The recommendation of some at the Amazon Synod regarding the ordination of married viri probati, proven men, to the priesthood may or may not be a good idea, but in any case it is in the realm of possibility, according to the received, developed, modern teaching of the Church on Holy Orders. Eastern-Rite Catholicism has married priests. There is a tiny number of Latin-Rite Catholic priests. It’s possible.
However, the Church teaches that the ordination of women to the diaconate is not possible. The Church teaches that only a baptized man can validly receive sacramental ordination. Yes, some people reject that teaching and say it is possible. They interpret the ancient practice of deaconesses as the female equivalent of male diaconate. They simply reject as false the developed sacramental teaching of the Church that only men can validly receive the Sacrament of Orders. (CCC 1577; CIC 1024; CCEO 754).
Of course on the other side there are plenty of theologians and others who affirm the Church’s teaching.
While the Holy Father permitted another study of the question, and the results are reportedly on his desk, his own description of the results is that they were inconclusive. In any event, the Church’s modern teaching is not simply that women may not be or should not be ordained deacons; it’s that women cannot be ordained deacons. It’s invalid, not merely illicit.
By implication, whatever ancient deaconesses were, they weren’t recipients of the Sacrament of Holy Orders as were the deacons.
Of course the exact level of that no-sacramentally-ordained-women-deacons teaching is debated. Still, if it has been taught by the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, as something to be definitively held, that the Sacrament of Holy Orders may validly be received by men only, then the matter is closed, from a Catholic perspective. Like it or not.
On the other hand, if it has been authoritatively but not definitively taught, then the teaching might be changeable. Might be doesn’t mean is, of course. The Church could still definitively teach something it has heretofore taught authoritatively but not definitively. A teaching’s status as non-definitive doesn’t automatically mean it can change.
Among the notable reports from the Amazonian Synod is how some folks there evidently easily maintain that current Church teaching is simply wrong. Otherwise, how come the call for ordination of women to the diaconate? That only makes sense if its advocates dissent from authoritative teaching.
It’s one thing to call for an examination of the issue to see if something is possible, even given the current teaching to the contrary. It’s quite another thing to call for the doing of the thing, in the face of authoritative Church teaching that it cannot be done, especially when the Church presents her authoritative teaching as the will of Jesus Christ.
Cardinal Mueller, in his book Priesthood and Diaconate, maintains the Church’s teaching on the distinctively male nature of priesthood and diaconate. With respect to the diaconate, his position is that of Aime Georges Martimort, in Deaconesses: An Historical Study. Yes, the ministry of deaconesses existed in the ancient Church but it was not, so the argument goes, the same as that bestowed on men in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as we understand the sacrament today, in light of the development of doctrine.
Will the bishops of the Synod decide otherwise? We’ll see how the discussion unfolds and what the final document says, as well as how the Holy Father responds to it. Pope Francis has already indicated that the discussion of ordination of women to the priesthood is closed. He allowed the question of ordination to the diaconate to be studied again—it’s been examined twice in the last fifty years—but gives no indication he thinks Church teaching on the subject can or should change. At least he hasn’t done so thus far.
Still, a few people have proposed the development of a new female diaconate that wouldn’t involve the Sacrament of Holy Orders but which would be akin to what used to be called “minor orders”. These “minor orders”, generally suppressed in the Latin-Rite of the Catholic Church and replaced by the “installed’ ministries of lector and acolyte, have come to be understood as creations of the Church rather than developments of a divinely established set of ordained ministries, as episcopacy, priesthood, and diaconate are taught by the Church to be. There are many problems with this idea, not least that probably most proponents of women’s ordination would reject it as a sort of second-class sacrament. Whether it will be seriously pursued remains to be seen.
At the very least, we can say that we certainly live in interesting times. Oremus.
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