Pope Francis greets nuns as he arrives for a meeting with religious for the conclusion of the Year of Consecrated Life on Feb. 1 at the Vatican. (Photo by AFP)
Pope Francis’ move to set up a commission to study the possibility of women serving as deacons is a progressive step for a male-dominated church in South Asia much in need of transformation, say a cross section of theologians and women church workers in the region.
The pope's move "must be seen in today's situation where women in the church have been denied their rightful place for so long. Ultimately, the church needs to do something to regain the dignity and respect for the women in the church," says Jesuit Father Kuruvilla Pandikattu, a theologian from India.
The discussion comes amid the backdrop of Pope Francis accepting a proposal to establish a commission to study the role of New Testament deaconesses and the possibility of women serving as deacons.
He accepted the proposal at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, the leadership group for superiors of women's congregations on May 12 at the Vatican.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi explained that the pope "did not say he intends to introduce a diaconal ordination for women," and that he did not speak about the ordination of women priests.
This is a "good initiative" by the pope said Charity Sister Nicola Emmanuel, who works among war widows and war-affected children in mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka.
"Women have lots of talent to work for abandoned people but we are living in a patriarchal society so I don't think society will immediately welcome this," she said.
Women suffer because of patriarchy
Rosaline Costa, 68, a human rights activist and former Maria Bambina nun from Muslim majority Bangladesh, said women suffer in the church because of patriarchy, "which means men have to change their mindset. It has to happen if we believe in the Bible ... today or tomorrow."
In the fast-changing modern world, women are asserting their rights and positions but the church lags centuries behind on many fronts, especially on acknowledging women's dignity and accepting them in decision making positions, said Sacred Heart of Jesus Sister Kochurani Abraham, a theologian from India.
"There is a lot of pressure on the church from the secular world to move with the times," Sister Abraham said noting that Pope Francis "was moving step by step" with washing the feet of women.
"It is a positive step, however small it may be as it opens a discussion of gender questions within the church," she said.
Sister Shalini Mulackal, who teaches theology in New Delhi's Vidya Jyoti Jesuit seminary said "the progressive step" of studying the possibility of women deacons will lead to a "restructuring of the church … as women have suffered centuries of exclusion and it needs to change."
Father Pandikkat said, "Change is challenging and threatening" for any institution, especially for a centuries-old global entity like the Catholic Church.
"As people following the risen Christ, we are to move ahead without fear. But we are not sufficiently Christian, and therefore we lag behind and are afraid to speak for rightful changes," he said.
"More than the diaconate or priesthood for men or women, the question ultimately is how to build a community where the ideals of Christ are reflected. How to build an egalitarian society of freedom, justice truth and love … that is the question," he said.
Hence, Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a lay Indian Catholic women leader and theologian, said, "patriarchal mindsets are an aberration in the Kingdom of God that is ruled by love, justice and equality."
Women in decision-making should be prioritized
Including women in decision-making positions should become a priority of the church in South Asia as it would help with a revival and strengthening of local communities, said lay leader Virginia Saldanha from India.
Medieval hierarchies that exist in the church have to be replaced by more egalitarian structures that promote communion, she said.
"I think women are looking for a priesthood that is more in keeping with the one that Christ demonstrated at the Last Supper, a priesthood of service, stooping down to wash the feet of people you serve. This kind of priesthood has only the power of love, humility, and service that can describe it," said Saldanha.
She pointed out that a 1976 study by the Pontifical Biblical Commission under Pope Paul VI has already said there are no biblical grounds for excluding women from the priesthood.
In countries like Pakistan where women's freedom in society is highly curtailed, "a lot of ground would have to be prepared at local level," for a greater say in church affairs, says Naseem George, a Catholic women's activist in Pakistan.
Sister Ahraham said in a region like South Asia where gender inequality exists, "a lot of rethinking and restructuring will be needed" to move ahead to achieve gender equality within the church and "not be at the beck and call of male priests."
In the end, Bangladesh's Costa said, "God's call to every individual should be respected and accepted in the Catholic Church."
With additional reporting from ucanews.com reporters in Colombo, Dhaka and Karachi.