Pope Francis has announced a commission to study the female diaconate, following through on a suggestion he made to a group of women religious a few months ago. The announcement has been met with all manner of speculation and punditry, and not a little confusion. The confusion flows from the fact that the topic was taken up recently by the International Theological Commission, which produced a report in 2002 that refrained from making a definitive claim (which would not be its place) but which clearly stated that “The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church—as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised—were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.” Why, then, is the question being taken up again?
It seems Pope Francis wishes to continue the dialogue on this question, to ask whether the re-institution of the female diaconate might serve the Church well, and what a re-instituted female diaconate might look like in the Church today. Yet those who are most eager to see this issue taken up again are precisely those who have pressed for the dialogue to remain open on the question of ordaining women to the diaconate. And there it is, that word, oft-used and little-understood: “dialogue.” Those engaged in theological study or familiar with affairs within the Church often see this word employed in relation to matters that have been declared decided or closed; those who wish for a different outcome urge a continuation of “dialogue”—that is, they don’t want the matter to be closed. We see this quite often with the advocates for women’s ordination, to raise perhaps the most frequent current example. (No one seems to be advocating for continued dialogue on the monothelite controversy.) Thus, “dialogue” can have a negative connotation, evoking tiresome talk ad nauseam.
We should say clearly that this is a connotation, not a denotation, and that there are positive forms of dialogue operating in the world. The official theological dialogues between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities are a prime example of dialogue in its proper sense: two or more parties coming together to seek the truth about a subject, or come to a mutual understanding. Dialogue is the method of Socrates, the way in which two minds meet. We should not allow the term to be entirely overtaken by this use of it.
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But when a question has been asked on a matter of faith and morals, and a clear answer emerges from Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, the proper dialogue to have is “Explain this further, let’s go deeper,” not to call the conclusion into question. This is not dialogue. It is refusal. It is a tool misused to attempt to chip away at the patience of authorities and the steadfastness of the faithful: “this issue keeps coming up; perhaps we should give it further consideration.”
But dialogue is not itself the goal, for history shows us, in faith and in politics, that those of A Certain Mindset use dialogue as a diversion. It generally happens this way: they want some new action to be taken or position to be adopted, so they repeatedly call for dialogue, openness, “continuing the conversation.” Then they push for a power play—a Supreme Court decision or papal decree—which decides the question apart from and outside of the “dialogue” that had been granted. When objections are raised, those of A Certain Mindset declare the matter closed and decided, forever and in perpetuity: settled law, stare decisis, Roma locuta est, and so on. Suddenly, the relativist hardens into the dogmatist.
Those of A Certain Mindset do not truly want dialogue; they want a distraction while they work to achieve their ends. It’s not about seeking the truth, but grasping power and effecting their will. That’s why an article in the National Catholic Reporter recently called for Pope Francis to issue decrees solidifying his reforms (not sure which, exactly—how many has he truly made, rather than those people think he wants?) lest a future pope attempt to roll them back. They want the matter closed. (Nevermind that no pope could bind a future pope via legislation, since the pope by virtue of his office is the supreme legislator of the Church.) These same often decry alleged legalism and Pharisaism, but are happy to employ it when it suits their ends.
It is disingenuous, akin to the calls for tolerance that result in tolerance only for certain positions—a phenomenon we have seen all too often in recent years, and for which examples abound. This is not a call to Socratic dialogue, a search for wisdom on a deep (and unresolved) question. This is a lawyer continuing to say “Objection!” when the judge has already ruled on the point.
To the original example: it does not appear that Pope Francis wishes to introduce ordained female deacons into the Church. He stated that reports to that effect angered him, because they did not reflect his words or intentions, and he has stated categorically that female ordination is a closed matter. (A cursory glance at reportage on the commission will find the same phenomenon, encouraged by the usual suspects in the Catholic commentariat.) Yet the adherents to the cult of perpetual dialogue see no matter as closed—until they declare it so.
(Photo credit: Women’s Ordination Conference.)