Last Word On Women Priests?

Pope Francis has become the master of off-the-cuff answers to questions put to him by the reporters who travel with him, although the responses don’t necessarily reiterate certain dogmas or doctrines of the church he represents.

Pope Francis breaks the news to Beata Szydło that she may be the Polish PM but will never be a priest.

Pope Francis breaks the news to Beata Szydło that she may be the Polish PM but she will never be a priest. (Photo by Kancelaria Premiera, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

There was no doubt, however, in his recent slam-dunk removal of any hope for the ordination of women in his time or at any future time, and he used St. John Paul II’s declaration to cement his position. According to St. John Paul II, Christ only ordained men to the priesthood and the Church, according to the late Pope, “in her living teaching authority…has consistently held the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for the church.” As well, the Church insists that only a man can represent Christ at the altar although we have been taught that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. So much for that doctrine.

There are no flies on Francis however, and by dismissing the notion of female clergy so soon after creating a commission to investigate the existence of deaconesses in the early church, he might just be signalling exactly how he will deal with the commission’s report. The results of a similar commission created by Pope Paul Vl and headed by Fr. Cipriano Vaggagini in 1974, indicated that “women were ordained to the diaconate as a sacrament of the church.”

Vaggagini was a member of the International Theological Commission which advises the Doctrinal Congregation and, interestingly enough, of the 12 members appointed by Pope Francis to the latest commission, four are members of that International Commission. A similar study in 2002 found that “biblical deaconesses were not the same as ordained male deacons.” Phyllis Zagano, a US scholar, prolific writer on church matters and member of the Pope’s new commission, insists that women deacons in the early church were ordained ministers and “can be ordained deacons today.” Let the games begin!



Further research into the topic of women deacons reveals a very “shocking reason” as to why this role gradually declined in the early centuries of the second millennium. According to Professor Gary Macy of the Jesuit Santa Clara University of Santa Clara, California, there was a “prejudicial male attitude toward menstruation” as indicated by12th century canonist, Theodore Balsamon, who wrote “the monthly affliction banishes them from the divine and holy sanctuary.”

The ordination of men to the diaconate in our own Diocese of Antigonish caused at least a few to question why only men were being considered for this particular ministry, but it was made very clear that only men need apply. While they can preside at baptisms, marriages and funerals, they lack ‘thaumaturgic powers’ which, for the theologically challenged among us, means they can neither hear confessions nor preside at the Eucharist. Pope Francis, who has been accused of having “a true blind spot” when it comes to ordaining women, often makes the point that he would not want to see women become victims of clericalization, which he says has happened to many priests who have come to enjoy, perhaps too much, the power and prestige which often accrues to them. Thank heaven the Pope has the best interests of women at heart.

Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian, points out that one of the Pope’s problems with ordaining women deacons is that the next logical step is to ordain them as priests, which is what happened in the Anglican church. Brown insists that Christ didn’t ordain anyone, male or female, as priests, and while The Last Supper has always been celebrated as the birth of the priesthood, few can actually point to any mention of Christ specifically ordaining the Apostles. Cardinal Gerhard Muller, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated in 2002 that instituting the ordination of women deacons would be “an amusing anachronism” that would only further discriminate against women, should one be ordained a deacon but later denied ordination to the priesthood.




Sister Dora Bourgeois

The fact is that many women, including nuns and laywomen, have performed the functions of deacons in our own diocese and in many other dioceses across our country. Sr.Dora Bourgeois (Filles de Jésus), director of religious education for the Diocese of Antigonish in the ’80s, later served as administrator for two northern New Brunswick parishes where she indeed performed baptisms, presided at marriages and funerals and, when the 80-year-old priest wasn’t available, conducted a weekend prayer service. She served on each parish council as well.

Sr. Dora was very much accepted by her parishioners, and when they were given the choice, for example, of waiting for the aged priest to preside over their marriage or allowing Sr. Dora to fill in, they often opted for her. So here was a woman, a nun to be sure, performing the very same liturgical services that our present-day ordained deacons do, although she was not ordained. She simply had a bishop who was ahead of his time. It seems unlikely that Pope Francis’ commission will give a thumbs up to the ordination of women deacons because it would both open up a can of worms and be very much at odds with his recently stated position on the ordination of women to priesthood.

Meanwhile, not long after Pope Francis decided to appoint a commission to study the role of women deacons in the early church, Kate McElwee, co-executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, was preparing to launch a 2016 “Jubilee for Women Priests” that would coincide with a planned jubilee celebration for male priests in Rome. There are approximately 150 ordained women priests, the first seven having been ordained by an Argentinean bishop on a boat in the Danube river back in 2002. They have never, of course, been accepted as legitimate by the Vatican. But McElwee, having enlisted the support of an Italian photographer, Giulia Bianchi, who had spent four years photographing women priests in the Americas and across Europe, sought and received permits from local authorities to hang 100 meter-long posters of these photographs around the city and in full view of the Vatican. One such poster shows a woman in black covering her eyes and the caption reads: “Cry out with a hundred thousand tongues. I see that the world is rotten because of silence.” a quote from St. Catherine.

Kate McElwee and her followers will not give up their crusade for women priests but many believe that a married clergy would be considered long before the ordination of women. It will be interesting to see if Pope Francis has, indeed, had the final word on the topic.


Featured photo: Pope Francis by governortomwolf, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



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