The Pope recently said he would set up a commission to do a thorough study of the ancient practice of women deacons – what it meant and, presumably, how current practice might or might not change in the light of it. The response in all forms of media has been predictably sensationalistic, both in favor of ordaining women deacons and against.
It is unfortunate that people are already assuming what the outcome will be, or ought to be, and are reacting accordingly. Why are so many people agreeing or disagreeing with a conclusion that has not yet been reached? Why don’t we let the Pope form the commission, and wait for the results and for his decision in response to their study, before we judge?
The proposed object of study is NOT our opinion, nor strictly speaking whether or not to admit women to the diaconate today, but rather the role and meaning of deaconesses in the ancient Church. That topic is unclear because the references to deaconesses are from before the complete solidification and clear definition of much of ecclesial terminology, and apparently the historical testimony to the practice is rather limited. It is not a matter of public opinion; it is a matter of academic research by historians, archeologists, experts in Patristics, etc. Getting the right results requires prayer for the gifts of knowledge, understanding, wisdom and discernment to know and understand events long past. We can be confident that the conclusion, if definitive, will be the right one; Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit will lead the Church to the fullness of the truth (“But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” – John 16:13).
The commission might conclude that women deacons were the same as male deacons, or it might not. Then, armed with that information, the Pope might might agree and decide to alter our current practice in some way… or might not. And that is fine; he is the Pope, and has the special guidance of the Holy Spirit, and infallibility in matters of faith and morals when he teaches “ex cathedra”. What matters is the truth, not my opinion, nor what I would like to be the truth. We are entitled to our opinion regarding what is or is not the truth, and we are entitled to express that opinion, as long as we recognize that it is, in fact, our opinion, without second-guessing the Pope, who has the final say in the Church.
The idea that we need to be led to the truth implies constant growth and deepening in our understanding of God’s will. In fact, the Church’s doctrine has evolved and solidified over its two millennia of history, and sometimes its understanding of certain things has matured or changed. Theory and practice inform and transform each other, and sometimes are out of step. That means we have every reason to believe that not everything in the Church’s current practice and understanding is perfect today either. Some things – such as the possibility of having women deacons – might change.
In common with many other Catholics, there are some things which I hope will, in fact, change. (I don’t have a particularly strong preference in the case of deaconesses.) I’m not a “perfect Catholic” in theory or in practice. Maybe I’m on the wrong side of some of the issues – in favor or against the status quo – even regarding issues that I am strongly convinced about.
Either way, it is important that we not jump to conclusions about what the Pope will or will not do, nor much less judge decisions and actions that have not yet been made. We should never fear a commission or discussion regarding any issue if we believe that the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, will receive from the Spirit the Truth that comes from the Father (John 16:15). Rather, we should be open to the truth, and pray that the Holy Spirit will shower His gifts on the Church, so that we may progress in our knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the truth, and may have the strength to bear witness to that truth with our lives.