“Why not include women in the college of cardinals?”, a member of the new Vatican female deacons commission has asked.

– “The priesthood cannot be the sole authority to decide on the life and governance of the Church”

In the Church, “there are many places where women need to be active today in exercising authority and inspiring new governance, such as parish authorities, episcopal councils and the pope’s council. Why not?”, French biblical scholar Anne-Marie Pelletier, a 74-year-old Parisian mother of three asked La Croix in an interview published June 25.

Even if isn’t “so outlandish” to think the Church might one day accept the ordination of females, Pelletier still said that those possible future women priests should come with a proviso, or rather, a specific condition: that they practise the priesthood “a little differently” to men, so as to stop to the perception of Holy Orders being all “about power and competition”.

Underneath the women’s ordination debate, “the truth that needs to be heard is that ministerial priesthood cannot be the sole authority to decide on the life and governance of the Church”, Pelletier explained.

– Male or female priests “it is the overall question of ministries in the Church that needs to be reopened”

Beyond the question of women’s access to Holy Orders, “it is the overall question of ministries in the Church that needs to be reopened, as they affect both sexes and the different states of life”, Pelletier, an observer at the 2001 Synod of Bishops on the episcopacy, told La Croix.

The first woman winner of the prestigious Ratzinger Prize for Theology (2014) and the author of Pope Francis’ 2017 Good Friday ‘Via Crucis’ meditations warned that focusing too much on women’s accession to the diaconate or the presbyterate “risks obscuring the true extent of the problem”: the problem, that is, of the priesthood in itself.

All talk of reform in the Church, Pelletier said, must begin from two places: on the one hand, “fidelity to tradition”, and on the other, “a real work of evangelical conversion”.

But on that first point, Pelletier asked: “Is [fidelity to tradition] a static reality, as such a normative one, that we can only repeat? Or are we not being asked for a work of creativity, of aggornamiento [updating], as Father [Yves] Congar taught?”

Answering her own question, Pelletier said that on the issue of female deacons, at least, “we should certainly not confine ourselves to what we know from the past”.

Even if in the early Church female deacons were devoted primarily to the service of women only, particularly in baptisms by immersion, that limitation for female deacons needn’t hold also today, Pelletier said, since “we are in a very different situation, and one that varies from country to country”.

“This diversity must be taken into account, as must the new conditions of ecclesial life in a country like ours”, the theologian stressed.

She called for that reason for any future female deacons to be permitted not only to baptise but also to celebrate marriages, preach and hear confessions – even without giving absolution – since “sacramental grace is not limited to our seven sacraments alone”.

– Women are “well disposed, and even gifted, for the truly evangelical selflessness” that is the “antidote” to clericalism

With regard to the “work of evangelical conversion” prompted not only by Catholic women’s gender justice demands but also by the clergy sex abuse crisis, Pelletier pointed out first of all the need “to uphold the present Church, while starting afresh from the needs of the Christian communities, and taking into account the lived realities”.

She noted that the new female deacons commission she sits on was set up by the Pope in April as a response to the Amazon Synod Fathers call for the Church to recognise “the ministeriality that Jesus reserved for women” – in gratitude, in the first place, for the fact that the Church survives in many places in the Amazon only because of the self-sacrifices and strong leadership of women.

“It is to be hoped that these [Amazon] communities will receive institutional and sacramental empowerment, and that others may be called for such a ministry confirmed by ordination”, Pelletier said in response to the Amazon Bishops’ call on behalf of women.

In his post-Amazon-Synod apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia Pope Francis skipped over the demand for the ordination of women, concerned that admitting females to Holy Orders “would lead us to clericalise women”.

But Pelletier was keen to nuance that papal argument, explaining that “in itself, it is not being clericalised to receive a mandate from the bishop for the service of the ecclesial body”.

“It all depends on the way in which the mission is carried out”, Pelletier said, admitting too that “it is also true that every mission in the Church is susceptible to being affected by this vice that we call ‘clericalism'”.

But if the “antidote” to clericalism “is service as Christ teaches, in contrast to the human way of exercising power”, this is where women come into their own, Pelletier highlighted: women being “well disposed, and even gifted, for a truly evangelical selflessness”.

– “Courage to imagine the Church in a different way”

In sum, on the women’s rights issue in the Church, Pelletier added her voice to those of the Catholic women she said write to her clamouring in the Church for “a real conversion of outlook and mentality, a prerequisite for esteem and equality”.

Insisting that “institutional changes” must follow the kind of “in-depth reflection” the female deacons commission will undertake, Pelletier called for reform work in the Church to be done “with the clear awareness that we live in a world where the anthropological question concerns everyone”.

“The relationship between men and women is being questioned everywhere, and in a way that we should welcome. It must obviously also concern the Church”, the biblical scholar observed.

The crossroads the Church finds itself in presently with its crisis of credibility among women and among wider society must be seized as “an opportunity to find a true inner balance by having the courage to imagine the Church in a different way”, Pelletier said.

“The cause of women is also, quite simply, that of the Church. May neither be a lost cause”, the scholar concluded.

More stories on Novena on demands for gender justice in the Church:

German nuns describe search for sacrament during COVID-19 beyond “dependence” on ordained men

German Bishops’ vice-president insists women priests debate “not over”, wants to take issue to “European Synod”, Pope

German theologian claims ‘Querida Amazonia’ seeks to end “clerical monopoly”, clear way for women cardinals

German laywomen warn bishops: “It is not for anyone to deny us vocations just because we are women”

German laypeople cry: “Anyone who is against the ordination of women is against the equality of women and men”

Cardinal Marx joins chorus of voices for more women’s leadership in Church, says matter “urgent”

French Catholic women push bishops for German-style ‘synodal path’ “to envision the Church of tomorrow”

Female deacons commission member Anne-Marie Pelletier warns of danger of Church “where women exist only in the imagination of men”

Belgian Jesuit calls for women cardinals: “It is vital that the world not always be seen through male eyes”


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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.