LIVERPOOL, England (LifeSiteNews) –– A prominent U.K. Catholic prelate has offered public support of controversial themes emerging in the Synod on Synodality, arguing in favor of married priests, female deacons and greater inclusion of same-sex couples.
Speaking to The Tablet in a recent interview, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, O.P., of the Archdiocese of Liverpool gave his thoughts on some of the most controversial and heavily promoted aspects of the Synod on Synodality. The possibility of married priests, of female deacons, and an unspecified form of greater “inclusion” of same-sex couples is currently on the agenda for the Synod.
McMahon has been a consistent promoter of the concept of synodality, organizing an archdiocesan synod in Liverpool some years before the current multiyear Synod on Synodality was convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican. He praised the Pope’s Synod, saying that he believed it to be “the way forward” for the Church, “because what Pope Francis is really saying to us is we have to reform ourselves. Every individual in the Church has to be reformed and become synodal in their being.”
While no official definition of “synodality” has yet to emerge from the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, McMahon referred to it as producing a “change of culture in the Church.”
“The Church which will emerge in the future will be the better for adopting the synodal way,” he argued. Regarding the possibility of the Synod ushering in widespread change, McMahon stated:
We have to be open to change in the future, we can’t close down possibilities of change whether it’s in ministry or whether it’s in the way people behave [or] live their lives together. We are working out of different frameworks of morality to the ones which are current now.
That is for us a challenge not to keep saying ‘we are right, and we’ve got this correct,’ but we need to listen and discern more deeply about so many aspects of people’s everyday lives. And also with regard to more internal issues in the Church I think once again we cannot close the door. We can’t say as we did x number of years ago ‘there’s no future for married clergy in the Church,’ that’s not listening to the Holy Spirit, that’s listening to …
Such a change, he predicted, in the question of married priests. “It’s not really a yes or no,” he said when questioned about the possibility, and mentioning the aspect of married former Anglican clergymen who are now already serving as Catholic priests.
Instead, the Dominican prelate highlighted that for married priests to become widespread the Church would need to examine how “their lives would need to be shaped by traditions, as we’re a bit out of practice at that.” Issues of “funding” and “being just to a married man” were additionally raised by McMahon as the chief stumbling points for married priests.
The Synod’s latest document expressed a need for a “genuine welcome” to be given to “the divorced and remarried, people in polygamous marriages, or LGBTQ+ Catholics.” This call for a deeper “inclusion” for LGBT individuals has been a recurring talking point of the Synod, and asked about same-sex couples in the Church, McMahon replied:
Well, what they do amongst themselves for all people is very much down to the couple isn’t it. I mean, the Church points the way to Jesus Christ and during my own ministry as a priest and a bishop, I’ve never spoken on this topic at all.
But practically I’ve included – when I was a parish priest, couple of occasions in the past – I always included gay people in the life of the parish, taking posts of responsibility. Not because they were gay but because they knew what they were doing. I’ve never really asked anyone what their sexual orientation is.
Questions regarding issues of morality in actions for such individuals, McMahon stated, would be for “the spiritual adviser, or the confessor.”
But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) 1975 document, Persona Humana, stipulated that a mere silence on sexual morality does not suffice: “There can be no true promotion of man’s dignity unless the essential order of his nature is respected.”
The CDF’s 1986 document “On the pastoral care of homosexual persons,” which stated that a “truly pastoral approach will appreciate the need for homosexual persons to avoid the near occasions of sin.”
Continuing, the document stated:
But we wish to make it clear that departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve.
Therefore, special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.
The current Instrumentum Laboris for the October session of the Synod in Rome mentions how “the desire for a greater presence of women in positions of responsibility and governance emerged as crucial elements in the search for more synodal ways to live the Church’s mission.” This has been widely linked to calls for a female diaconate, which have emerged from proponents of such a concept.
McMahon, who is vice president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, defended this idea, saying, “I think there’s a possibility there, just as the Pope does.”
