Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

A Female Diaconate?

Handmaids of the Lord: Women Deacons in the Catholic Church by Jane Coll, Gracewing, 422pp including appendices and index, £20.00

Jane Coll is surely right: one major topic for the Church today concerns the role of women. Coll is also sure in her method. She appeals to the central pillars of the Church – Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium (though not reason or natural law). Using Cardinal Newman’s “diagnostic tools” of discernment, she is keen to differentiate authentic development and deviation from Church tradition.

Coll says that she has three main aims in her book. First, she wants us to understand the teaching that bishops have the fullness of the sacrament of ordination and so to understand the relationship between bishop, priest and deacon. Secondly, and with a significant leap, she thinks that from this we can understand the role of women within this sacrament, in order to find an official office for women that is recognised by all, with its own liturgical rite and duties described in Canon Law. Thirdly, she believes that ordaining women to the diaconate would go some way to marginalising the debate on women priests, thus helping to end the scandal of division among Christians (p xxi).

Coll’s extensive research leads her to conclude that while women cannot be ordained priests, as part of this authentic development, the Church could “ordain” women as deacons. To support her conclusion she offers three answers to “areas of concern”.

First, she claims that the sacrament of ordination to the priesthood would not be threatened since “the unity” of the sacrament resides in the bishop: Scripture gives him the authority to delegate as necessary, and Tradition allows for several grades within the sacrament. Secondly, she claims that the diaconate and presbyterate are “quite separate roles”: the diaconate does not involve the duty of governance, and the deacon does not act in the person of Christ, and so does not have to be male.

Thirdly, “the deaconesses of the early Church were ordained according to the meaning of the word at the time and therefore can be so again”. Here Coll presumably means a commissioning for service (pp205-206) rather than a definition of ordination in terms of the liturgy of the Mass and “its relationship to the Eucharist” (pp171, 214). Fourthly, “the relationship between male and female deacons can be worked out in a spirit of obedience to the bishop. Their specific duties are not important; as with priests, it is what they are, not what they do that is significant for the life of the Church” (pp341-342). In essence, she argues that change can only come from within the Church, she accepts that Canon Law would have to be changed, and that this change must be compatible with Church teaching.

Coll’s answers to these concerns are not as full or as clear as perhaps they might be, and at times there is some inconsistency. Starting backwards with Coll’s fourth point, that it is what deacons and deaconesses are rather than what they do that is significant for the Church, Coll explains that on the issue of ordination generally, the “ontological” versus “functional” debate continues (p207). However, despite Coll’s fourth point, her view on this debate also appears undecided.

Coll sees priestly ordination as conferring the grace needed for a man to act in the person of Christ, in other words to bring about an ontological change (p211). However, it is unclear whether she links the tradition of ontological change only to the “newer” (that is, from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards) and “narrower” (pp205-206) interpretation of ordination, for she suggests that an ontological change took place in both St Peter and St Paul symbolised by their name changes in the New Testament (p47).

Yet, her third point is that ordination of deaconesses is in the tradition but is ordination according to the meaning of the early Church, a commissioning or a conferring of a specific place in society (p206). This brings in Coll’s second point, that the diaconate and presbyterate are quite separate roles. Coll herself says that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council saw the diaconate as part of the sacrament of Holy Orders but made no clear pronouncement on the character conferred by the sacrament (p237). She admits that there is debate over the role of deacons and she accepts that some of their liturgical duties seem to blur the distinction between them and priests (p234). Moreover, she says that there have always been problems of deacons “misjudging” where their duties end and those of the priest begin (p235).

Where there is already confusion in the minds of people – and many lay people do not appreciate that deacons are not co-workers since they do not share in the ministerial priesthood, nor can they confect the Eucharist or administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation or the Sacrament of the Sick – it seems that the introduction of deaconesses may simply add to the confusion.

This inevitably leads into the first point, that ordination of deaconesses would not threaten ordination to the priesthood. Given that the diaconate in itself is ambiguous – and, as Coll rightly points out, Vatican II restored the permanent diaconate but did not definitively rule on its status, so that debate on its sacramentality and character continue (p233) – it seems rather naive to suggest that ordination, or simply the institution of deaconesses, would marginalise the debate on women priests. And it seems disingenuous to think that instituting a female deaconate would redirect people’s energy away from women priests, and into ending “the scandal of division among the various Christian bodies”, when the author spends just two pages looking at the Anglican arguments, based on a conversation with “a female priest from an Anglican background” (pp309-310).

