The Next Liberal Pope and the Ordination of Women Deacons

I would like to cover two related topics in this post: (1) What will happen when, eventually, a liberal Pope is elected, and, (2) Does the Church have the authority to ordain women to the deaconate.

On the first point, the Church on earth is divided, unfortunately, to some extent, into liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics. There is a type of Red State / Blue State division, a polarization, within the Church. This division is largely due to sin.

Now some conservative Catholics imagine that all the sin of this division is on the left, but this is not so. Conservativism is not Catholicism. The most conservative theological position is not necessarily the correct position. The most conservative political candidate is not necessarily the candidate for whom God wants you to vote. There are a number of theological errors that have become alarmingly common among conservative Catholics, and this is partly due to their tendency to follow conservativism, rather than Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.

If we compare Jesus’ teachings to the theological positions of His day, sometimes He was very liberal, e.g. allowing that the woman caught in adultery should not be punished according to Mosaic Law. On other questions, He was very conservative. The Pharisees were the conservatives and the Sadducees were the liberals, during Christ’s day. On divorce, the Sadducees allowed a husband to divorce his wife for any reason, even if she burns the dinner (literally, that is what they said). The Pharisees allowed divorce only for a grave reason. But Jesus rejected divorce, especially divorce and remarriage. His position was more conservative than even the Pharisees (but for a higher reason).

There are, to be sure, many theological errors among liberal Catholics. But I tell you that many Catholics, liberal and conservative, have fallen into material heresy on many points of doctrine. The conservatives sometimes imagine that liberalism is the only theological error, the only heresy, and that all liberals have gone astray from the true Faith. But this is not true. There are faithful Catholics who are relatively liberal. There are conservative Catholics who have gone far astray. We must always put the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium above liberalism and above conservativism.

Conservative Catholics have been spoiled by many years of life under conservative Popes. They have begun to imagine that the Pope will always be conservative. They are loathe to admit, though they will do so with great reservation, that the non-infallible teachings of the Pope can contain some error, and therefore are subject to reform. Whenever there is a controversy in theology, they want it to be settled as soon as possible by the Pope. (The Popes have not taken this view, that each Pope should settle all theological disputes a.s.a.p.) They want all the Bishops to be strictly obedient to the Pope, and to merely teach whatever he teaches, as if Christ appointed 1 Apostle, not 12. (Apparently, “12” is a copyist error.)

But God does not guarantee that a valid Pope will always be conservative. There have been liberal Popes in the past, the most recent, I would say, was Pope John XXIII. What happened the last time the Pope was a liberal? Some of the more conservative Catholics broke away from the Church, because they did not like his liberal teachings — even though those teachings were in accord with Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium and were expressed in an Ecumenical Council (Vatican II).

What will happen the next time that a liberal Pope is elected? He will teach certain insights into the Faith that are entirely in accord with Catholicism, but not entirely in accord with conservativism, and in all probability many conservative Catholics will wail and moan and complain. They will begin to use words and phrases that they are presently very reluctant to use, such as: ‘non-infallible Papal teaching’, ‘norms of licit theological dissent,’ ‘faithful dissent,’ and ‘faithful disobedience.’ They will admit the possibility of errors in non-irreformable teachings of the Pope.

But some might, instead, decide that a liberal Pope is necessarily an heretical Pope, and they will leave the Church, just as happened after Vatican II.

What might the Pope teach that would be liberal, but also faithful?

I suggest that the next liberal Pope, not too many years from today — within less than 10 years — will decide the question as to whether or not the Church can ordain women to the deaconate. And this brings us to the second point.

Recently, a number of Catholic bloggers have offered the opinion that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the deaconate.

Some examples:

Shameless Popery here and again here
Fr. Z’s Blog
Catholicism Pure & Simple

My arguments to the contrary:

On the question of Women deacons
Can women ever be ordained as deacons or priests?

It is the infallible teaching of the Magisterium that Christ did not give His Church the authority to ordain women to the priesthood.

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, n. 4.)

I believe that the above quoted teaching meets all of the conditions for Papal Infallibility. However, since the time of that declaration, and perhaps even before it, the ordinary and universal Magisterium has taught the same. So, in any case, the teaching is infallible under the Universal Magisterium. However, in the declaration and in the document in question, the Pope clearly chose to limit his declaration against women’s ordination to the priesthood (and therefore also the episcopate). The teaching is that women cannot be ordained as priests or bishops. Ordination to the deaconate was deliberately left as an open question by the Pope.

