Regardless of how you feel about the role of women in the Catholic Church, the fact is that many Catholics would like to see women become priests. Although leaders in the Roman Catholic Church have made it clear that only men may serve in the priesthood, a suburban Chicago pastor is raising the question of whether women can become deacons.
Father Bill Tkachuk, pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Evanston, has been thinking about the topic for months after a longtime female parishioner expressed interest in becoming a deacon should the Vatican open up the option to women.
Experts say that's unlikely to happen any time soon. In the 16th century the Council of Trent recommended restoring deacons as a distinct permanent ministry, as it was in the early Western Church, but they weren't reestablished until the 1960s and another church reform council, Vatican II.
Like bishops and priests, deacons are ordained through the sacrament of Holy Orders, which is available only to men in the Catholic Church. Their ministry centers on the word, the sacraments, and service. Though they aren't allowed to consecrate the Eucharist or hear confessions, they can preside at baptisms and weddings. They often help priests with other liturgical and administrative duties.
There are transitional deacons who are on the road to the priesthood and permanent deacons who are not studying for the priesthood and, unlike most Catholic priests, may be married and have children. (In the Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, there are perhaps 500 active permanent deacons.)
Pope John Paul II closed off internal debate on allowing women priests. Among the arguments against ordaining women is that Jesus selected only male apostles. But there's no such ban on talking about the deaconate, which was clearly established by the early church. Supporters of the concept of women deacons note that the New Testament makes reference female deacons, though the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops indicates "there is no conclusive evidence that this office or the persons who fulfilled these roles were truly 'ordained' like the male deacons."
Tkachuk said he’d like to see women also serve in that role, and he is pushing for a “broader conversation” on the issue. St. Nicholas has hosted parish events centered on the topic, and Tkachuk has used the parish bulletin to further discussion.
Eventually he plans to reach out to the top Catholic cleric in the region, Cardinal Francis George, to see if he'll take up the issue. In recent months several Chicago-area priests have signaled their support for women in the priesthood—an idea George batted down in a recent column in the archdiocesan publication the Catholic New World.
"Whether women can be ordained priests has been discussed regularly since the 2nd century," George wrote. "Each time over the centuries, the church has said she is not free to change the gift that comes to us from Christ himself. The argument is with Jesus, not the church."