I had an interesting conversation with a customer from work about “Female Deacons” the other night at dinner. She had attended a workshop at the LA RE Congress where the presenter shared the case for why it would be a good thing for the Church and the evidence that exists for Female Deacons in the New Testament. She then proceeded to tell me about a woman she works with who would make a great Female Deacon. She said it in a way that sounded like this woman was being held back from ministering because she wasn’t able to be ordained a Deacon. The question she was asking is “why does the Catholic Church (the organization, not the people) hold women back by not letting women be ordained to the diaconate?” Then she asked, “why can’t Deacons administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick?”
I think a lot of people are asking these questions (more the first than the second, but still). However, when it comes to women and the Catholic Church, I believe these are the wrong questions. If you’re shouting at me right now, just calm yourself and give me a minute to flush this out.
Let’s start with the second question first. Deacons aren’t able to administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (I think) because it involves a full absolution of sins and only priests can administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I believe in the power of the Sacraments, and have found the Sacrament of the Anointing to be extremely comforting in my own life when I’ve had to have major or minor surgeries. I’ve also recommended family and friends to ensure they are anointed when experiencing the major sickness or facing surgery. With all that being said, I think the better question is “Why do people think the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is the only form of comfort and consolation that can be provided when you are ill?”
I mean, you can only be anointed once per illness/surgery/year/or so, not daily or even weekly. Is the Church providing comfort and consolation to the ill person if she only visits them once per year? I would say no. Can someone other than a priest visit with someone, encouraging them spiritually, pray with them, bring them Holy Communion, and provide comfort and consolation. Um, absolutely. So why does the fact that Deacons cannot administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick prevent them from providing comfort and consolation to the ill and informed? Why does not being ordained to the diaconate prevent someone from doing the same thing?
Now let’s tackle the first question. I have a few thoughts about this one. Let’s start with the argument that the Catholic Church hates women and treats them as second class citizens because they do not admit women to ordination (Diaconate, Priesthood, Episcopacy). Aside from the fact that I don’t feel like a second class citizen as a Catholic women, if the only way to be ‘first class’ would be to have the same opportunity for ordination that men have … that doesn’t change the situation. Why? If a woman has to do or have things that men have in order to be equally dignified, then women are not equally dignified … men still are. If I’m not dignified the way I am, but only if I become what a man can be, then I’m not dignified.
So I asked my dinner companion “What’s holding that woman back from providing amazing pastoral and spiritual ministry at your parish? I mean, we’ve already determined that Deacons can’t administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. So there are things she’s unable to do such as assist during Mass, Baptize people, and witness Marriages, but what you’re saying is more Pastoral Ministry rather than Sacraments and assisting at Mass.” (I was less direct than that.) I suggested that the real issue was that the Church has not encouraged the laity to do the things that lay people can do. The faithful have determined that only people with a collar can provide spiritual advice, give faith formation, and pray with you when you’re in need.
That’s my definition of clericalism, putting priests on a pedi stool, identifying them as a different class of Catholic citizen than you. I don’t mean to reduce the vocation to the priesthood or even deny the amazing spiritual gifts priests can help us experience including the Mass, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and other Sacraments. These are all amazing and unique things priests can do for us, and they should invite us to participate. However, just because priests have specific things only they can do in the Church doesn’t mean that the laity can’t do anything. It means we have a, wait for it, DIFFERENT role.
So I asked again, “what’s stopping her?”
My companion didn’t have an answer.
No one has an answer to that question because it requires us, the faithful, to do something. It changes the way we think about our spiritual life. It also compels us to do something instead of sitting around complaining about how the Catholic Church is discriminating against women and making them live as second class citizens by withholding ordination. Even if women are ordained Deacons in the future, if we don’t change the attitude we have about what lay men and women can do for our spiritual life, we won’t have gained anything at all.
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, especially after reading Clare’s book Girl, Arise. I’m certain it’s not the last time I’ll think about it … and I’m not certain my thoughts on a Female Diaconate … but I am certain on my thoughts of how lay women (and men) can serve differently in the Church to build up the Kingdom. We need each other We are all called to be disciples, not just a select few. We are all commissioned to go out into the world and spread the Good News, not just a select few. We are all called to walk with one another on the spiritual journey, not just a select few. I’m going to strive in leading the way in my own community … it’s the only thing I can do.