Thursday, January 31, 2013

Women Deacons?

The Association of United States Catholic Priests (AUSCP) will likely entertain at its June meeting in Seattle a proposal supporting the ordination of women as deacons.

Obstacles to ordaining women as deacons include Canon Law 1024: "Sacram ordinationem valide recipit solus vir baptizatus," which is usually translated, "A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly."

Catholic doctrine maintains that the diaconate is conferred by a sacramental act called "ordination," i.e., the sacrament of Holy Orders (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1554). Canon 1024, therefore, precludes the ordination of women.

This current legislation is not irreformable. It can change, and likely will change when Church leaders accept the ordination of women as deacons as an idea and exigency whose time has come.

Misunderstanding may be an another obstacle. Many think that legislation allowing the ordination of women to the diaconate necessarily opens the door to ordination of women as priests.

Pope John Paul II effectively closed the door on ordination of women as priests when he declared in 1994 that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests. His perception seems to be based on the New Testament evidence that Jesus did not choose women to be among the Twelve.

Accepting this papal clarification, however, does not rule out ordination of women as deacons.

 In 2009 Pope Benedict the XVI added a paragraph to Canon 1009: "Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity" (cf. Motu proprio "Omnium in Mentem,"  October 20, 2009).

Thus ordination to the diaconate does not, according to Church law, imply eligibility to ordination to the presbyterate. Phyllis Zagano, the preeminent scholar on the history of deaconesses in the early Church, notes that ordination of a man as a permanent deacon is a separate vocation and by no means implies he is a candidate for priestly ordination. Pope Benedict's decision to clarify Canon 1009 further supports the ontological  differences between the orders of diaconate and presbyterate.

Perhaps a bigger obstacle to ordaining women as deacons is fear. The fear may stem from concern about control of ordained women (who oversees women deacons and their ministries) or simply apprehension about something "new" in the Church's structure (though in fact deaconesses are not new).

Both the New Testament (cf. Romans 16:1 where Paul sends greetings to "Phoebe our sister who is a minister, i.e., diakonos, of the church at Cenchreae") and early Church writings give evidence that women deacons were present in the first centuries of the Church's history (cf. Constitution of the Holy Apostles, 8, 19-20, with its ritual for ordaining women as deacons).

When the proposal for restoring the permanent diaconate surfaced at the Second Vatican Council, two of the  reasons for its restoration are applicable to the ordination of women as deacons: 1) to counter the priest shortage, and 2) to strengthen with sacramental grace those already performing diaconal service. Karl Rahner reflects that same argumentation in his Theological Investigations, 10.11.

Resourcement (a return to the sources) was a guiding principle for the aggiornamento of  Vatican II.  The biblical movement, the liturgical movement, and the patristic movement which influenced the Fathers of the Council and the formation of the Council's sixteen documents also support the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.

The door to women deacons is not closed. It is, at the very least, slightly ajar. It would take only a nod from the pope to allow entry to the many women of the Church, religious and lay, who already shoulder the burdens of service and serve as liturgical ministers.

Rahner noted that Vatican II did not insist on any one set of tasks for the restored diaconate, and further suggested that it is not essential that today's form should have existed in the past.

Having studied the issue for years, Zagano concluded, "The ordained ministry of service by women is necessary to the Church, that is, to both the People of God and the Hierarchy."

There is a certain irony for those oppose women deacons: the only person in the New Testament who is specifically described as "diakonos" is "Phoebe our sister."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When the Means Overshadow the End

The Church is and always will be in need of reform. Its divine origin and the ongoing guidance of the Spirit do not rule out the frailty and fallibility of the human element. From the Council of Jerusalem (when Paul insisted that Gentile converts need not be circumcised in order to be saved) through the twenty-one ecumenical councils and countless synods, the Church throughout its history has wrestled with the need to reassess and reform.

The late French theologian and cardinal of the Church Yves Congar wrote years before the Second Vatican Council that every institution (the Church included) faces the danger of turning means into ends.

"The organization and the means," Congar wrote in True and False Reform in the Church, "can become the chief obstacle to the realization of the authentic end. This is why, as De Man says, it is desirable to maintain the same psychological flexibility in the application of the means as in the pursuit of the end" (Liturgical Press, p. 136).

Congar pointed to the Church in the 16th century as an instance of its allowing the means to overshadow the end. Martin Luther re-awakened the Church to the need for re-assessment and reform. 

