The leader of San Diego’s Catholic Diocese announced he is in support of ordaining women as deacons, a controversial opinion that if realized would reverse thousands of years of religious doctrine.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy’s comments come after the Pan-Amazon Synod, an international meeting of bishops. McElroy was among only three American bishops in attendance.
The synod presented a report to Pope Francis with recommendations on how to solve the priest shortage in the Amazon. In addition to recommending Francis allow married men to serve as priests, delegates discussed ordaining women as deacons.
That discussion prompted Pope Francis to reopen and expand a study commission on the role of women in the church. His reconsideration alone signals a massive paradigm shift for the same religious institution that, under the last Pope, wasn’t even allowed to discuss ordaining women as deacons.
Shortly after the synod concluded, the National Catholic Reporter interviewed McElroy. In that interview, McElroy said he is personally in favor of ordaining women deacons. He also said he hopes Pope Francis’ new study commission will find the practice is not prohibited by church doctrine.
McElroy’s comments mark the first public support for women deacons made by a Catholic Church leader in the U.S. in years.
"He's taking a lot of criticism for speaking out at all,” said Jane Via, an ordained bishop with the Roman Catholic Women Priests Movement. Her organization is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church. “I admire him and I appreciate that."
Although she considers herself a practicing Roman Catholic, Via has been excommunicated from the church for breaking canon law – as is any woman who seeks ordination, or any man who ordains a woman.
“Women are second-class citizens in the Catholic church,” Via said. “We have no say, no meaningful say about anything important that happens in the church.”
What the church accepts as its theology of women becomes the social rationale in heavily Catholic countries for the oppression of women, according to Via.
“This goes so far beyond the church,” she said. “It goes to, in my opinion, the lives of all women everywhere, and their right for self-determination.”
But not everyone is welcoming Bishop McElroy’s comment with open arms.
“Do we want to change ‘Our Father’ to ‘Our Mother?’” asks Thomas McKenna, president and founder of Catholic Action for Faith and Families. “It’s kind of the same thing. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a matter of our Lord Jesus Christ instituted his church – our Lord is the model.”
A Lord, McKenna is quick to stress, who was a man – not a woman. For him, it boils down to the role an ordained minister takes on when performing a Holy Sacrament.
“He’s acting in the person of Christ – in persona Christi in Latin,” McKenna said. “And that means he’s acting as Christ himself. Well, Christ was a man.”
“It was not Jesus’ maleness that mattered,” refutes Via. “It was his humanity that mattered. And we are all human beings regardless of our genders.”
Bishop Robert McElroy has since returned to San Diego and has agreed to an on-camera interview with NBC 7 this week which is expected to air in the coming days.