Certainly, a faithful Catholic can argue the theological opinion that the Church also lacks the authority to ordain women as deacons. But this position is merely an opinion, not a teaching of the infallible Magisterium, nor even (in my understanding) a teaching of the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium. So Fr. Z. erred when he asserted:

“The Roman Pontiff made it clear that Holy Church has no authority to ordain women. It simply cannot be done. Any attempt to ordain a woman to any of the three levels of Holy Orders would be invalid. This is the irreformable doctrine of the Church which all Catholic are bound to accept as definitive, even as infallible as the CDF made plain.”

At the present time, women cannot be validly ordained as deacons. For the Church has not authorized their ordination. The Church has the authority to add conditions for validity to the Sacraments, and also to dispense from those added conditions. (However, the Church cannot change certain requirements for validity that are essential to each Sacrament.) The Church currently requires that candidates for the deaconate be male. But the Magisterium has not decided whether that condition is essential to diaconal ordination, or not. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis left it as an open question.

Now to the intersection of the two points at hand: the next liberal Pope and the ordination of women. My opinion is that the next liberal Pope will decide that the Church has the authority to ordain women to the deaconate (and solely to the deaconate). And he will authorize the ordination of women deacons. He will teach and act in a manner that is both in accord with Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, but also in accord with a more liberal theological point of view. Liberalism is not synonymous with heresy, nor with unfaithfulness — as many conservative Catholics assume.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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8 Responses to The Next Liberal Pope and the Ordination of Women Deacons

  1. I disagree with you that (a) women’s ordination to the diaconate is possible, (b) we’re going to get a liberal pope within the next ten years, and (c) such pope will ordain women to the diaconate.

    That said, I’ve gotta say that I agree with the two major arguments that you raised in the first half of this post, on the dangers of (1) conflating orthodox Catholicism with political conservatism, and (2) diminishing the importance of the local Bishop and of Church Councils.

    God bless,


    • Ron Conte says:

      Your position on women’s ordination is reasonable, and supported by a sound theological argument. But there is an argument to be made to the contrary. In any case, I think that the Magisterium will have to decide the question relatively soon, since there are many persons pressing for women’s ordination. Magisterial teachings and clarifications often come in response to widespread errors. The grave error that women can be ordained as priests is a serious threat to the Faith.

  2. Jonathan says:

    @ Joe

    There are two Ecumenical Councils that mention women deacons. So it remains possible that the Church may choose to do so. Of course, ordination to the priesthood is out of the question.

    The Council of Nicea:

    “Similarly with regard to deaconesses and all in general whose names have been included in the roll, the same form shall be observed. We refer to deaconesses who have been granted this status, for they do not receive any imposition of hands, so that they are in all respects to be numbered among the laity.”

    The Council of Chalcedon:

    “No woman under forty years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after close scrutiny. If after receiving ordination and spending some time in the ministry she despises God’s grace and gets married, such a person is to be anathematised along with her spouse.”

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Council of Chalcedon refers to women deacons with the term ‘ordained’ (or I think more literally ‘laying on of hands’), but this does not necessarily mean that women deacons were ordained. There were (and still are) several other ecclesiastial orders in the Church other than Bishop, priest, deacon. And the term ordained or laying on of hands was used for those lesser orders (even though those individuals do not receive the Sacrament of Orders). So the Council’s assertion has not been interpreted by the Magisterium as an assertion that women can be ordained.

      For example, Chalcedon also says:

      “Canon 6. Neither presbyter, deacon, nor any of the ecclesiastical order shall be ordained at large, nor unless the person ordained is particularly appointed to a church in a city or village, or to a martyry, or to a monastery. And if any have been ordained without a charge, the holy Synod decrees, to the reproach of the ordainer, that such an ordination shall be inoperative, and that such shall nowhere be suffered to officiate.”

      The ecclesiastical orders are priests, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, lectors, and doorkeepers. Bishops of course are ordained, but as the successors to the Apostles, they are considered separately. Notice that the term ‘ordained’ is used for all the orders, even though only Bishops, priests, and deacons are ordained in the modern sense, with the Sacrament of Orders.

  3. Jonathan says:

    @ Ron
    Currently, the term ordination refers only to the Sacrament of Orders. So if the Church decides to ordain women, it would mean that they could receive that Sacrament to the deaconal degree.

  4. Ron,

    What about canon law on the subject, specifically Canon 1024? Are you persuaded by this at all?

    God bless.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Can. 1024 A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.

      The laws of the Church on what constitutes a valid Sacrament consist of two things: (1) conditions for a valid Sacrament that cannot be changed; (2) conditions for a valid Sacrament that have been added by the authority of the Church, and which can be changed by Her authority. Canon 1024, in my view, could be changed to allow women to be ordained to the deaconate only.

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