The concern that many religious women have about ordination of women to the diaconate is the question of where they would fit in the hierarchical order of the Catholic Church. While many would like to think all are equal, the Church is not a democratic society. There is a hierarchical assumption that opens doors for some that are closed for others, that gives privilege and deference to some that is not given to others. This is a reality that can’t be denied and must be considered within the question of ordaining women to the diaconate. In fact, the opposition of some to women’s ordination is an underlying belief that women should not be given a higher rank in the Church. Pope Francis implied when he raised the concern that ordaining women to the diaconate would be problematic for him because he is trying to weed out clericalism. He does not want women added to the ranks of people who seek a clerical status out of a desire for power or control.
When women were ordained to the diaconate in the Early Church, their rank had to be clarified. They were not subordinate to a priest, but to the bishop who ordained them. They had a supervisory role over consecrated virgins and widows who were instructed to obey the instructions of women deacons. If women were ordained to the diaconate today, and this same hierarchical structure were assumed, that would place consecrated religious in a status subordinate to women deacons. This would impact congregations of religious women and cause havoc in congregations that have a mix of ordained and non-ordained members. Would the ordained sister be under the authority of her major superior or the bishop? If the entire congregation were ordained would they all be under the bishop? These obstacles are being discussed by religious communities and their leadership now.
However, this hierarchical question has not caused a problem for male deacons. Their place in the hierarchy is under the local bishop who ordained them, and they are assigned to the cathedral or to local parishes to support the priest. This organization has not had a negative impact on the chain of authority in congregations of religious brothers, such as the Christian Brothers. Questions of rank and authority need to be spelled out clearly before women are ordained to the diaconate. It is not a likely outcome that consecrated religious would be subordinate to women deacons, or that women deacons would be supervising religious women. It is not likely that many women religious would want to be ordained to the diaconate if it placed them under the authority of a bishop rather than the major superior of their own congregation. After studying the topic of women’s ordination for several years, I have come to a better understanding of the issue. My conclusion is that the Church is not ready to ordain women to the priesthood, but the time is right to ordain women to the diaconate.