Earlier this week, social media was all abuzz about the Pope’s investigation into restoring women to the diaconate. In the complete transcript of the Pope’s comments, the traditional notion of women’s maternal role in the church is mentioned in relation to the Church. Certainly this is nothing new. Here the Pope describes important “maternal” work such as working with the marginalized, catechesis, and caring for the sick – once again, nothing new.
However, in the next sentence, a very subtle shift is seen when it comes to normative gender roles:
…. there are men who do the same [work as consecrated women], and it is good…..and this is important.
What does this mean – a change in language? a laying of groundwork? or nothing at all?
It is no secret that cultural constructs of women as maternal and how a mother is defined as or even does has radically changed in today’s society; but, the Church continues to remain steadfast in normative roles between the priesthood and the “motherhood” of the Church (and therefore “motherhood” in general).
Three years ago, we saw a statement from Pope Francis expressing “concern” that if women took on “traditionally masculine roles and traits, [that] which is uniquely and irreplaceably feminine could be diminished.” In the same statement, he stated that maternity is not a “social role” and integral in building community – both civil and ecclesial. A concern, as we know, that is not well placed – for women have been building community within the constructs of society and the church through leadership and service since the Church was established. ” In fact, since the formation and ultimate institutionalization of the Church, women have find ways outside of normative maternal roles and social constructs to serve and even lead the church – we have a list of saints that demonstrate this fact well.
Now Pope Francis, is taking a step towards formally recognizing this work – work the consecrated women have been doing since the very first vow was taken, wants to put together an official commission to study the role of “deaconesses” in the early church. This is a role (or construct) that he understands to be limited in capacity and service – essentially a social role. Approximately 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI in Ecclesiam Suam expressed a profound conviction that “the church must enter into dialogue with the world which it lives” and made a request to study the question of women deacons in the church – a request that was suppressed. This study which is way overdue,must have solid representation from scholars, especially from those (lay men and women) specializing in Bible, Early Church History, and Patristics.
As a Biblical Scholar who also studies Patristics and early Church History/Ecclesiology, I can tell you that the mere difference in using deaconesses v. deacons as the very foundation of the study (as indicated above) – is significant, especially in terms of ecclesial roles within the church. Scripture never uses the feminine deaconess when speaking of Phoebe, but rather calls her a deacon of the early church near Corinth. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe serves the church in Cenchreae (the port of Corinth on the Saronic Gulf) as διάκονος (deacon; minister; servant). This word is also used in Phil. 1:1, which addresses Paul and Timothy, servants (δούλος – a male slave or servant) of Christ Jesus, and all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons (διάκονος)). 1 Tim 3:8 states that Deacons (Διάκοωος) likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. Examining early church history and looking at women such as Thecla, who actively performed baptisms, we see women in the early church performing sacramental acts and ministry that an ordained man does today. My point is simple: without the contribution of scholars outside of the Vatican’s inner ring, the study will be skewed and simply not helpful.
In the end, should we be excited about this study? Not really. If you read the Pope’s statement more closely, it is riddled with vague and redundant words that show no movement in this discussion. We have not stepped forward, but rather taken two steps to the side – but I guess I should embrace little movement over no movement at all because, for too long in the church, we have been moving backwards.
Featured image, Mary Magdalene Priestess by Judith Shaw.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies and Ursuline College’sDepartment of Religious Studies. She teaches in the area of Religion, Culture, Terrorism/Violence, and Biblical Archaeology. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is the 2015 recipient of the P. E. MacAllister Excavation Fellowship where she participated in the Bethsaida Archaeology Project. Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). She also wrote “The Catholic Church and Social Media: Embracing [Fighting] a Feminist Ideological Theo-Ethical Discourse and Discursive Activism” that appears in the recently released book, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders, edited by Gina Messina-Dysert and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.