As historian John O'Malley, SJ, explains in Trent: What Happened at the Council, one part of Luther's challenge was a cry for reform of various ecclesiastical offices and religious practices. "His grievances," O'Malley writes, "were for the most part directed against the popes and the papal Curia, commonly considered the root of the evils" (p. 13).

Although Pope Paul III focused on the other part of Luther's challenge, especially, his insistence on faith alone not works as the means to salvation, the schism might have been avoided had Church leaders addressed the many non-dogma issues that Luther decried.

Congar recalled the analysis made by Luther's contemporary Desiderius Erasmus who "put his finger on the real problem of Catholicism in his time almost everywhere: the pastoral had been overshadowed or effaced by the feudal, the Gospel spirit by the excrescences of flamboyant piety,  faith by religion, and religion by practices" (Congar, ibid., p. 139).

Perhaps one minor instance of mistaking means for ends in our day is the growing concern about clerical dress. Vatican  II's Presbyterorum Ordinis (the decree on priests) described priests as "instructors of the people in the faith."  And then offered the reminder that "very little good will be achieved by ceremonies, however beautiful, or societies, however flourishing, if they are not directed towards training people to reach Christian maturity" (#6).

An article in a  recent issue of National Catholic Reporter  questioned whether the return to sashes, biretta (three-cornered hats), large crosses, amices, maniples and special gloves and shoes is consistent with the direction set by Jesus himself who criticized the religious leaders of his day for wearing long fringes and broad phylacteries (cf Mt 23:5).

If the reform of the liturgy was to effect "a noble simplicity" (Sacosanctum Concilium, 34), a corollary to that principle would apply to liturgical dress as well. Can the cappa magna (a glorified cope worn in procession though not in liturgy) or elaborate trains, or lacy surplices or fur-lined hats, be consistent with "noble simplicity?" Are any of them what Jesus had in mind?

In the NCR article the author, Dominican priest and professor Thomas O'Meara, quoted Henry David Thoreau: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."

Are these garments helpful means to the end of reflecting and spreading the Gospel?

And church clothing is only one area of concern in re-prioritizing the means and ends of today's Church.

In his analysis of church reform, Congar cautioned, "We should not imagine that the ancient forms of the church are out-of-date simply because they come from the past...I want to clarify the distinction and the connection between what is permanently valuable and what by its nature can become obsolete" (True and False Reform, pp 152-53).

There are many aspects and elements of Church life that can and perhaps need to be changed so that its end may be more effectively promoted.

And what is true of the Church's life is also true of my own. Sometimes I must let go of things in order to grow into the person I am to be. I am and always will be in need of reform.

Analysis of the Church is far easier than analysis of one's self. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Rebel Christian

Don't hold me to it, but I've been thinking that St Paul could be described as "the rebel Christian."

He once described himself as "one born abnormally" (the old CCD translation of 1 Corinthians 15:8 rendered it "born out of due time").

Unlike the Twelve, Paul did not accompany Jesus on his travels nor share his everyday earthly life. Paul did not hear him teach nor witness his miracles. Paul was not there when he died and rose again.

It is not, however, his lack of "a lived experience" of Jesus that makes Paul a rebel. Rather it is his thinking outside the primitive circle of Jesus' followers. His call came after Jesus' resurrection, when Saul the Pharisee was trying to preserve Judaism from Christian influence.  His call, in that context, led him to interpret Jesus and the Gospel beyond the confines of Judaism. His "conversion" was a movement from Pharisee-Judaism to Christian-Judaism which included a new openness to the whole world.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul writes of his initial reception of the Gospel. The Greek expression he uses in Galatians 1:12 can be understood in the sense that he received the Gospel not from a human being but from Jesus himself. It was, he said, not a lesson he memorized but rather a revelation apart from the other apostles. He was thinking (please excuse the cliche) "outside the box."

As a consequence Paul looked at Jesus from a different point of view and saw a Gospel that was global, a universality the other apostles were slow to recognize.

Even though he was a Pharisee, steeped in the Law, when Saul became Paul, he took on an ecumenical vision. Jesus may have been a Jew, he may have exercised his ministry in Jewish circles, he may have fulfilled the Jewish expectation of a messiah, but when Paul experienced Jesus he saw him embracing the whole world.

He did not give up on his Jewish roots, but he was unwilling to confine Jesus' ministry and message to one sect, one nation, one time in history. He was willing to let Peter be the apostle to the Jews, but for himself he accepted the challenge of being an apostle to the rest of the world.

