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Which point of view will prevail in lively debate?

By Michael Jackson


Could women be ordained deacons in the Roman Catholic Church? The month of May 2016 saw a lively discussion of the question in the media, both religious and secular. The Globe and Mail led off on May 6 with an article, “The case for female deacons,” by Phyllis Zagano, a Roman Catholic theologian at Hofstra University in New York. She gave a lecture on the topic the same day at a conference entitled “Women, the Diaconate and the Future of Ministry” at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.

The May 11 Prairie Messenger carried two articles, one by Phyllis Zagano, making the case for female deacons despite recurrent opposition to the idea, and the other about Dr. Zagano and her lecture at St. Michael’s College. A week later, the May 18 PM again featured Phyllis Zagano in a story, “Pray for the future of female diaconate: theologian.” The headline of another story in the same issue was: “Pope tells women religious Vatican will study women deacons.”

On May 13, The Associated Press had reported that Pope Francis said he was willing to “create a commission to study whether women can be deacons in the Catholic Church.” But the next day, a Vatican spokesperson tried to dampen down speculation: the pope, he asserted, “didn’t say he had any intention of introducing diaconal ordination for women, much less priestly ordination for women.”

What are we to make of all this?

Phyllis Zagano makes a convincing case for the female diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church, citing both the timeliness and desirability of this ministry of service, and the historical record that there were women deacons in the early church. Most students of the diaconate — Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican — concur with Zagano that women were ordained deacons between the first and ninth centuries and even beyond, especially in the East. True, they were sometimes called deaconesses rather than deacons, and their ministry was at first different from that of their male counterparts — for example, they were responsible for baptism of women. Yet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople stated in 1995 that “there is no canonical difficulty in ordaining women as deacons in the Orthodox Church.” Two years later, at a consultation of Orthodox women at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Bartholomew spoke of the “call for the full restoration of the order of the deaconesses.”

The opposition to ordaining women as deacons is vigorous in some quarters, especially at the Vatican. This is not surprising. There is a fear that if women were ordained as deacons, there would be an expectation that they could then be ordained priests. And successive popes have categorically declared that women cannot be ordained priests (much less bishops). On the other hand, evidently aware of the scholarship on the issue, the Vatican has never stated that women cannot become deacons — only that they will not.

Part of the problem is the continued existence of the “transitional” diaconate, the stepping-stone to the priesthood that has existed for over a thousand years. But the diaconate was originally a “full and equal order” in the church, in the words of U.S. Episcopal scholar James Barnett; people were ordained directly to the presbyterate without passing through a pro forma period as a deacon. Like many others in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions, I argue that the church should abolish the transitional diaconate and return to that ancient practice. It would affirm the integrity of the diaconate as a “full and equal order” and attenuate the apprehension in the Roman Catholic (and Orthodox) Church that the female diaconate would be a stalking horse for women priests. In any case, as Phyllis Zagano points out, since her church has ruled out women priests, that actually strengthens the case for women deacons.

In 1964, Lumen Gentium, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, approved the restoration of the diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church as a permanent vocation, open to married men. The motu proprio of Paul VI in 1967, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, effectively revived the diaconate in the Latin West after a slumber of a millennium. American Roman Catholic theologian Kenan B. Osborne argues that, “if the permanent male diaconate can be re-established after 1,100 years of inactivity, then in a similar way there can be a re-establishing of the ministry of deaconesses after a similar length of inactivity.”

What are the chances of this happening?

According to the May 18 PM story, Pope Francis told the heads of women’s religious orders from around the world that he would establish a commission to study “the New Testament deaconesses” and “the question of whether women could be admitted to the diaconate.” His understanding was that “the women described as deaconesses in the Bible were not ordained like permanent deacons.” However, he would ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “to tell me if there are studies on this.”

It is moot that there were deaconesses in the New Testament period or even deacons, as the office was later understood. American Roman Catholic deacon and author William Ditewig notes that the “Seven” chosen by the apostles for a ministry of service in Acts 6 were not associated with deacons until Irenaeus did so in the late second century. However, by the time of I Timothy, likely in the mid-second century, orders of ministry were taking form, including the diaconate and the episcopate. That “emerging diaconate” (the title of Deacon Ditewig’s 2007 book) apparently included women: “whatever particular ministries the deacons are exercising at Ephesus do not appear to be gender-specific.”

According to Phyllis Zagano’s research, Pope Paul VI, after his restoration of the permanent (male) diaconate, asked for a study of the possibility of admitting women to the order. The result was an article by Benedictine Father Cipriano Vagaggini in 1974, “The Deaconess in the Byzantine Tradition,” apparently written for — and later suppressed by — the International Theological Commission, of which he was a member.

“In that article,” Vagaggini said in 1987, “I maintained, and still maintain today, that the competent authority of the church, if it judges it appropriate, can admit women to the sacrament of order in the diaconate.” In 1987, Vagaggini was asked to make an intervention before the synod of bishops on the laity in the area of women in the church: this took the form of a much longer essay, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” which concluded that “. . . theologically, in virtue of the use of the Byzantine Church, it appears that women can receive diaconal ordination.” As was the case with his 1974 article, Vagaggini’s 1987 study was not acted upon by the Vatican.

In the 1970s, French scholar Roger Gryson had also concluded that women were ordained as deacons in the early church. Ten years later, however, historian Aimé-Georges Martimort argued the contrary view. Then, in a 2002 book, Priesthood and Diaconate, German theologian and bishop Gerhard Müller maintained that deaconesses held appointed offices like sub-deacons and lectors and were not sacramentally ordained.

The International Theological Commission took up the work on female deacons again in the 1990s, but its brief paper on the subject in 1997 was not signed by then Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the commission, and was not published. Another much longer study by the commission in 2002 drew heavily on the work of Martimort and Müller. While it did not completely rule it out, it firmly discouraged the notion of women in the diaconate.

Which point of view will now prevail — that of Gryson, Vagaggini and Zagano, or that of Martimort and Müller? Cardinal Müller is now prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to which the pope is referring the question. So the signs are not encouraging. But Pope Francis has shown himself to be full of surprises. For the sake of ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, and the diaconate in general, my hope is that a future surprise will be the ordination of women to the diaconate.

Jackson is an Anglican deacon and a canon of the Diocese of Qu’Appelle. He serves at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Regina. He is co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Covenant Implementation Committee of the Diocese of Qu’Appelle and the Archdiocese of Regina (ARCCIC). Jackson’s online study of the diaconate can be accessed at -ministry-diaconate.