On Monday, Pope Francis issued a change to the Code of Canon Law, allowing women to be instituted as acolytes and lectors - what were once referred to as “minor orders,” degrees of the clerical state, and reserved to men.
Although the change essentially recognizes what is already common in practice in many western dioceses, the creation of a formal liturgy to invest women with liturgical roles will be seen by many as an advance for those campaigning for the Church to ordain women to the diaconate and, eventually, the priesthood.
But while the pope’s reform is being framed as a move toward some kind of diaconal role for women, it actually may be a strategic move to head off a looming German confrontation on the issue.
Internal pressure for the ordination of women has come in recent years largely from bishops in Germany, who together with the Central Committee of German Catholics, have begun a “synodal way” aimed at revising Church teaching on the sacramental ordination of women, among other issues. Prominent German Church leaders have called directly for the ordination of women - first as deacons and eventually to the priesthood - despite the Church’s definitive teaching on the latter.
Most recently, in December, Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German bishops’ conference, said that he found the Church’s teaching and discipline on the subject “less and less convincing.”
“There are well-developed arguments in theology in favor of opening up the sacramental ministry to women as well,” he said.
Bätzing’s comments are the latest in a series of public exchanges between Germany and Rome over the German bishops plans to “reform” basic Church teaching across a range of issues, including same-sex marriage, women’s ordination, and inter-Communion with Protestant communities.
The German bishops have thus far refrained from direct and outright rejection of Roman authority, and have not followed through on proposals to ordain married men and female deacons, or publicly bless same-sex unions.
At the Vatican, the Congregation for Bishops and Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have pushed back carefully on the German bishops, trying to give a firm “no” on their proposals, without provoking a full-blown break with Rome.
Within that dynamic, Francis has often appeared to look for ways of deferring direct conflict, and kicking sensitive issues down the road, while offering a slightly repackaged status quo to give the appearance of conciliation. The decision to amend canon law to reflect what is already standard praxis in many places - giving bishops the latitude to appoint formally female acolytes and lectors - may be the most recent example of that strategy.
For years, Francis has been under sustained pressure from so-called progressive voices in the Church to allow for the ordination of women to the diaconate. That pressure has come both from those in favor of restoring what many believe was a non-sacramental role in the early Church, and from those who see diaconate as a stepping stone to overturning the Church’s definitive teaching on the male-only priesthood.
In response, Francis has mostly punted the issue, calling for further study and offering no definitive commitment and few direct comments on the proposals.
In 2016, the pope asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to establish a commission to study the historical role of “deaconesses” in the early Church and make recommendations on the possibility or re-establishing the role. After two years of work, that commission failed to reach a consensus, and did not make any recommendations for future action.
In 2019, the pope appeared to pour cold water on the idea that a sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate had ever existed, saying that it was “more like what today would be the blessing of an abbess.” At the same time, the pope again left the subject open for further study.
Last year, the Synod on the Amazon, which was substantially funded by the Church in Germany and had several German participants, called for renewed “study” of the possibility of ordaining female deacons. In response, Francis formed a new commission to consider it.
If Monday’s change to canon law on female acolytes is just the latest example of Francis playing a delicate game, offering apparent openness to a change that never comes, we can likely expect him to reiterate his past confirmation that women’s ordination to the priesthood is impossible.
“St. Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands — this stands,” he said in 2016.
How long the pope can continue to forestall the Germans from an outright challenge to his authority, and to the Church’s unchangeable teaching on the subject of women’s sacramental ordination, remains to be seen.