Here is a legitimate question. If women were to be restored to the ordained ministry as permanent deacons, then would, should or could one be both a deacon and a member of a female religious order? That might sound rather theoretical, and perhaps only applicable to a small number of women, but it is a very real question that has been troubling me for much of my life. My sense of call to ordained ministry pre-dated the one to religious life by several years, and it has remained throughout a very blessed journey with the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. So there has always been a fear of having to choose between one or the other. However, Phyllis Zagano has researched and written about this very topic for those in my situation, now and into the future.
It was actually women religious leaders (the International Union of Superiors General) who, in 2016, asked Pope Francis to establish a commission to study women and the diaconate. At the time, I thought that was rather noble, as it would be for women who were not religious themselves. I certainly knew many Sisters who did not at all feel called to ordination, although some were heavily involved in church ministry. However, as Phyllis mentions in this book, the UISG asked: “Because women religious are performing so many diaconal tasks and duties, why can they not be ordained as deacons?” (page 4) So, globally, it is not such a rare question.
In 2021, Phyllis Zagano wrote a series of 5 essays for the Global Sisters Report that addresses some of the questions and issues that a concurrent diaconal/religious vocation might entail. These essays have now been added to, and are available as a small book (available here or here) that is a wonderful addition to Phyllis’s other scholarship. She begins by explaining about the reinstitution of the diaconate and the situations of a number of religious, who minister like deacons in diocesan structures, but without remuneration or “formal connection to the sacramental and ministerial life of the Church” (page 3). This has been my experience, and to my mind, it would be beneficial to bishops and dioceses to have the more formal commitment and arrangement of an ordained minister. Such a person would also be able to take on roles that require or prefer ordination outside of dioceses – such as various kinds of chaplaincies.
Phyllis’s introduction addresses some of the ‘would’ questions. Certainly not every person called to religious life is also called to ordained ministry, but some are and will be. In regard to the ‘should’ questions, Phyllis poses some very specific and real conundrums. Should the diaconate replace religious life? (page 9) Are deacons only necessary for ceremonial roles or should they be the “right hand” of the bishop? (page 10) Must members of a mixed order of lay/ordained choose a ‘major superior’ who is a deacon?* (page 14) Who should “mission” a religious deacon – the bishop or the religious ‘superior’? (page 16) Can religious deacons challenge clericalism or might they be co-opted by a compromised hierarchy? (page 23) Why be a deacon if you can already be a parish life coordinator? (page 29)
There is no time like the present to be studying these questions. While the book includes fuller answers to these inquiries and more, I will give away some spoilers. Phyllis maintains that the diaconate would not at all replace religious life, and that the diaconal ministry is much more than a ceremonial one. Furthermore, “Canon law requires that the major superior of a mixed clerical and lay institute or order of men must be a priest with the assumption that all or, at least, some of its clerical members are priests.” (page 14) So, as a deacon is not a priest, there is no fear about religious ‘superiors’ of a mixed institute needing to be ordained. Like members of male religious orders, women would continue to be missioned by the religious ‘superior’, however they would need faculties by a bishop to work in a particular location. These would allow ministries that are currently not open to parish life coordinators (such as ordinary faculties for solemn baptism, witnessing marriages, and preaching). Finally, while the challenge of clericalism is a long-existing shadow in our Church that is not easy to overcome, “women deacons are not priests, and women religious are particularly averse to careerism. Ordained or not, inside or outside the clerical caste, their ministries challenge the assumptions of the prosperity gospel and, coincidentally, the failures of clericalism.” (page 24)
I certainly hope that that last point is true! In my formation as a Sister of Mercy, my formators were particularly careful to challenge any assumptions about privileges or entitlements for Sisters. We were immersed in a culture that was trying to empower the laity and to become eminently replaceable. That takes work from everyone, especially those already Professed. So my dream is that women who are both religious and ordained would help create a Church culture of baptismal dignity for all. As Phyllis says, religious life is about the ministry: “diaconal ordination [of a deacon/religious] would enable her service to the very people who most need to hear the gospel: the young, the poor, the uneducated.” (page 31)
So Phyllis concludes that, yes, some women would and should be both deacons and religious. As for the ‘could’, this remains with the Pope and the Magisterium. It would require a simple change in canon law, such as the recent modification from “lay men” to “lay persons” in regard to lectors and acolytes. It would also depend on approval by bishops’ conferences, local bishops and religious orders to agree to be mixed. Yet it would further the movement of Vatican II, and complete the restoration of the permanent diaconate. Nothing is beyond the power of the Holy Spirit.
* In my religious order, and in many others, the leader of our institute is not called a ‘Major Superior’, which might assume a pyramid-like structure. Rather, we have an ‘Institute Leader’. However, in this blogpost, the canonical term ‘superior’ is used so as not to be confused with the broad term ‘leader’.