ROME – Opinions from women throughout the Catholic world have been divided in the wake of Pope Francis’s new law allowing them to hold a greater role at Mass, with some hailing it as an important step forward, and others saying it doesn’t change the status quo.
On Tuesday, Francis issued a change to canon law formalizing the ability for women and girls to be installed as lectors and acolytes.
Although women it has long been common practice in Western countries such as the United States for women to serve as readers and serve at the altar, the formal ministries – once considered “minor orders” for those preparing for the priesthood – have been reserved for men.
Called a motu proprio, meaning a piece of legislation issued on the pope’s own authority, the new law revises canon 230 of canon law, which previously stated that “lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.”
Now the revised text begins, “lay people who possess the age and qualifications,” making the sole condition for admittance to the ministries one’s baptism, rather than one’s gender.
In the text, Pope Francis said he the move was part of an effort to better recognize the “precious contribution” women make in the Catholic Church, stressing the role of all baptized in Church’s mission.
However, in the document he also makes a clear distinction between “ordained” ministries such as the priesthood and diaconate, and ministries open to qualified laypeople given their so-called “baptismal priesthood,” which is different than that of Holy Orders.
In a column published Jan. 13 in Italian daily La Nazione, veteran Catholic journalist Lucetta Scaraffia noted that the pope’s law was met with praise by many women in the Church, but questioned, “is it really progress to concede to women functions which they have carried out for decades, even during Masses in St. Peter’s, a recognition that no women’s organization ever asked for?”
Noting that the new law lumps the diaconate in with the priesthood, describing both as “ordained ministries,” which are only open to men, Scaraffia said the diaconate is the only ministry that the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) requested of Pope Francis during an audience in 2016.
After that audience, the pope established a commission to study the women’s diaconate, however, the group was divided and unable to reach a consensus.
In April 2020 Francis instituted a new commission to study the issue, however, Scaraffia noted in her column that this new commission has yet to meet, and it is unknown when their first meeting might be organized.
Regardless of concerns about the current coronavirus pandemic, Scaraffia said that for some, “there is strong fear that it will end like the previous, that is, with a stalemate, also thanks to this most recent document.”
She then alluded to a part of the text that says the ministries of lector and acolyte require “stability, public recognition, and a mandate on the part of the bishop,” saying the mandate of the bishop increases “the hierarchy’s control of the laity.”
“If, until now, any member of the faithful could happen to be approached before Mass by the priest who asks them to do one of the readings, thus making them feel like an active part of the community, from today the recognition of the bishops is needed,” she said, calling the move “a latest step toward the clericalization of the life of the faithful and an increase in the selection and control of women.”
Scaraffia said the decision during the Second Vatican Council to restore the permanent diaconate, allowing married men to be ordained deacons, was meant to distinguish the diaconate from the priesthood.
Admittance to the diaconate “is the only true alternative to the request for women’s priesthood,” she said, lamenting that, in her view, women’s involvement in the life of the Church “is so strong that every step forward – usually late and inconsistent – is limited to a few tasks and, above all, requires strict control by the hierarchy.”
The UISG itself issued a statement Jan. 12 thanking Pope Francis for making the change, and making no mention of the designation of the diaconate as an ordained ministry closed to women.
The decision to admit both women and men to the ministry of lector and acolyte is “a sign and a response to the dynamism that characterizes the nature of the Church, a dynamism that is proper to the Holy Spirit constantly challenging the Church in obedience to Revelation and reality,” they said.
From the moment of baptism “we, all baptized men and women, become sharers in the life and mission of Christ and capable of serving the community,” they said, adding that to be able to contribute to the Church’s mission through these ministries, “will help us to understand, as the Holy Father says in his letter, that in this mission ‘we are ordained to each other,’ ordained and non-ordained ministers, men and women, in a mutual relationship.”
“This strengthens the evangelical testimony of communion,” they said, noting that women in many places throughout the world, particularly consecrated women, already carry out significant pastoral duties “following the guidelines of the bishops” in order to respond to the needs of evangelization.
“Therefore, the Motu Proprio, with its universal character, is a confirmation of the Church’s path in acknowledging the service of so many women who have cared and continue to care for the service of the Word and the Altar,” they said.
Others, such as Mary McAleese, who served as president of Ireland from 1997-2011 and who has been a vocal critic of the Catholic Church’s stance on LGBT matters and the role played by women, took a harsher tone.
Calling the new law “the polar opposite of earth shattering,” McAleese in remarks after its publication said “It is minimal but welcome all the same for it is at last an acknowledgement” that it was wrong to ban women from being installed as lectors and acolytes from the beginning.
“These two roles were opened only to laymen simply and solely because of embedded misogyny at the heart of the Holy See which continues today,” she said, insisting that the previous ban on women was “untenable, unjust and ludicrous.”
McAleese pointed to Pope Francis’s repeated insistence that the doors to women’s priestly ordination are firmly closed, voicing her belief that “women should be ordained,” saying theological arguments against it are “pure codology.”
“I’m not even going to be bothered arguing it,” she said, adding, “Sooner or later it’ll fall apart, fall asunder under its own dead weight.”
However, other groups such as Catholic Women Speak (CWS) appeared to take the middle ground.
While voicing discontentment that the new law appears to ban women from the diaconate as well as the priesthood, CWS founder Tina Beattie also praised the open language of the document, saying there is potential for progress.
In a statement following the document’s publication, Beattie said she was welcoming of the document because while women have been serving in the lectorate and acolyte ministries since as far as the early 1990s, “their ability to do so has depended on the permission of their local priests and bishops.”
“In parishes and communities where the Catholic hierarchy is opposed to the greater participation of women, they have been denied access to these liturgical roles,” she said, saying the change to canon law ensures that “women are no longer subject to such clerical whims.”
Beattie said she is also in favor of law because in the text, Pope Francis refers to the change as “a doctrinal development which is responsive to the charisms of lay ministries and to the needs of the times with regard to evangelization.”
The language he uses is significant, Beattie, said, noting that while several women have been appointed to authoritative positions in the Vatican in recent years, “these pertain to the management of the institution and not to the doctrinal and liturgical life of faith.”
“To affirm that doctrine can develop with regard to women’s liturgical roles is to make a significant step forward, notwithstanding the continuing exclusion of women from Holy Orders,” she said.
Beattie also said the fact that the law was even issued demonstrates that “it is a small task to amend canon law when that is the only obstacle to women’s participation.”
Noting that women are currently barred from holding the the role of a cardinal because Canon Law reserves the position to bishops and priests, she said “there is no doctrinal requirement for cardinals to be ordained,” and that if the provision requiring cardinals to be bishops or priests were removed, “women could be made cardinals and would therefore play a crucial role in papal elections.”
“This latest development may fall short of affirming the full sacramental dignity of women made in the image of God, but it can be embraced with integrity and affirmed as a genuinely welcome doctrinal development,” she said.
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