Catholic women used to wield colossal power. The Pope's commission alone can't bring back those days

Women have never been less visible in the Catholic Church than they are today. In the years before the Second Vatican Council, women who dressed in white linen and black serge determined the course of countless lives. They taught children, tended the sick, and filled the pews. They took vows of obedience, but they wielded real power – over hospitals, schools, and religious houses. Expanding budgets and growing classes of postulants reinforced their divine confidence.

It was a time when a young Mary McCarthy could dream of “being a Carmelite nun, cloistered and penitential.” My mother was born in rural Nebraska; when her Methodist parents couldn’t agree on a name, the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Charity, the nuns who ran the hospital, gave her the name of a Catholic saint. But in a few years, all of this would change. The Second Vatican Council inspired a great exodus from the convents. What had been a population of 180,000 religious sisters in America in 1965 was reduced to 50,000 in 2015. Many of those who remained shed the habit, and so Catholic women became invisible for a generation.

Pope Francis wants to make women more visible in the Church, and rightly so. Though he has ruled out ordaining women as priests, he has signaled an openness to ordaining them as deacons. Now studying the question is a commission set up by Francis. There is passion on both sides of the argument, but the outcome will be settled by a close study of certain questions– and by the Pope’s will.

One of the key questions facing the commission will be that of ressourcement, a term meaning “return to the sources.” This is the watchword of Catholic reform, a motto for a kind of progress by which the past is recovered. It guided the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. It inspired the priests who first began to say mass versus populum, or facing the people. These priests believed that they were recovering a practice of the early Church.

It was not so. Bad scholarship, what Evelyn Waugh called that “strange alliance between archaeologists absorbed in their speculations on the rites of the second century and modernists who wish to give the Church the character of our deplorable epoch,” had led the Church astray. In 2009, John Baldovin SJ, a liturgical scholar who supports the idea of the priest facing the people, confessed the error: “Historical honesty requires us to admit that the idea that the early liturgy was habitually celebrated versus populum was mistaken.”

Catholics now stand on the cusp of a similar error. Promoters of women’s ordination point to accounts of women deacons in the early Church to argue that they are recovering an old tradition rather than proposing something new. Whatever one thinks of the value of women deacons today, they would share little more than a title with the women like Phoebe who were called deacons in the early Church.

Such claims will be hotly debated, but no matter what Francis decides, the invisibility of women in Catholic life is likely to continue.

Ordaining women as deacons will not return us to a system like the one in which mother superiors held sway. It may, instead, set us back. The Church has closed off the possibility of women ever being ordained priests, and so women deacons would at most be able to play second fiddle. The Catholic Mass would become a play of feminine subservience.

After the Second Vatican Council, many nuns and priests sought to adopt everyday dress, to look like everyday people and become indistinguishable from each other. Marshall McLuhan, the great communications theorist, suggested a different course.

He believed that television had promoted an image-based culture where visual communication was especially important. This culture laid a stress not on sameness, but on strong distinctiveness. McLuhan thought that nuns and priests had chosen “the wrong time to dim down clerical attire, just when something very ‘far out’ and very unconventional may be needed.”

If McLuhan was right, the future of women in the church lies with nuns who wear distinctive habits, not with women who try to resemble deacons or priests. This would mean that a new kind of ressourcement is necessary, one that draws less on an imagined early Church and more on the much maligned medieval Church into which it grew. For Catholics, all tradition, be it recent or old, is a source to which the Church returns, something ever ancient, ever new.

I saw a hint of what a Church that honours women would look like when I first visited a friend of mine who had become a cloistered nun. Before I could meet her, I had to speak to the abbess and the prioress through a grille. These were women with power, humble but very much in command. After those interviews, I returned to the guesthouse and ate with the men who lived outside the abbey. They worked for, and looked up to, the women who wore black and white.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.