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Some thoughts occasioned by Bp. Wcela’s essay on female deacons

September 22, 2012

Writing in America magazine, Bp. Emil Wcela (ret. aux. Rockville Center) is encouraging wider public debate on the ordination of women to the diaconate. Those not familiar with the arguments favoring female ordination to the diaconate can find them outlined in Wcela’s essay. Counter arguments—and they are many—are available in, e.g., Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: an historical study (Ignatius, 1986).

Some canonical observations occasioned by Wcela’s essay.

1. Canon 1024 declares invalid any attempt to ordain women (presumably, first to diaconate). While Canon 1024 does not address the question of a woman’s ontological capacity for ordination, it leaves no doubt that any attempt to ordain a woman to any level of holy Orders is of zero sacramental force in the Church today.

2. John Paul II’s ap. lit. Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994) settles forever, negatively, and on ecclesiological grounds, the question of ordaining women to priesthood (and by logical necessity, to episcopate). Further agitation for the ordination of women to Catholic priesthood seems a violation of Canon 1371, 2º—Wcela does not do that. Ordinatio says nothing, however, at least in its dispositive paragraph 4, about ordaining women to diaconate nor, strictly speaking, does it address (at least not definitively) ontological questions about female ordination. In that regard, discussion may continue.

3. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2008 visitation of a latae sententiae excommunication, however, on those attempting to ordain women to the diaconate represents, I suggest, something more than a temporary disciplinary measure against prematurely implementing a sacramental development that might, in fact, never come. That such a severe sanction is levied at all suggests to me that some very significant—if not yet formally defined—values are being protected thereby.

Consider: sanctions for the invalid and/or illicit conferral of sacraments are relatively few in number, at least when compared to the total number of ways that such conferrals can be abused. Specifically in regard to ordination, only the illicit conferral of episcopal orders contrary to Canon 1382 is punished with excommunication; other violations of law in the context of ordination (say, conferral of orders without proper dimissorial letters, per c. 1383) carry lesser penalties. The same lighter touch marked the Pio-Benedictine Code (see, e.g., 1917 CIC 2364).

Therefore, it seems to me that the CDF excommunication for attempted female ordination (especially in light of the roll-back that excommunication has undergone over the last 150 years) should be taken as a sign that ecclesiastical authority regards female ordination, even to diaconate, with at best grave reservations; the enactment of such a sanction certainly does not suggest that female diaconal ordination is coming, and that all we need is time to work out the details.

Updates (25 Sep): Some good follow-ups to this post include: Matthew Cantorino at First Things and Fr. Zuhlsdorf at his WDTPRS. Also, a sharp colleague sends me this great link to an interview with the future prefect of CDF.

(30 Sep): Msgr John Alesandro, a respected canonist, sees female deacons as possible, and supports ordaining them so. Can anyone point me to the article to which Alesandro is responding which, in turn, apparently contains the following line: “‘there is no possibility that women will ever be ordained to the diaconate’ because canon law forbids it.” I can’t imagine a good canonist expressing him/herself in such an easily refutable manner, so I ‘d like to see the original assertion.

(2 Oct): I responded to Alesandro’s comments here.

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