As for the structure of the book, Coll divides her book into four sections: Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium and the Analogy of Faith. She tries to fit a discussion of priesthood, ordination, Our Lady, and women into each of the four sections. However, this strategy risks not only repetition but also digression. Coll’s book contains a strange mixture of information. For instance, Chapter 15 on the laity begins with a broad discussion about how the Church grew, covering the establishment of monasteries and convents, Mass in Latin, the removal of rood screens and the history of the Reformation; while Chapter 16, on Our Lady, goes through the titles given to her, in order to answer criticisms that these titles and honours cannot be supported by Scripture.

These are just two of many examples of what appear to be digressions. Certainly Coll tries to demonstrate the relevance of these passages, but in a book that is over 400 pages long, and for those who are interested in the subject matter of the book, namely women deacons, this proves is a considerable distraction.

As Coll tells her reader in the opening sentence of Chapter 10, and by this time we are on p157, we are only just approaching “the subject at the heart” of her work (Chapters 15 and 16 run from pp251-261). This illustrates one of the general problems with the book: the author does not seem to be clear about her target audience, so she includes information ranging from the basic to the specialist. The result is that the book loses focus and risks irritating the reader. Chapters are uneven: Chapter 13 on liturgy is only two and a half pages long and that includes the footnotes; the following chapter on the Sacrament of Ordination is some 50 pages long and has no less than four separate summaries. There are seven appendicies and a reading list that includes very general reading, from a textbook on the Old Testament to one on basic Christian theology.

One final point. On the role involved in the diaconate, Coll explains that deacons have liturgical and pastoral duties, though not oversight of the community. She says that they have a ministry of service as assistants to the bishop, “but this does not limit their activity to menial tasks” (p236). Perhaps this is one of the major stumbling blocks when considering the role of women in the Church and in the world in general. Some of the many services that women provide are not valued; they are regarded as menial, that is to say lowly or degrading.

However, as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux shows, no task done with Christ in mind can be dismissed as purely menial. From the practical spirituality of the flower arranger and Church cleaner to the visitor to the elderly, the offertory collector, the catechist, the reader and the Eucharistic minister, women are active and evangelising in the Church. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge and celebrate some of these roles.

Pia Matthews

A Challenge to Our Hearts

The Call to Hospitality by Mark Turnham Elvins, Gracewing, 180pp, £12.99

In the first instance, this book offers a history of the Knights of Malta. The Sovereign, Military, Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta was founded 900 years ago. A group of Italian merchants established a hospice to care for travellers in Jerusalem during the 11th century. One of the early wardens was Blessed Gerard. You need to look up a footnote (p62, no 9) to hear of his faith. The footnote provides what I found to be the most fascinating anecdote in the entire book.

Gerard was inside the walls of Jerusalem during a siege by Crusaders. In a reversal of our usual understanding of what happened during such events, Gerard threw bread out from the city to the besiegers, who were themselves starving. He was arrested, and brought before the Arab governor. When he was examined the bread had turned to stones.

The initiative that God takes comes across strongly in this book by the Capuchin friar Fr Mark Turnham Elvins. Nowhere is this more wonderfully illustrated than in this account of the origins of the Hospitaller Order. Gerard was the warden who subsequently succeeded in securing an independent status for the Brethren of the Hospital of Jerusalem, as the order was known to begin with.

More widely, the book offers a historical survey of the place of charity to travellers. It ranges from the care of the poor in the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, to monastic hospitality, early guest houses for pilgrims, the work of the Order of the Hospitallers, and the history of the Christian social conscience in England. This approach makes the book somewhat uneven, relying as it does on some earlier writing by the author. Nonetheless, it is important that we develop a sense of history in these matters.

In pre-modern times, it was one’s family and friends who met your needs when sickness hit. They may not have offered much medical treatment, but care, certainly, would have been provided. We can easily forget what it would have been like to fall ill while travelling as a pilgrim. Certain situations in life give rise to particular needs, when our frail bodies find themselves defenceless before the violence of others or the ravages of disease. It is no accident that the parable of the Good Samaritan focuses on a travelling stranger.

The book charts how Christians joined together to care for poor and sick travellers. The Knights were formed as a close community, with a rule of life. One joined them as a vocation, in response to a call from God. The role of bishops is also given due prominence. There is a contemporary angle here, as the author provides an agenda for the present day Church:

The reform of the episcopal and priestly ministry is a thorny topic and rarely addressed, and yet for social doctrine to be made known there must be reform in order to reveal the practical side of evangelism.… Renewal in the Church perforce requires a restoration of first principles, principles by which the early Christians, under their bishops, taught the world about poor relief. (p26)

The book further incorporates a history of social conscience in England. Mark Elvins highlights how the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII removed the primary source of food and shelter available for those in need. A series of Acts of Parliaments and government initiatives followed to try to deal with the resulting problems. Great cruelty followed in many places, as people sought to ensure that the numbers who took up any care were as low as possible. In time, if you refused to enter the workhouse, you gave up any prospect of other relief. Penny-pinching responses were common. Government cutbacks have been with us from Elizabethan times to the 21st century! Is someone in need an idle beggar or a brother or sister who has fallen on hard times? Mark Elvins points out that in mediaeval times it was clear that almsgiving required compassion for the person in need as much as bodily help. As a theological virtue, charity requires the grace of God.

