Benedict dropped a bombshell, saying it is right to ask if 'more space' can be given women in ministry

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Benedict dropped an ecclesiastical bombshell, proving his merit as a historian and a pastor. He said that sacramental ordination to priesthood was not the only avenue to ministerial service, but "nevertheless, it is right to ask oneself if more space, more positions of responsibility, can be given to women, even in the ministerial services."

He did not elaborate.

Why is this such a bombshell? The priest asked about governance and ministry, each of which is restricted to the clergy. The pope answered that each might be possible for women.

How? Well, the word was not mentioned, but the ancient order of the diaconate is an ordained ministry of the Catholic Church, demonstrably open to women. Two ecumenical councils agreed to by all Christendom - Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) - speak to the ordination of women to the diaconate. Copious evidence demonstrates the continuance of that tradition well into the 11th century.

Some churches of the East never wholly abandoned the practice, ordaining monastic women deacons who assisted in liturgy and ministered to ill sisters. Today some churches with which Rome has mutual recognition agreements relative to sacraments and apostolic succession are already well engaged with the question. The Orthodox Church of Greece voted more than a year ago to restore the monastic female diaconate. Synod members asked about a ministerial female diaconate as well, one that would provide for the needs of people outside the monastery. The Armenian Apostolic Church already ordains women deacons who minister in an orphanage.

How probable the restoration of the female diaconate is for the Catholic Church in the near future depends on how quickly Benedict wants to return the church to what he sees as its true mission - the mission of charity. In his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), Benedict called charity the church's primary responsibility. He wrote that this responsibility was decisively determined by the Apostles' early choice of seven to serve as deacons in response to the needs of widows and the poor. Although she is not named as one of the first seven, St. Paul calls Phoebe a "deacon of the church," and history records many others.

Whether called deacons, or even ordained as such, women performed the principal works of Christian charity. Serving the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned and abandoned has largely been the work of women, individually, as members of religious orders and as deacons.

Today Benedict is faced with a largely moribund church, unable to minister effectively to its billion or so members and others. The works of charity critical to his vision of the church need women.

But in developed countries women's religious orders are less and less involved in works of charity, due to the combined forces of attrition and the inability to attract new members. Modern women are well aware of the obvious inequality in the roles of women and men in the church, and choose their paths in life elsewhere, often providing service through other agencies that show greater respect for their equality.

Combined with worldwide scandal - from sexual and financial improprieties in the developed world to predatory behavior on the part of priests and seminarians in less developed countries - the church's refusal to restore women to the dignity of ordained office cancels women's desires to serve in the church.

But Benedict may have opened a door to history and allowed a light to shine on the impasse. If he is to include women in governance and ministry, he may simply return to a tradition abandoned but not forgotten. The technical distinction between "clergy" and "lay" makes women ineligible for numerous positions in church governance and ministry. The ordinary means by which a person enters the clerical state is by ordination to the diaconate.

Benedict has the power and the authority to give women "positions of responsibility ... even in the ministerial services" through restoration of the female diaconate. Whether he has the decisiveness to do so remains to be seen.

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