The only way to win is not to play

8 05 2019

The idea of reviving the office of female deacon or deaconess has been raised by the current Vatican. Though I have traditionalist leanings, I don’t have a strong opinion on this. To cite Slavoj Zizek, I would say that I would prefer not to, but I don’t think the traditional camp has much of a leg to stand on at this point. Deaconesses are documented to have been in existence in the early Church, and across various ritual churches, their duties and privileges varied widely. Apparently in the Armenian Orthodox Church, there were female deacons all the way up to the middle of the 20th century and beyond. Above is a recently ordained Armenian female deacon. What would the Vatican or conservative Catholics say about this deacon? What if the Armenian Catholics, who share the same rites but are communion with the Vatican, decide to ordain their own female deacons again? Could she serve in St. Peter’s Basilica during Mass, as clergy in other rites sometimes tend to do? I would say this is not a question of “if”, but “when”.

In the West in particular, and in modernity in general, we now have the problematic precedent of if something was done at some point, it remains legitimate and could be theoretically revived. Just look at things like Communion in the hand, the “restored” offertory processing, the “reformed” ceremonies of Holy Week, etc. All of these things were done away with by the “backwards” medieval Church only to be revived in modern times. But there are other things that are far less controversial that were restored in recent memory, such as Frequent Communion and more flexible hours for celebrating the Eucharist. The point is that we have a heightened sense of historical change, as well as a legalistic penchant for justifying whatever we want to do with solid historical evidence from the past. Our inclination almost inevitably bends toward innovation, and the pressing question is no longer “why” but rather “why not”. We’re too smart for our own good, it seems.

Some traditionalist Western Catholics have stated that women cannot be deacons because they cannot be ordained priests, and deacons are somehow an inevitable step towards the priesthood and share in its character. Again, the practice of the early Church does not seem to support this reasoning, and the idea of “grades” of priestly character is not a very ancient one. By way of explanation, in the traditional Latin rite, the bishop wore a dalmatic and a tunicle, vestments of a deacon and subdeacon respectively, under his chasuble to indicate the fullness of the priesthood during a Pontifical Mass. From this might also come the practice of a priest vesting as a deacon or subdeacon should the need arise (say in a Solemn or Pontifical Mass) instead of just vesting as a priest.

In non-Latin churches, offices such as lector, subdeacon or deacon are often permanent and only bestowed according to need. The office of deacon itself has varied functions across rites. For example, Latin deacons can witness marriages, baptize, bury people, and preach. In the Byzantine Orthodox rites, for example, the deacon cannot preach, nor can he witness marriages, nor can he baptize, nor does he seem to have many defined responsibilities outside of the liturgical setting. The idea of the deacon as a “half priest” would be an alien concept in many other sui generis churches. A deacon could just be a deacon, and nothing more. And priests never vest as anything but priests (though this might be due to concelebration being a common continuous practice in the East), nor do deacons vest as subdeacons, etc..

Of course, concerned conservative Catholics’ real relevant criticism would be one of optics. After the nearly definitive prohibition of the idea of a female priesthood in 1993, advocates for female clergy haven’t made much headway in the Roman Catholic Church. Regardless of any doctrinal caveats, the restoration of female deacons, no matter in what capacity, would give a second wind to advocacy of female clergy at all levels of the church. Could a deaconess be named a cardinal since, even up to the 19th century, there were cardinal deacons? In the age of “why not”, I don’t think this could be prevented for very long.

The problem from the believers’ side is also one of optics, but in this case it’s the inability to see the absurdity of their own position from the point of view of those on the outside looking in. No matter what the internal theological justification, in a world where a woman can be the chief executive of the most powerful country on Earth, the idea that she could never be the parish priest of Backwater, Middle of Nowhere, or bishop of Flyover Country Diocese, is always going to be absurd if you take off your fanatical believer glasses. Sure, you could just tune that out, but that’s not going to stop being true.

The Church can never really tune out the world, absolutely speaking. Conservatives want it to, but I think the resulting collective neurosis of doing so (the “creative minority” or Benedict option position) is still largely unknown and underestimated. Liberals want the world to swallow the Church thinking, “What’s the worse that could possibly happen?” Being pulled in separate directions, the Church seems indecisive, with no real chance for change on the horizon.

As for the historical justification for restoring female deacons, as I have been saying, once you open Pandora’s box of proof texting your practices from a supposedly more ancient tradition, you have lost the ability to stop the process altogether. Let’s face it, women have already taken over the Latin rite sanctuaries in the Catholic Church in all but name. What harm could putting a stole on some of these women really do? Maybe a lot, maybe a little. But if you keep drawing lines in the sand, and when people cross it, you draw another line in the sand, pretty soon you’re going to run out of beach to draw on. Is that day coming soon? Never underestimate people’s ability to make the heresies of yesterday the orthodoxy of today, especially when prestige, property, and money are involved. Perhaps I am being cynical, but people need to eat and they need personal validation. The fact that conservatives and traditionalists haven’t left yet just indicates to me they have no real line, and they’re more often than not just posturing. But we’ll see.

I’ll conclude by reiterating that the only reason some bring up the past is exclusively for concerns of the present. The dead are eerily silent, and many aim to speak for them. As the title of this reflection indicates, in the game of proof texting from the past, the only way to win is not to play.





One response

15 05 2019
Pius XIV

Feminism. Transgenderism. Modernism.

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