In the UK we think of hospitals as government business, as exemplified by the wonderful National Health Service that ensures each sick child is tucked into bed by an angelic nurse, as the opening ceremony for the London Olympics had it. But hospitals were not invented by governments; they were formed by Christians eager to serve their Lord. Hospitals were originally places to care for poor or sick travellers. The next time you lie in a hospital bed, remember that clean linen was a practice pioneered by the Knights of Malta. They also first introduced private cubicles for those receiving care. Well, you can’t have everything, it seems, when things are directed by the State!

The Hospitaller Order was partly conceived as a military order of chivalry, involving a code of service to a liege Lord. Blessed Gerard was certainly something a hero himself, as well as a saint. A sense of chivalry was associated with the Knights of Malta from its very origins, encouraging its members to go to great lengths in acting for the good of others. There are plenty of similarities here with the Franciscans. There is a romance that comes with a call from God. How can we respond in our own day to the needs of those who are unable to care for themselves? Who knows what new social institutions or practices might arise when Christians join together to serve those in need? In this book Mark Elvins issues a challenge to our hearts. Is it one that we will accept?

Peter Kahn

Centres of Holiness

Marthe Robin & the Foyers of Charity by Martin Blake, Theotokos, 152pp, £7.95 paperback or £3.22 Kindle

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint Faustina, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: on the very first page of the first chapter of his book, Martin Blake lists these 20th-century figures and confidently ranks Marthe Robin alongside them. Either Blake is portraying his protagonist as punching way above her weight or the reader is about to encounter a quite amazing soul. Which was it to be?

The book develops as a linear biography for the first four of its 13 chapters. Marthe, born in 1902, was the sixth child of “not particularly religious” parents. Although she had a solid prayer life, by the time she had completed her formal education at the age of 12, there was nothing about her that would make her stand out in a crowd.

By the age of 19, her health had declined, she’d spent 17 months in “a coma of some sort” and received a vision of the Blessed Virgin. Her health further declined between the ages of 21 and 23, while she struggled to accept the cross of her suffering, “torn between giving all to God and hoping for a normal life”. Then, in 1925, she “dared to choose Jesus Christ” and made a private act of abandonment. By 1930, Marthe was paralysed in her legs and arms; she neither ate (apart from the Eucharist) nor drank, never slept and bore the stigmata.

At this stage, Blake devotes some space to formal verifications of her stigmata but I find it curious that he does not comment on her lack of nutrition and absence of sleep (this latter is, to medics, even more extraordinary than living without nutrition). From this time, until her death in 1981, Marthe experienced Our Lord’s Passion every Friday.

Thus emptied, Marthe set up – through supportive friends and priests – a school for girls at Chateauneuf and then, with the particular support of her spiritual director Fr Finet, the first “Foyer of Charity”. At this stage in the book, it was hard to grasp what was meant by the term “foyer”, perhaps because Blake carefully limits his vantage point to the movement’s conception in 1936. Clearly it wasn’t a lobby or narthex, so I wondered if the term meant something more specific in French?

A French parishioner readily identified the term with the fruits of Marthe’s apostolate and told me that, for her, “foyer” meant a place where people go to make silent retreats, usually young people discerning their vocation. This tallied with what a “Foyer” is now to people in 45 countries over five continents where 75 Foyer communities are hosts to thousands of retreatants each year. But on this small island, we are still largely strangers to this new movement. It is to redress this shortcoming that Blake has written his book.

Much of the rest of the book is devoted to Marthe’s encounters with particular individuals. This provides striking personal and authentic witness to her life and works but has the unfortunate side-effect of repeating some biographical and anecdotal detail already given in the first four chapters. It also means that the book reads a little like a “review of relevant literature”.
If at times the descriptions of Foyer communities conjured up images of kaftan communes of the 1960s, these were held at bay by repeated assertions of Marthe’s adherence at all times to the Church’s Magisterium, of each Foyer opening only at the invitation of the local bishop and of snippets of Marthe’s such as “Mass is not an obligation… it is a necessity!” Any remaining misconceptions were dispelled by this description of a typical five-day Foyer retreat:

Retreatants arrive on a Sunday afternoon, listen to three conferences a day from the retreat conductor, pray Morning and Evening Prayer and the Holy Rosary daily, and of course attend a daily Mass… On Thursday night there is usually the chance to spend an hour or two keeping vigil with the Blessed Sacrament exposed…

What’s not to like?

