In mid-September, I accepted an award from an American Catholic group called FutureChurch. They wanted to recognize me for having brought up the issue of women’s roles in the Church during the Synod on the family last year, particularly their access to the permanent diaconate. I didn’t know much about this group and readily accepted readily, without imagining my decision could cause controversy.
Well, it did. The day I was to receive the award, a blogger wrote to tell me this group was heretical. He referred to a few interventions by members of the group who seemed to take issue with some teachings of the Church. At the heart of the accusation was the group’s public support for the ordination of women to the priesthood, a position that Pope John Paul II had rejected in quite powerful terms in his letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, published in 1994.
I did not have time to verify these accusations and decided to accept the award. As I told the blogger, I felt it was important to practise dialogue in our Church and to build bridges. As it turns out, I made the right decision. An exchange of emails with the executive director of FutureChurch in the following days helped me understand the source of the misunderstanding.
Here is what she wrote me.
FutureChurch works for Vatican II reforms within the Church. Our mission, vision and all our initiatives focus on the needs of parish based Catholics. In 1990, when Catholics from across the Cleveland diocese gathered under the leadership of Fr. Louis Trivison and Sr. Chris Schenk, FutureChurch educated about the priest shortage and, because we believe the Eucharist is central to Catholic life, advocated for new discussions of married priests and women as priests. But we ended our advocacy for women’s ordination to the priesthood when Pope John Paul II issued Ordinatio Sacerdotalis because we wanted to continue to work within the Church. That is a critical distinction that we continue to uphold and it shapes our work with Catholics and with those in the hierarchy. Thus, we do not advocate for the ordination of women as priests and have not done so for more than 20 years…
We have chosen to educate and advocate for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate, an effort that began in earnest during the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist where we delivered over 30,000 signatures to the CDF asking them to open the discussion again after the 2002 ITC [International Theological Commission] report.
We believe the female diaconate is important because we recognize that integrating women into our governance and ministerial structures will help us carry out the work of the Gospel more effectively. For instance, in terms of violence against women (…) we believe that when women are deacons, Catholics will hear much more preaching about ending violence of all sorts against women (…) When women are more fully integrated into the leadership and decision making structures of the Church, our teaching and policies will more effectively address these issues of violence against women and a whole host of other challenges we face.
I uphold the work of FutureChurch as a service to the wider Church. Our supporters are faithful Catholics – still active and involved in their parishes. Many have told us that being a part of FutureChurch has helped them to stay loyal to the Church because it gave them a voice to speak about their pain as Catholics. We ask questions and work for change because we love the Church.
Now, one can agree or disagree with FutureChurch as to the advisability or even possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. However, the International Theological Commission’s 2002 study clearly affirmed that this was an open question within the Catholic Church. So we cannot call a group heretical or in dissent for supporting this option.
And we cannot call a group heretical or in dissent for having held a position which, at the time, was not against Church doctrine. The fact that the group renounced that position once the Pope had spoken authoritatively indicates, to the contrary, that this group regards faithfulness to the Church as a sine qua non of its identity and work.
I hope this clarification his helpful to all concerned.