TORONTO (CCN) — If a woman comes down the aisle carrying the book of the Gospels, and if she later stands at the ambo to read the Gospel and preach on it, would your parish cease to be Catholic?
Right now it is illegal under church law for any Roman Catholic bishop to ordain a woman as a deacon. But that wasn’t always the case. The law restricting the diaconate to men is just a church law and church laws can change.
“In reality, the issue is much more theological (doctrinal) than canonical,” said Rev. Frank Morrisey, one of Canada’s most senior canon law experts. “If the doctrine is clarified, then the canonical prescriptions can be revised by the proverbial stroke of a pen.”
So, how do you clarify doctrine? Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College took a stab at it May 6 and 7 with a faculty of theology conference titled “Women, the Diaconate and the Future of Ministry.” It’s a question that gained new energy when Gatineau Archbishop Paul-André Durocher brought it up at the synod on the family last fall.
The St. Mike’s conference got underway with a free, public lecture from Hofstra University theologian Phyllis Zagano, one of the world’s leading experts in the history and theology of ordaining women deacons.
“There is nothing specifically masculine about diaconal service and there is a dear need in the world, in the church, for the ministry of women in diaconal roles. We need it,” said Zagano from New York.
Until the 13th century women commonly served the Roman Catholic Church as ordained deacons. In other parts of the church the practice of ordaining women to the diaconate never died out. Pope Benedict XIV approved Maronite canon law that outlines the work women carry out as deacons and authorizes bishops to ordain them in the mid-18th century.
The idea that women could be ordained deacons was hotly debated and thoroughly researched by canon lawyers in the 1990s. In 1997 the International Theological Commission — an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — produced a research paper saying there was no theological reason not to ordain women as deacons.
Then prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, didn’t sign the International Theological Commission report and asked a new committee of the ITC, headed by one of his former graduate students, to re-examine the question. In 2002 it produced a 78-page paper printed in French which concluded the historical roles of women deacons are not precisely the same as the modern-day permanent diaconate, but also said there is a clear distinction between the ordination of deacons and priestly ordination.
The question of whether the Roman Catholic Church should again ordain women deacons is a matter that “pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his church to pronounce authoritatively on this question,” said the 2002 report.
“One must do as the church does,” points out Zagano. “What does the church do? Historically, the church worldwide ordains men as priests. The church does not worldwide ordain women as priests. But then I can flip that over, you see?”
The same logic of historical precedence that bars women from priesthood actually argues in favour of ordaining them as deacons.
“There is basically an unbroken tradition of ordaining women to the diaconate in various parts of the world, in various cultures, in various times and places to the present,” Zagano said.
Ordination means that one is given a mission from the church and the Holy Spirit to act and exist in the person of Christ — in persona Christi. Some who oppose ordaining women deacons argue a woman cannot be the image of Christ and cannot act in persona Christi.
“Well, it’s a horrible thing to say — ‘women can’t image Jesus.’ I can’t look like Jesus, but my marching orders from the Lord are to image Christ, to be Christ to all people,” said Zagano.
To be formed in the image of Christ is deeply embedded in Christian baptism. To say half the human race cannot live their baptism in the sacrament of holy orders is something that is widely debated.
“The fact of the matter is — I don’t know how it is in Canada, but I imagine it’s very much like it is in the United States — women are walking away from the church,” Zagano said. “Women are simply disgusted by the attitude that a woman cannot image Christ.”
As serious, scholarly questions are debated, public debate moves the church closer to exercising its ministry of discernment. Ultimately, it will take bishops’ conferences sending questions to the Vatican, prompting a theologically grounded decision, Zagano said.