So was Blake over-selling Marthe Robin by comparing her with those great holy souls of the last century? I confess to having thought so at first, but no: I’m sold. Foyer retreats are available in Britain (in Dalmally, Scotland), but as yet there is no established Foyer community. As Stratford Caldecott wrote in his preface: “There is a crying need for holiness, among both clergy and laity, a holiness which takes the example of Christ himself as its source, and it seems to me that it would be most helpful to have such ‘centres of holiness’ in this country.”

Imagine a time when the word “foyer” no longer brings images of lobbies to the mind of the general public but rather signifies a “place where I once spent five amazing days in silent retreat”. Blake’s book is an important step towards achieving that goal.

Jane Critten

Psychiatry and the Church

Catholicism & Mental Health by Dr Pravin Thevathasan, Catholic Truth Society, 67pp, £2.50

This fascinating booklet begins with a clear statement of intent, explaining that it is not a self-help guide or treatment manual; rather, it aims to show that there is no conflict between Catholicism and psychiatry. The Church is, of course, not anti-science and there is a wonderful quote from Pius XII on the first page which illustrates this:

If mental health enjoys such esteem in Catholic thought and practice, it is only right that the Church looks with satisfaction at the new path being opened by psychiatry … all that Sacred Scripture says in praise of human wisdom is an implicit affirmation of the importance of mental health.

The first chapter gives a brief overview of the history of psychiatry, beginning in ancient Greece, describing how mental illness has been regarded and treated through the ages; along the way, it debunks the myth that the early Church saw all mental illness as diabolic. Understanding of the problems of the mind in the ancient world was more sophisticated than we might think. Note this quote relating to depression from Aretaeus from the second century AD:

Those affected with melancholy are not every one of them affected according to one particular form…. [T]he patients are dull or stern, dejected or unreasonably torpid…. [U]nreasonable fear also seizes them, if the disease tends to increase … they complain of life and desire to die.

Apparently King James I contributed to the persistence of the belief that many mentally ill people were witches by ordering the burning of a seminal work by Reginald Scott, published in 1584. Scott, author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was following Catholic scholars of the 15th and 16th centuries who condemned witch trials and urged humane treatment of the mentally ill.

One cannot write about psychiatry without an examination of the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in the 20th century. Though now out of fashion, the writings of these men have had, and continue to have, a huge influence on popular beliefs regarding how human beings “work”.

The author therefore analyses the main ideas of these men in a chapter entitled “Where psychiatry and Catholicism conflict”. Most often, there is conflict where psychiatry oversteps its bounds and claims to be the sole qualified interpreter of human behaviour. A quote from Professor Andrew Sims sums up this issue well:

Psychiatrists have not increased the credibility of their speciality in the first three-quarters of the 20th century by posing as the universal experts on the experience of life and how it should be led. Expert knowledge of the abnormal does not preclude ignorance of the normal and the psychiatrist can never generalise from the sample of people selectively referred to him to the whole of mankind.

Dr Thevathasan presents a lucid history of the thought of Freud and Jung, and the circumstances which led them to develop their often bizarre theories of human behaviour. In the popular mind, these men have been accorded a far greater knowledge of the human condition than they actually had or possessed with accuracy – resulting in immense damage to individuals. I have often thought, particularly when working in the diocesan marriage tribunal, that our acknowledgement of the fact of Original Sin gives us such a head start when it comes to understanding human nature, and why people act the way they do. The booklet shows that when this truth is denied, the strangest explanations are offered as a substitute. Interestingly, both Freud and Jung seem to have had some exposure to or interest in the occult. Certainly, both came from “disturbed” backgrounds.

The chapter headed “Where psychiatry and Catholicism agree” is similarly enlightening, as the Church can find confirmation in secular science for her teachings on marriage and family life, and the negative impact of parental separation and divorce.

Finally, Dr Thevathasan provides an introduction to some of the more well-known psychiatric disorders. As with physical illness, for example heart disease, if the cause of an illness is correctly identified, the correct treatment can be offered. And vice versa. The conditions of depression, OCD and scruples, schizophrenia, addictions and suicide are described in very readable and non-technical language for the non-medic to grasp.

Most importantly, these are looked at through the lens of revealed truth, which only Catholicism can provide. The author opines, rightly, how useful it would be to construct a synthesis of mental health treatments and authentic Catholic spirituality, fleshing this out with some brief case studies. The danger of side-lining the spiritual dimension when treating mental illness becomes transparently clear.

This is a wise and balanced overview which I found enlightening and which will be pastorally useful. Truth can never conflict with genuine science: as the author says,“our understanding of mental illness can be more complete if we draw upon the insight of both medicine and Catholicism”.

Stephen Brown

Faith Magazine

March - April 2015