Lots of folks will meet the pope during his U.S. visit. I won't be one of them. I write and speak and care too much about women's ordination.
Yes, Pope Francis is open to talking about to all manner of internal church issues, especially those more administrative than doctrinal, shaking off the chains of bureaucracy. He has streamlined annulment procedures and given more authority to local bishops. He has delegated authority to absolve abortion to all priests. He is even willing to talk with bishops' conferences about a wider married priesthood.
But, no matter what he says about a "more incisive presence" for women in the church, he won't budge on ordaining women as priests.InteractiveYour messages to the popeMore CoverageCommentary, analysis about Pope Francis
Fact is he probably cannot. There is a long ingrained belief in the Catholic churches that because Jesus is presumed to have chosen only men as apostles, and that they alone were present when Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, the church today does not have the authority to ordain women as priests. Thousands of pages -- more likely hundreds of thousands -- of academic writing trace this battle even today. Each revolves around a single sentence in canon law: "Only a baptized male validly receives sacred ordination." Catholic teaching is that the legal door to women priests is locked for doctrinal reasons.
But priesthood is not my issue. I study women deacons. The fact is there is a well-documented history of women ordained as deacons in Christianity, long before its divisions, and continuing up to today. Virtually every one of the churches of Catholicism -- the Roman Catholic Church and the 22 or so Eastern Catholic Churches -- has a verifiable history of women sacramentally ordained as deacons.
What's a deacon?
As the early church grew, it needed individuals to attend to the charitable needs of its members. Scripture documents that the apostles laid hands on seven men put forth by church members, and those who took up their ministries were eventually called deacons. Both scripture and the church's earliest legal documents speak about women deacons who were specifically charged with ministries to women: catechesis, baptism, spiritual direction, and anointing in illness and at death.
Some Orthodox Christian churches remember the tradition to this day, but the Catholic Churches do not seem to want to recall their own histories.
Some of the supporters contend about women as priests contends that women have the right to be treated as equals in the church and to have access to clerical power. The argument supporting the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate sounds similar, but not quite.
Restoring the tradition of women deacons is not really about rights -- except the rights of all women to be ministered to. It's also not about power -- except that women sacramentally ordained as deacons would, as clerics, be able to obtain certain church offices restricted to clerics.
Today, women sacramentally ordained as deacons would bring one problem even as they solved another. How do you explain that sacramentally ordained women deacons could not then become sacramentally ordained women priests? Well, the church either believes what it teaches or it does not. If a woman cannot be ordained priest for doctrinal reasons, then there should be no objection to ordaining women deacons and then doing what Francis seems to want to do: put women into other positions of authority in the church. As ordained clerics, women deacons would be qualified to hold offices now restricted to men.
Will that happen?
Some bishops and cardinals are not afraid to talk about women deacons. Others have all manner of reasons not to. For sure, the need for and the solution to the problem of women in ministry are each hopelessly entangled in the web of bureaucratic power extending from the Curia, the administrative nerve center of the Vatican, to the desk of every bishop in the world.
Women deacons -- even if restricted to their ancient roles of ministering to other women -- would bring the church's ministry more directly to individuals who would rather be taught, brought into the church, counseled, and anointed by women. Women deacons would, among other things, also be able to solemnly baptize, to witness marriages, to preach the homily at Mass. Women deacons could more completely fulfill the duties of diocesan chancellor or vicar. Women deacons could even become cardinals.
But none of this is likely until the papal palace guard lets the pope meet with women and men who want to talk about ordaining women as deacons. I tend to wonder whether he ever got my requests.
Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University. She is the author of "Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church."