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Church ordered to compensate woman denied deacon formation

A court ordered two Belgian Church leaders to pay compensation Tuesday after a woman was not permitted to enroll in a diaconal formation program. 

The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels, Belgium. VitVit via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The court ordered the retired Cardinal Jozef De Kesel and Archbishop Luc Terlinden, his successor as Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, to pay 1,500 euros (around $1,600) each to Veer Dusauchoit.

Dusauchoit, a 62-year-old living in Herent, in the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant, has served for years in her local parish, which no longer has a priest due to a decline in diocesan clergy.

She is part of a lay team that organizes Celebrations of the Word and Communion, funerals, and other parish activities — a common situation in the Catholic Church in Belgium. 

In June 2023 — when the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese was led by Cardinal De Kesel — Dusauchoit applied for the archdiocesan four-year diaconal formation program, but her application was rejected.

The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament of holy orders is reserved to men. The three degrees of holy orders are deacons, priests, and bishops.

Dusauchoit applied unsuccessfully again in October 2023, after Terlinden was installed as archbishop. 

In an April column for the news website, Dusauchoit described herself as “a religious, socially committed, feminist, and ecologically inspired woman.”

“Women in the Church are still not fully appreciated and do not get the chance to take their rightful place,” she wrote.

“From this frustration, from the conviction that training as a deacon could help the Church grow, and at the same time from the determination not to break with the Church, I decided to enroll in the deacon training program.”

But, she said, while “both Archbishop De Kesel and Terlinden publicly claim to be in favor of the admission of women to deacon training and the deacon ministry …in their answer to my question we find nothing of this willing attitude.” 

Dusauchoit said that in the 1970s, deacon-candidates’ wives were required to attend deacon training together with their husbands, even when they were not actually seeking diaconal ordination. 

“That they could not be ordained as deacons was in any case no obstacle to following this training,” she said.

She added: “The decision by Archbishops De Kesel and Terlinden to deny me the right to receive deacon training solely because I am a woman, in my opinion, violates the principle of gender equality, is unlawful, and also legally flawed.”

Dusauchoit took her case to a civil court, arguing that the archbishops were guilty of discrimination as equality between men and women is enshrined in Article 10 of the Belgian constitution

According to Belgian newspaper reports, the archbishops did not challenge the contention that Dusauchoit was refused a place on the course because she was a woman.

A spokesman for the court in Mechelen, a city in the Flemish region of Belgium, said

“The court finds that the archbishops made a mistake when assessing the application.” 

“It only concerns admission to a training course, not the question of effective appointment as a deacon.”

The spokesman added that the court had no power to decide whether an individual candidate should be admitted to a diaconate formation program.

“The court has no jurisdiction over this,” he said. “This would be contrary to religious freedom. The archbishops must be able to decide for themselves who is a suitable candidate for training.”

Commenting on the ruling, Dusauchoit’s lawyers said: “For the first time in history, Belgian bishops are condemned by a court for gender discrimination. The court awards damages to Mrs. Dusauchoit for this.”

"The court does believe that it cannot force the bishops to admit Mrs. Dusauchoit to training, as this affects Church autonomy.” 

Referring to this October’s session of the synod on synodality, the lawyers added: “Mrs. Dusauchoit is pleased that the court has found that discrimination has occurred. She hopes this ruling can help ensure that women will be allowed to attend the deacon training in the future. This issue is on the agenda of the Synod of Bishops this fall.”

A spokesman for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese told the German Catholic website “We received the verdict yesterday afternoon, are now studying it, and will then decide how to proceed.”

There have been deep tensions between Church and state in Belgium in recent years following the outbreak of the clerical abuse crisis. 

In 2010, the Vatican protested after Belgian police raided Church properties and interrupted a bishops’ meeting as they searched for evidence in abuse cases.

The Church in Belgium is currently fighting an order by data protection authorities to erase an entry in a baptismal register, following a “debaptism” request.

The Catholic Church in Belgium called for the diaconate to be opened to women in its feedback report ahead of October’s synod meeting. 

It said: “Vatican Council II re-established the permanent diaconate for men. Not all bishops’ conferences have made use of this possibility.” 

“By analogy, we ask, based on our consultations as a Belgian Church, that the permanent diaconate for women also be re-established.” 

“In our analysis, conferring major pastoral responsibilities on women and diaconal ordination should not be universally obligatory or forbidden.” 

Other countries also recorded strong support among local Catholics for women deacons in their feedback reports.

In Germany, which borders Belgium, an independent organization called the Network for the Female Diaconate has held three-year training courses for women since 1999, which are meant to approximate diaconal formation.

Bishop Ludger Schepers, an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Essen, celebrated the closing Mass of a course in April.

According to a press release, Schepers said in his homily that women rightly felt discriminated against and marginalized in the Church because of their vocation. 

“It makes him angry that this imbalance is not seen as a grievance that needs to be remedied,” the press release said.

“Even though he is not yet able to ordain the women, he and the course leaders blessed each woman as they received their certificates.”

German bishops’ conference president Bishop Georg Bätzing sent a message congratulating the 13 women for completing the course.

“You are a blessing for our Church,” he wrote.

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Belgium, a country with which he has long-standing ties, on Sept. 26-29. 

The pope was asked in a CBS interview in May whether he was open to the possibility of women as deacons.

"If it is deacons with holy orders, no,” he said. “But women have always had, I would say, the function of deaconesses without being deacons, right?”

“Women are of great service as women, not as ministers, as ministers in this regard, within the holy orders.”

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