Why women could come to the rescue of Spain’s Catholic Church

With a lack of priests in the local parishes, female deacons could provide the solution

Africa de la Cruz delivers mass in the church of Cilleruelos de San Mamés, Segovia.
Africa de la Cruz delivers mass in the church of Cilleruelos de San Mamés, Segovia.Bernardo Pérez

As enthusiastic as any prophet, África de la Cruz Tomé delivers Mass every Sunday as well as on religious holidays for a clutch of villages near Ayllón, Segovia.

A former professor of psychology at the Autonomous University of Madrid, she is now over 70 and both optimistic and skeptical about the commotion caused by Pope Francis’s decision to create a commission to study the role of women in the Catholic Church. This study group is supposed to discuss the possibility of ordaining female deacons.

Young people have left the Church without so much as slamming a door and we haven’t taken note

Manuel Sánchez Monge, Bishop of Santander

In the 19th century, the Catholic Church was deserted by the working classes; in the 20th century it lost its intellectuals and young people. In the 21st century, it is in danger of alienating women, who have been among its most active members.

“Young people left the Church without so much as slamming a door, and we haven’t taken note,” says the Bishop of Santander, Manuel Sánchez Monge, who sees that the Church’s women could soon follow suit.

The deacon is normally a man, either single or married, who is authorized by the Church to preside over certain ceremonies. He is a kind of third-class priest. He can christen and marry, but he cannot take confession or give last rites and he cannot, under any circumstances, give the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The ceremony celebrated by De la Cruz, officially known as the Liturgy of the Word because it is not a Mass proper, is similar to the Mass of an ordained priest, except that the bread has not been blessed by her. The rest of the liturgy is, however, the same – readings from the Scriptures, a homily, and the corresponding prayers.

The 41 churchgoers at Cilleruelo de San Mamés are grateful to De la Cruz for stepping up to the plate. Without her, they would not have been able to take Mass on the religious holiday of the Vírgen Grande.

During the Franco regime, it was considered a deadly sin not to go to Mass on Sundays, but nowadays the Church simply doesn’t have enough priests to go around.

In Spain, there are 23,071 parishes and at least 5,000 of them don’t have a resident priest. The solution is obvious to many of the women who make up the bulk of today’s congregations: they want female deacons.

Women are suffocating in the Church. We need innovation and recognition

África de la Cruz

This demand was put to Pope Francis last May by 900 members of the International Union of Female Superiors General at the Vatican. Why, they wanted to know, are female deacons not considered acceptable, when this is a role that women already played in ancient times?

Pope Francis took their question on board, admitting that female deacons were a possibility and promising to set up a commission to look into it. Some months later, a commission is in the throes of studying the matter with the Spanish Jesuit Archbishop Luis Ladaria, Secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, at the helm.

Napoleon is credited with saying that “when I don’t want to do something, I create a commission.” This possibility has not escaped De la Cruz. But though she has doubts about the outcome, she considers the Pope’s openness to be revolutionary in itself.

“The commission is welcome. Women are suffocating in the church. We need innovation and recognition,” she says, clearly pleased with what the women’s petition has achieved so far. “We’ve set an example. We have to make ourselves heard in the Church because there are a lot of deaf and blind people around. It’s also a good thing that there are an equal number of men and women in the commission. Thank goodness!”

Catching up

“Talking about female deacons is like putting fences on a field,” she adds. “What the commission needs to study is women’s overall role in the Church today, and also tomorrow. It makes me sad that the Church doesn’t realize what it is missing out on by negating women. It’s a waste. The Church is discounting a valuable asset. Women in the Church want to, and can, serve the Church according to God’s will.”

Professor Marifé Ramos, a member of the Women and Theology organization, maintains that reviving the tradition of female deacons is just the first “necessary but insufficient” step. “Our brother Francis has opened a door that was firmly locked,” she says. “On the other side of the door is a path that should lead to pastoral care and the appreciation as a ministry of what is now considered no more than chores. Let’s hope that the fresh air turns into a gale-force wind that rekindles the ministry and blows away the stale smell that has been spreading.”

Meanwhile, Margarita de Pintos, from the Association of Theologians Juan XXIII, says: “Rivers of ink have been written for and against ordaining women. We don’t need another study. What Christian communities need is someone to administer the sacrament and offer spiritual guidance, but it appears that gender is more important.”

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De Pintos points out that the commission is Euro-centric, with no representation from Africa, Asia or Latin America. She also draws attention to the fact that it excludes women who have dedicated years of their lives to carrying out a priestly ministry and might bring their experience to the table.

According to theologian José Manuel Vidal, the founder and director of the website Religión Digital, the way women have been relegated to the sidelines in the Church “is a sin and an example of downright ideological discrimination which has no place in the Gospel; it is one of those deadly sins that the Church usually repents of centuries later.”

Vidal believes that the Pope’s decision to set up a commission “is just the first step, a timid but necessary one to break the ice,” he says. “Francis has started a process of reform that may be slow, but which is also irreversible. His methods are aimed at making sure that his ‘spring’ will be more than just a flash in the pan, and that his peaceful revolution will be embraced by the Catholic grassroots.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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