Most US major superiors think women deacons ‘theoretically possible’

A major new study has found that more than three-quarters of the leaders of religious orders of priests, brothers and sisters in the US believe it is “theoretically possible” to ordain women as deacons in the Catholic Church.

Aug 10, 2018

By Joshua J. McElwee
A major new study has found that more than three-quarters of the leaders of religious orders of priests, brothers and sisters in the US believe it is “theoretically possible” to ordain women as deacons in the Catholic Church.

Nearly as many, according to the just-released report from the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, believe the Church “should authorise” the ordination of women to the diaconate.

The study was released by CARA on Aug 2, the second anniversary of Pope Francis creating a commission to study the women’s diaconate. It surveyed all 777 leaders of Catholic men and women religious orders in the US, and got responses over a four-month period from 385, or just below 50 per cent.

Among the findings:
-- 77 per cent believe it is “theoretically possible” to ordain women as deacons;
-- 72 per cent say the Church “should authorise” such ordinations;
-- 76 per cent say ordaining women as deacons would be “very much” or “somewhat” “beneficial to the Catholic Church’s mission”;
-- 45 per cent believe the Church will return to the practice of ordaining women as deacons.

The new CARA study, which focuses only on attitudes of leaders of religious orders, follows an earlier study by the group on the wider attitudes of US Catholic women. That study, released in January, found that 60 per cent of women thought the Church should implement a women’s diaconate.

For the new survey, CARA contacted the leaders of all religious orders in the US, using mailing lists provided by the three umbrella groups of such orders: the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM), the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

Each leader was asked to respond to a six-page questionnaire, which included 75 checkbox and five open-ended queries.

Sixty-nine per cent of those responding to the survey represented women’s orders, and 31 per cent represented men’s orders, nearly matching the overall demographic breakdown in the US.

Responses to the survey’s open-ended questions provoked a diverse range of comments.

Of 122 leaders of women’s orders responding to a question about the possible internal benefits for their order of ordaining women as deacons, CARA says one in six made comments indicating it would be “a sign of the ac-ceptance of women and their gifts in the Church”.

One respondent answered: “If the diaconate were opened to women, the primary benefit for our institute would be the official affirmation of the rightful place of women in the Church.”

But 26 per cent of those respondents also cited confusion about to whom a woman deacon who is member of a religious order would be accountable, as she would likely have obligations to both her order and the local bishop as a member of the clergy.

“As long as deacons are subject to Bishops, members of my congregation would not be able to be sent to missions by me as religious superior,” wrote one respondent. “Discernment for ministry would always have to take the Bishop’s wishes/needs into consideration.”

Of 145 leaders of women’s orders responding to a question about whether they would allow members of their order to become deacons, nearly 6 in 10 superiors said yes.

(This article first appeared on NCRonline.org, the Website of National Catholic Reporter, and is being used with permission)

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