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Women’s roles in the church: an ongoing debate

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

10/21/2015

When Archbishop Paul-André Durocher raised the question of ordaining female deacons during the first full day of the synod on family, he stepped into one of the most contentious and complex struggles in the church — full participation of women in all aspects of their faith life, their church.

It’s an issue that not even women can agree on.

Addressing synod fathers in the Vatican on Oct. 8, the Gatineau, Que., archbishop proposed that qualified women be given higher positions and greater decision-making authority and additional opportunities in the church, possibly to include ordination to the diaconate.

“I think we should really start looking seriously at the possibility of ordaining women deacons because the diaconate in the church’s tradition has been defined as not being ordered toward priesthood but toward ministry,” he said to Catholic News Service.

“I think for Archbishop Durocher it took an extraordinary amount of courage, which is a sad thing to say,” said Doris Kieser, a theologian at the University of Alberta, St. Joseph’s College. “That for a bishop to say ‘Gosh, we need to think about women’ takes courage in the year 2015. That makes me sad that I’m actually saying it.”

It’s no surprise that Durocher is calling for a discussion about a bigger role for women in the church, said Leah Perrault, Diocese of Saskatoon director of pastoral services. He is hearing that message “from the People of God,” she said. “And I believe that is his job, to say what he is hearing from the People of God in his part of the world. I think it takes great courage in a church that’s as polarized as we are.”

When Durocher makes the case that church culture and practice must do justice to women, the archbishop has a powerful ally also speaking out on the issue.

“A church without women is like the college of the Apostles without Mary,” Pope Francis told journalists in 2013. “The role of women in the church is not simply that of maternity. We can’t imagine a church without women, but women active in the church, with the distinctive role that they play . . . I believe that we have not yet come up with a profound theology of womanhood in the church.”

The idea of ordaining women as deacons is not new. Twenty years ago the Canon Law Society of America struck a commission and produced a thorough report that investigated the history, canonical precedents, theology and spirituality of deaconnesses. It recommended the church could and should ordain women as permanent deacons.

The commission included some of the most respected scholars of canon law and theology in the United States, but Dr. Marie Jeanne Ferrari, a member of both the American and Canadian canon law societies, was not impressed with its report.

“Their document was so flawed that I don’t know where to start with that,” she told The Catholic Register.

Ferrari wrote her own 15-page counter-argument in response to the 1995 CLSA paper.

“The priesthood cannot be demanded as a right, nor can the diaconate,” Ferrari wrote in 1996.

Ferrari questions her fellow canonists’ scholarship. “Many of their key references . . . are either misleading, incomplete, quoted out of context, unrelated to the subject or even inaccurate,” she wrote. But her fundamental accusation is that the drive to ordain women even to the diaconate is the misguided result of modern feminism.

“Women are pushing. They want everything. And if they don’t get it, there’s lots of little groups that raise a riot,” she said in a recent interview. “The church has always honoured female saints. You can’t blame the church for not honouring women. It has. It really doesn’t make sense that a group of women in New York City would browbeat other women into thinking that they were ill-served in the Catholic Church.”

Lynda Robitaille is an independent canon lawyer and dean of theology at St. Mark’s College in the University of British Columbia. She doesn’t think the problem of women and their voice in the church is a trumped-up, fake problem or a hobby horse of a few privileged intellectuals.

“Certainly women’s voices are not well represented in leadership in the church,” she said. “A lot of leadership in the church is dependent on ordination.”

The issue isn’t the diaconate, a rank of orders in the hierarchy dedicated exclusively to service and ministry and specifically excluded from governance, she said. The issue is leadership — the ability to make decisions, spend money, make appointments and set policy.

“Even Pope Francis has said we need women in leadership,” Robitaille said.

Rather than focusing on ordination, Robitaille believes the church needs to deepen its understanding of baptism and translate that understanding into action. A few women chancellors of dioceses or presidents of Catholic hospitals and universities doesn’t really make women’s voices heard and felt throughout the church, she said.

“What I think we are really looking for is true decision-making, not just figureheads,” Robitaille said.

As director of pastoral services, managing a staff of 20 and with a significant voice in a recent Saskatoon decision to ordain permanent deacons, Perrault is one of those rare women involved in policy in the church. She knows what’s possible, but she also knows Catholics have shied away from our possibilities.

“Under the right circumstances, the church has the capacity to allow a full flourishing of women and women’s vocations in its current state,” said Perrault. “Does that mean we don’t have room to grow? This isn’t about me or about women or about men. It’s about the kingdom of God and the kind of kingdom that God wants.”

Perrault is hopeful that the church is moving on the question of women.

“Pope Francis and others have identified as a problem how do we include women more, use women’s gifts more, call on women more effectively,” she said. “It’s really exciting to me that our bishops have heard this from their people and that they’re willing to raise this in the appropriate place (the synod).”

For Kieser, the problem is that “women don’t have any substantive voice in the church.”

“By substantive, I mean anything that holds water,” said Kieser, who teaches courses in the sexual body, theological anthropology and women’s spirituality at St. Joseph’s in Edmonton. “We can speak. We might consult. But we are never ultimately decision-makers.”

It’s not enough to have bishops or even popes raise the issue, she said.

“I do love Francis,” she said. “But I think there is a bit of a blind spot for him in terms of women.”

The problem isn’t that there isn’t an adequate theology of womanhood, she believes.

“Women have been doing theology for 50 years about what it means to be a woman of faith,” she said. The problem is that very little of that theology is taken seriously by the men in the offices around St. Peter’s Square.

When popes have waded in on how women are or should be part of the church, women have not seen themselves in that teaching, said Kieser. St. Pope John Paul II’s 1988 encyclical Dignitatis Mulieris is one example.

“I think it created more problems . . . I’ve engaged it in the hope I would find something in there for me and what I find in there is an idealized sense of human persons in relationships.”

When Pope John Paul appeals to Mary, his vision of a self-abnegating humble servant just doesn’t square with the Mary who Kieser knows and loves.

“Mary is my girl. I have a very strong Marian sense about myself, but it doesn’t look like that,” she said.

Not all women, however, share Kieser’s view. Maria Reilander, the senior development officer and occasional lecturer at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry’s Bay, Ont., is implacably opposed to the idea of ordaining women as deacons or anything else, and she dismisses most of the debate about women’s roles in the church as a power grab.

“Why do we think women have to take on a man’s role as priest or deacon in order to have status?” she wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. “I won’t be any more fulfilled as a woman by trying to be a man.”

Reilander has a different vision of how women claim their dignity in the church.

“There is more room for people in the church to appreciate and encourage the uniquely feminine gifts. These gifts can be summed up in one word — motherhood,” she said. “Not just in raising families, but also in their professions and in their religious vocations, their life-giving care and personal attention to all they meet and relate to. There’s nothing like the motherly touch.”

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