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Do synod reports show a real consensus on women deacons?

The deadline passed this week for the world’s bishops’ conferences to submit feedback ahead of this October’s session of the synod on synodality.

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A handful of territories have posted their reports online, including Australia, Austria, Luxembourg, and Switzerland

There’s a striking convergence in those four reports: they all suggest there is significant support for the admission of women to the diaconate among Catholics in their countries.

Why are the reports addressing the topic of women deacons in the first place? What exactly are they saying? And how significant are they likely to be?

The Pillar takes a look.


Why do the feedback reports address women deacons?

After the synod on synodality’s first session in Rome in October 2023, the General Secretariat of the Synod — the Vatican body overseeing the global synodal process — asked local Churches to offer feedback.

It invited bishops’ conferences to carry out “a further consultation,” based on the first session’s “synthesis report,” and to send it a summary of responses, “of a maximum length of 8 pages,” by May 15. 

It said that the responses would help to shape the working document (Instrumentum laboris) for the synodality’s second session on Oct. 2-27.

In its summary of the women deacons debate, the synthesis report noted that “different positions” were expressed at the first session.

“For some, this step would be unacceptable because they consider it a discontinuity with Tradition,” the report said. “For others, however, opening access for women to the diaconate would restore the practice of the Early Church.” 

“Others still, discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the Tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church.” 

“Some express concern that the request speaks of a worrying anthropological confusion, which, if granted, would marry the Church to the spirit of the age.”

So the consultation summaries submitted by bishops’ conferences mention women deacons because the topic was highlighted in the synthesis report, though the consultation’s “guiding question” — “HOW can we be a synodal Church in mission?” — didn’t directly concern the issue.

What do the synod feedback reports say?

The feedback reports obviously address many other subjects besides women deacons. But the seeming consensus on the topic in the published reports is eye-catching.

Some covered the issue in a single sentence, while others devoted several paragraphs.

The report submitted by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference said: “The possibility of women being admitted to the diaconate was seen as a sign of hope by many groups, with widespread agreement across many geographical dioceses.” 

“Suggestions were made for dioceses to prepare ahead if this were approved by the Holy See and to consider formation and diaconate programs for women.” 

But the report also noted that Eastern Catholic Churches “voiced their inability to support women’s ordination to the diaconate but strongly advocated for women as lectors, catechists, and workers in Church courts and other Church structures.”

The Austrian bishops’ conference’s report said that “while women’s priesthood is discussed sporadically, there is a strong vote, supported by majorities in the dioceses (including diocesan leaders, Linz deacons), for the admission of women to the diaconate.” 

“Just as the early Christian community recognized in Acts 6 that a (new) ministry was needed for the Church’s mission, we recognize today that this ministry, sacramentally conferred through the laying on of hands, needs to be opened up to women so that the church can adequately fulfill its mission in the 21st century,” it commented.

The report argued that women deacons would be a development “in the line of Vatican Council II.”

“As this ministry is already performed by both women and men, it is ‘time to acknowledge this in terms of the theology of ministry and sacraments and to open up the permanent diaconate within the one ordo [order] to both women and men,’” it said.

“On the basis of a theologically sound fundamental decision, canon law could be adapted accordingly. As a result, the vocations experienced by women could be seen and examined, training could be offered, and women could be ordained to the sacramental diaconate in the local churches.”

The Austrian report added: “Such a step could also benefit the Church’s global commitment to combating poverty and discrimination against women, as it would be less suspected of being partly responsible for the disadvantage and discrimination of women through its own structures.”

The Swiss bishops’ conference report said that the country’s Catholics would welcome the opening of the diaconate to women “if it expresses an evolution towards equal recognition of the baptismal dignity of men and women in the Church.” 

“On the other hand, a special form of diaconate ‘for women’ would be seen, in the Swiss context, as an expression of the relegation of women, in the same way as the gradation of the diaconate in relation to the ordained ministry.”

The report added: “If the Church is to gain fundamental credibility in its mission within Switzerland, the full equivalence of baptismal dignity in favor of the Church’s evangelizing capacity must also be reflected in its ordained ministry.”

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Luxembourg — led by the synod on synodality’s general rapporteur Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich — said in its synod feedback report that women’s role in the Church should be re-evaluated, “among other things through the access of women to the diaconate.” 

How significant are the feedback reports?

It’s unclear what impact the bishops’ conferences’ feedback reports will have on the debate about women deacons. 

That’s because in March this year, Pope Francis announced that many of the hot-button topics raised at the first session would be assigned to Vatican-appointed study groups, “so that they may be properly examined.”

Vatican officials confirmed that the study groups would address the topic of women deacons.

Although the study groups will present “an initial account” of their work at this October’s second synod session, they won’t have to wrap up until June 2025. So the feedback reports sent this month by the world’s bishops’ conferences are just one small step in a process extending ever further into the future.

The four reports considered here are just a fraction of those submitted to the Vatican by the more than 100 bishops’ conferences worldwide. And even though the four documents report resounding support for women deacons, there are nuances. 

The Swiss and Austrian summaries clearly call for the sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate. But the Australian and Luxembourgish texts do not specify what they mean by a female diaconate. It’s therefore unclear whether they are also talking about sacramental ordination, or the creation of a new lay ministry, or the restitution of the early Church ministry of deaconesses in some form.

So we can’t be sure that Catholics in Australia, Austria, Luxembourg, and Switzerland are necessarily endorsing the same thing.

The synod on synodality’s synthesis report itself noted the confusion permeating the women deacons debate. 

It acknowledged that there were “uncertainties surrounding the theology of the diaconate,” which it said were due “to the fact that it has only been restored to a distinct and permanent hierarchical ministry in the Latin Church since the Second Vatican Council.” 

“Deeper study will shed light on the question of the access of women to the diaconate,” it suggested.

But the study groups created to “shed light” on the topic are unlikely to have reached any definitive conclusions by the time the synod on synodality’s second session begins.

There’s also a question about how representative the feedback reports are. While the Vatican asked bishops’ conferences to conduct “further consultation,” it did not specify how it should be conducted. It left local Churches free to decide for themselves “what is possible in the time available and the best approach to take.”

This means that bishops’ conferences likely used a range of methodologies, some more likely to elicit representative responses than others. 

The Australian report, for example, said that consultations were held from February to April this year, overseen by the country’s National Centre for Pastoral Research (NCPR).

The NCPR received responses “from 25 geographical dioceses and three Eastern Catholic Church eparchies.” But there are 28 dioceses in Australian and five Eastern Catholic eparchies, so some parts of the local Church did not engage with the process.

The report also noted a sense of “consultation fatigue,” which it said was leading “to less engagement in later phases.” 

“The short timeframe of the 2024 consultation and the scheduling across the Lenten and Easter periods also caused difficulties,” it said.

So while the Australian report concluded that there was “widespread agreement across many geographical dioceses” about the need for women deacons, it’s unclear precisely how wide the consensus is. 

What, in the end, do the synod feedback reports amount to? Probably not much more than impressionistic sketches of views within local Churches.

They might be used to build a case that there is a global wave of support for women deacons in the Catholic Church. But that would require more evidence than we have so far.

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