The debate on whether women should be allowed to be permanent deacons in the Catholic Church has pitted traditionalists against reformers. Traditionalists resist the suggestion that the Bible sanctions the ordination of women as deacons, and reject evidence that women were deacons in the early Church as a model for the contemporary Church. Reformers hold that there’s scriptural evidence for female deacons and view the matter as a point of equality, as well as a practical solution for short-staffed parishes. A female permanent diaconate may be a hard pill for (small-c) conservatives to swallow, but what if Catholic women asked for something other than just being allowed to be deacons? What if women had a sorority of their own in the Church?
The Need for a Greater Role for Female Spiritual Leadership
The work of the Catholic Church continues to be taken care of, thanks to many hours of volunteer labor. After all, where would our parishes be without church ladies?
Women who don’t want to be nuns or consecrated singles should be able to enter a sorority that's equivalent to (and with some differences from) the male permanent diaconate. The Church should want to give status and a formal position to women who contribute so much unpaid labor to their parishes. This type of sorority would not just exist to do administrative work, but rather would expand parishes’ ministry to women in a way that allows them to offer their leadership gifts to the Church.
Women in this sorority should be allowed to be married, and even to marry after joining. As a Catholic journalist, young women often tell me that they have spiritual issues they feel uncomfortable discussing with a priest. It can be hard for women to accept advice on family planning, for example, from men who they know have no skin in the game. Instead, they look for this type of guidance outside the Church, which leaves them vulnerable to financial and spiritual exploitation by those offering Catholic social teaching to women through costly courses and retreats. Despite the price, there are no guarantees of the quality of the spiritual leadership that guides these resources.
What Could a Sorority in the Church Look Like?
A permanent, official sorority in the Church could fulfill the ministerial needs of younger women looking for spiritual mentorship from older married women, especially surrounding women’s issues and the family. The Church could train those seeking to enter this sorority to deliver high quality Catholic social teaching and revitalize parish programs. Women in this sorority obviously wouldn’t be able to administer the sacraments as a priest does, that’s not what I’m suggesting. They could, however, be on hand to assist the priest as he administers the sacraments, as permanent deacons do.
A female sorority equivalent to (but not quite the same as) the male permanent diaconate could be the answer to many of the Church’s woes. It would solve accusations of inequity, providing another role for women in the Church without changing the male diaconate to accommodate women. It would give status and a formal position to those women who already contribute their time to supporting their parishes. It would allow female-led ministries to flourish, providing mentorship to young women when they don’t feel like they can get it from male leaders in the Church.
A new sorority of church ladies could be the compromise that solves the questions of female deacons, once and for all.