He linked ordination primarily to “responsibility,” arguing that since the role of women is already very prevalent in a wide variety of roles within the modern structures of the Church, then there he didn’t see “too many obstacles” to implementing a female diaconate.
Ordination in the Church is really about taking responsibility and the gift which we pray for in ordination is the grace of service, that’s the gift which the deacon receives. Now women serve the church in many, many ways, so that’s what I think there are many Catholics including the Holy father who want to get to the bottom of this question. Because the deacon, when you take his ministerial functions down to basics, can actually do no more than a lay person.
It comes down to the question of responsibility, of taking responsibility for an aspect of the Church’s work. So I don’t see too many obstacles, but we have to make that what we are doing is very much in the tradition of the church and that’s where the doubt would come in…there doesn’t seem to be a clear path in the early Church on women deacons.
Catholic teaching on female diaconate
Yet while the archbishop argued for female deacons, the topic has been firmly condemned. Pope John Paul II declared in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that it is ontologically impossible for women to be “ordained.” This letter, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller explained, refers to the diaconate as well.
“It is certainly without doubt, however, that this definitive decision from Pope John Paul II is indeed a dogma of the Faith of the Catholic Church and that this was of course the case already before this Pope defined this truth as contained in Revelation in the year 1994,” Müller declared. He further noted how “the impossibility that a woman validly receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders in each of the three degrees [deacon, priest, bishop] is a truth contained in Revelation and it is thus infallibly confirmed by the Church’s Magisterium and presented as to be believed.”
Müller has previously spoken in forthright terms against the possibility of female deacons, declaring that any attempt to ordain women or alter the sacraments would be “invalid.”
“No synod — with or without the Pope — and also no ecumenical council, or the Pope alone, if he spoke ex cathedra, could make possible the ordination of women as bishop, priest, or deacon. They would stand in contradiction to the defined doctrine of the Church,” Cardinal Müller said.
Deacon Nick Donnelly, the prominent Catholic commentator and permanent deacon, expressed additional concern about Archbishop McMahon’s comments on the nature of the diaconate. “Archbishop McMahon’s reduction of the ministry of deacons to being ‘no more than a lay person’ surprisingly ignores the most important dimension of the diaconate — its sacramental nature,” Donnelly warned in comments to LifeSite.
Deacon Donnelly expounded on the nature of the diaconate and its differences to the lay state, noting that:
He [McMahon] appears unaware of the fact that due to receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders, the deacon has competences not possessed by the laity — proclaiming the Gospel and delivering the homily; giving benediction with the Blessed Sacrament; being an ordinary minister of Holy Communion, and Baptism; assisting at the Sacrament of Matrimony by receiving the consent of the spouses in the name of the Church and giving the blessing of the Church (CCC 1630).
The deacon possesses competences for these ministries — which he shares with priests and bishops — because he has received the sacramental character that configures him to Christ, the Servant (CCC 1570). Through the laying on of hands by the bishop during the rite of ordination, the deacon sacramentally and ministerially participates in the triple munera of Christ in the mode of diakonia [service] — teaching, sanctifying and administration, assisting his bishop and priests’ leadership. (Congregation for Education  Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons,9).
As for the Archbishop’s rationale behind his comments, Donnelly expressed confusion as to how the prelate could have made such statements. “It is incomprehensible that Archbishop McMahon doesn’t know that a deacon possesses important ministerial functions not possessed by the laity.”
So the question arises, why has Archbishop McMahon presented such an erroneous and impoverished caricature of the diaconate? Could it be that those seeking to illegally allow women to be ‘deacons’ are going to abolish the diaconate as part of the threefold unity of Holy Orders — deacon, priest, bishop? Do they plan to create a new type of ‘functional’ diaconate, defined in McMahon’s words as ‘taking responsibility for the Church’ divorced from the sacrament of Holy Orders as understood and practiced for 2,000 years? Archbishop McMahon’s unwarranted, and frankly bizarre, attempt to de-value the diaconate suggests that this is an alarming possibility.