scholars of Christianity find ourselves far from unanimous, since there are supporters of both one side and the other”, he added.
Though many in the Church today frame the access of women to the diaconate and the other holy orders as a question of rights, in del Cura’s opinion that approach is not helpful, since “nobody, including men, is entitled to such ministries”.
Instead, the renewed study of the female diaconate “can serve as an inspiration to recreate today ecclesial ministries of women that confirm their recognition on a plane of equality, not of subjugation or subordination”, del Cura asserted.