Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Deaconesses: Are We Asking The Right Questions? (Contribution)

Image result for deaconessesWhen it was announced that the Vatican would open a commission into the question of women deacons, my initial response was unenthusiastic. 

I agree with Dawn Eden Goldstein’s critique of the problematic motivations behind the push when she wrote in the New York Times that some believe “the clerical office means power rather than service”. 

As a woman, I feel as disenfranchised by a male priesthood and holy orders as men are by being unable to bear children. That is to say, both sexes hold crucial roles in the most important work of bringing souls to Christ, and we fulfill these roles to know, love and serve God — not to wield influence.

Still, I was interested to read of the argument from the existence of deaconesses in the early Church. I admit I was unaware of this historical position, and given the wildly different interpretations of its significance I wanted to know more. 

New Advent provides a short but chewy article on deaconesses here. While the entire article is interesting, I will note three significant points. 

First, deaconesses were women consecrated to serve the needs of their fellow women in areas inappropriate to men. 

Second, they were not exclusively virgins but also widows, so we know some had experience as mothers and wives. Third, deaconesses did hold a formal position recognized by the Church, although distinct from Holy Orders. After learning more about the unique function of deaconesses, I found that the question of whether women can or should fulfill roles already held by men gave way to the more interesting question of whether there is a need currently unmet in the Church that would be best fulfilled by women. I believe the answer is certainly yes. 

In the early Church, the duties of deaconesses were particularly focused on service to other women.  The most commonly cited case is the anointing of female catechumens in an age of nude baptism. 

Sister Sara Butler examines the question in some detail in her 2015 essay “Women as Deaconesses,” for the Josephinium Diaconal Review. Sister Butler notes the clear distinction between the diaconal grade of Holy Orders which can be held only by men, and the separate order and mission held by women. While of a different kind, she provides several examples that show deaconesses were still carrying out important and varied work. 

“Extended the church’s ministry to sick and homebound women and prepared their bodies for burial when they died. She assisted with the catechetical instruction of women catechumens and their subsequent formation in the Christian life, and mediated between the women and the bishop.” [Women as Deaconesses]

In our day and age, few areas of conflict between the Church and the World are more obvious than women’s issues. The burden of the challenging demands of Catholic morality fall squarely on the shoulders of the Church’s female members, who must stand strong in the face of a world that does not share this morality. Here again women could serve women in a particular way most suitably carried out by members of the same sex.

Many Catholic women face ignorance, ridicule, and even chastisement from their acquaintances and doctors, because of their use of Natural Family Planning. Women must often educate themselves with little outside aid on the practical applications of NFP even in the simplest of circumstances. Yet beyond the practical, the prudential application of NFP presents another challenge. 

The Church requires just cause for avoiding pregnancy, but determining the gravity of myriad personal situations is daunting. NFP is only one area where women face big decisions without much help. The treatments for many significant women’s health issues may involve hysterectomy, or other procedures that render one infertile. These can be entirely licit, however, decision-making about such treatments is often far from black and white.

Infertility is another area where medical concerns intersect with moral ones, and where intimate information must be exchanged to receive thorough advice. In all these situations, doctors may not understand the moral implications, so women must take full responsibility for informing themselves. Discussing such intimate and specifically female matters with a priest can be a very awkward undertaking for both parties.  

Besides the aforementioned issues, I have received support in the postpartum months or comfort following miscarriage from faithful and generous Catholic women. Other women care for the sick and infirm whose bodily needs are best met by a member of the same sex. 

Sadly, not every woman is so blessed in their acquaintances. If the deaconess were a recognized role at the local parish, women would know that here was a woman ready and willing to come through for them in these times of need.  

Imagine if every parish had a holy, wise woman, a wife and mother with personal experience of the mental and physical trials of marriage and motherhood, whom women could approach for counsel on these thorny issues. This woman, as a deaconess, would hold a formal position within the life of the local church.  During formation, she would be educated in moral theology and magisterial teaching on family life as well as in practical resources for a variety of women’s concerns.  

Of course, the deaconess would need to serve as a sort of physician’s assistant operating under the authority of a pastor. She would by no means replace the spiritual care that only a priest can give. 

But she could listen thoughtfully and help women sort through and organize their thoughts, direct them to useful programs or offer counsel, and direct them to confession and the sacraments. 

St. John Paul II’s spoke throughout his pontificate, including in his letter to women, on the unique gifts of femininity, like receptivity, sensitivity and maternity. These particular affinities make discussion among women of intimate matters much easier. A maternal figure does not compete with or devalue the paternal role served by our priests and deacons. 

It is the attempt to place women in a masculine role that is the great problem with many arguments for women deacons. As in the family, male and female roles in the Church can be complementary. 

Deaconesses of old fulfilled a role required by the times in which they lived. Our times too present unique challenges to female Catholics. Perhaps this period in our history requires that women serve women in a particular and official way within the Church. 

The exciting news is that, whether deaconesses return or not, women don’t need to wait to begin fulfilling these needs. All over the country and indeed the world women are teaching NFP, reforming marriage prep, founding crisis pregnancy centers, developing support programs for postpartum depression, and reaching out to their friends and family to provide loving support in the difficult work of being a Catholic woman in a hostile world. 

Still, a dedicated order of women educated, blessed, and spiritually nourished by the Church and serving in parishes across the world would be a great gift and service to all their sex.

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