Paul rebelled against the Jewish Christians' insistence that Gentiles had to become Jewish in order to share fully in the salvation Christ offered to the world. That clash between Paul and the Christian leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and the resulting decision to welcome non-Jews without circumcision confirmed the ecumenical dimension of the Gospel.

One of the early and persistent heresies confronting the early Church was the attitude (philosophy) that only a few Christians could really appreciate the Gospel and that those who have this unusual knowledge had a monopoly on salvation.

This attitude has been described as "gnostic" because it focuses on "knowledge."

Part of this gnosticism is an implied elitism, and this elitism leads to what twentieth century philosopher of history Eric Voegelin saw as a cause for a "totalitarian impulse."

In simpler terms, those who think they have all the answers tend to treat others as intellectual inferiors, demeaning their insights and discounting their lived experience.

This gnostic elitism leads to separation from others and domination over them.

Paul refused to allow Jewish Christians to think of themselves as superior to Gentile converts, and he challenged the Judaizers who tried to force Jewish ways upon them. He rebelled against any effort to chain the word of God or ration the salvation offered by Jesus Christ.

I may be wrong and perhaps should not speak of Paul as a "rebel Christian," but I cannot help but think that if he were here today he would be loud in his criticism of the way we are currently making Church.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Status Quo 40+ Years Later

I just read something Swiss theologian and priest Hans Kung wrote more than forty years ago. It struck me that it could have been written yesterday.

In what he titled "A Candid Foreword" to his book Unfehlbar? (published in 1970, just five years after the closing of the Second Vatican Council), Kung was critical of the Church's failure to implement the changes inspired by the Council.

He observed, "Not withstanding the inevitability of change, the Pope, the Curia and many bishops continue to behave in a largely pre-conciliar fashion; little seems to have been learnt from the Council."

Describing Pope Paul VI as "a man of integrity, who suffers under his load of responsibility," Kung nonetheless faulted him for  rejecting the proposal of many Council fathers to freely elect the presidents of its commissions, for forbidding Council to discuss the birth-control issue or the question of priestly celibacy, and for the nota explicativa which  without Council approval presumed to interpret the principle of episcopal collegiality.

When Kung, in 1964, published his concern about these decisions, he was called to account for his assessment by Cardinal Ottaviani, prefect of the  Vatican's Holy Office. Kung noted that this interview "took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

Following the Council's closing in December of 1965, Kung believed that the "Council put forward a magnificent programme for a renewed Church of the future." He praised the various reforms in the Curia, the reformed Mass liturgy and the use of the vernacular in liturgy, and the reform of the seminaries.

"Nothing of all this was perfect," he admitted, "but it was all basically good and hopeful."

And then in a short time there occurred what Kung called a relapse into pre-conciliar absolutism, juridicism, and centralism. He saw this return to past thinking as consistent with a saying often heard at the time of the Council: "Councils come to an end, popes pass away, but the Roman Curia goes on."

When the Curia was enlarged rather than cut back, Kung noted that in the face of Roman rigidity "many bishops and bishops' conferences behaved irresolutely, hesitantly, and passively. Instead of boldly and immediately setting about putting the Council's decisions into practice in the various countries, a policy of wait-and-see was adopted."

Kung acknowledged that several positive steps had been taken: the Index was abolished,  synods of bishops had been held, the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople was rescinded, but theologians were still subject to inquisitional proceedings, the bishops' recommendations had little impact, and Rome maintained its privileges and prerogatives over the Eastern churches.

The Petrine ministry, Kung wrote, "makes sense, and every Catholic accepts it. But the Pope exists for the Church, and not the Church for the Pope. His primacy is not the primacy of sovereignty, but the primacy of service."

Kung said that the post-conciliar Church was experiencing a fresh crisis "provoked by Roman intransigence" and asked whether it is "not better to speak out plainly and openly and in good time, before more priests give up the ministry, more candidates for orders go away, and more people noisily or quietly turn their backs on the Church."

"Reform and renewal," Kung proposed,  "is our watchword. But let this also be said. Just as we have no time for reaction in the Church, so do we have none for revolution, that is, the violent overthrow of the Church's government and values."

The changes which Kung advocated are to be achieved, he said, by changes of personnel and structures. "We must not give up the struggle for renewal and reform, but neither must we give up dialogue and hope for mutual understanding."

Kung made a plea for acceptance of free expression of opinion as a basic human right "that cannot be denied even to a Catholic theologian in the ecclesial community when he is striving after the truth of the Church's proclamation."

Kung's observations could have been written yesterday, but they are found in the foreword to his Infallible? An Enquiry (Collins, St. James Place, London, 1971).