At present it is common to see women act as readers at Mass, but the official ministry of Lector has been reserved to men, and in the UK only to men progressing to the diaconate and presbyterate. However, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, announced on Thursday at the launch of Pope Benedict’s Post-Synodal letter on the Word of God ‘Verbum Domini’ that the Holy Father is considering allowing women to be formally instituted into the ministry of Lectors.
The German website, Cathnet reports:
‘Till 1972 the lector and acolyte (Altarservers) were assignments reserved for “lower ordinands”. Since 1972 both assignments are no longer tied to one who is ordained. At the presentation on Thursday afternoon Cardinal Ouellet pointed out that the Pope seized upon this indirectly from “Proposal 17″ of the Bishops Synod on the Bible of 2008: “The Synod Fathers desired that the office of lector should be open also to women — that therefore ought to take place. And the Holy Father studied this matter intently.”‘
‘The German editors of Radio Vatican speculated that the willingness of the Pope to appoint women as Lectors, could result in the revival of the debate over the admission of women to the Permanent Diaconate.’
Protect the Pope comment: Cardinal Ouellet’s indication that the Holy Father may be considering the institution of women to the ministry of Lectors is encouraging news concerning the Catholic Church addressing the question of the institutional role of women in the Church.
The institution of Lectors in the formation of deacons involves a course of training and a specific rite of institution ordinarily presided at by a bishop. However, it does not bestow the faculty of preaching which is only received through ordination to Holy Orders. The rite of institution is very distinct from the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Though Vatican Radio may be right in speculating that this development, if it happens, could lead to the revival of the discussion of the ordination of women deacons in the opinion of Protect the Pope such speculation is premature and unhelpful.
The International Theological Commission document that deals with the issue of women deacons, ‘From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles’ (CTS Do 706) came to the conclusion that historical research shows that from the earliest days a distinction was made between Deaconesses and Deacons. Deaconesses were instituted into the ministry like Lectors and Acolytes, while Deacons were ordained into Holy Orders. (p.27).
‘The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons’ (p.110)
Having said this, the ITC concludes that the matter of the ordination of women to the diaconate cannot be decided by historical research alone, ‘it pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively in this question’ (p.110).
It is important to note that this is a statement by the International Theological Commission which has no magisterial authority. The only statement concerning the ordination of women to the diaconate that does have magisterial authority is the 2001 statement issued by the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments and for Clergy. Cardinal Ratzinger signed it as prefect for the CDF. It states:
Notification on women as ordained deacons
1. Our offices have received from several countries signs of courses that are being planned or underway, directly or indirectly aimed at the diaconal ordination of women. Thus are born hopes which are lacking a solid doctrinal foundation and which can generate pastoral disorientation
2. Since [the Church] does not foresee such ordination, it is not licit to enact initiatives which, in some way, aim to prepare women candidates for diaconal ordination.
3. The authentic promotion of women in the Church, in conformity with the constant ecclesial Magisterium, with special reference to [the teaching] of His Holiness John Paul II, opens other ample prospectives of service and collaboration.
4. The undersigned Congregations within the sphere of their proper authority thus turn to the individual ordinaries, asking them to explain [this] to their own faithful and to apply diligently the above-mentioned directives.
In the light of this, any discussion of the ordination of deaconesses in the Catholic Church as a consequence of Pope Benedict considering the institution of women to the ministry of Lector would seem to be misplaced, and could even be counter-productive by possibly resulting in a delay to this welcome development.