« Restoring Women to the Ordained Diaconate » – P. Zagano

Justice for the Life of the Parish

Restoring Women to the Ordained Diaconate

Phyllis Zagano

1. Introduction

It is the community that brings Christ to the world[1]. The parish is—or should be—the merciful face of Jesus, “an evangelizing community” which, as Evangelii gaudiumreminds us, “embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”[2] The parish is the sanctuary—whether metaphorical or real or both—for actual people, who live and die, who laugh and cry, who find their very selves entwined not only with their own hopes and dreams, but with the hopes and dreams of those around them.

Sanctuary is the necessary prophetic action of the Church. But, with or without it and the many other worthy efforts to bring the ministry of the Church to the People of God, the fact that women are legally restricted from obtaining Church officesthat require the clerical state reinforces the concept that women are unworthy and second-class members of the Church, if not of the human race. That women cannot formally participate in ministry creates a cognitive dissonance with the core Christian message: all are made in the image and likeness of God.

Parish structure and parish ministry arecurrently incomplete because they are historically deficient and at odds with the needs of the Church today.

[1] This paper was presented in the Practical Theology Section at the Annual Meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, San Juan Puerto Rico, June 11, 2016.

[2] Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, No. 24.

[3] Telephone conversation with Synod observer Dr. Moira McQueen, University of St. Michael’s, University of Toronto, June 6, 2016.

2. Rights, Justice, Mercy?

Extra-ecclesial discussion about restoring women to the ordained office ofdeacon, or of including women in the ordained priesthood and episcopacy,often focusses on the question of rights, thereby implying that including women in any or all of these orders is a matter of justice.But the deeper discussion involves theechoing virtues of justice and mercy and stretches far beyond theboundaries of canon law and ecclesial practice.

I will not speak to the question of women as priests or as bishops.  Despite renewed activist efforts—there was a women’s ordination meeting in Rome in June, 2016 concluded with a march toward the Vatican down the Via della Conciliazione—the question of women as priests remains definitively closed, at least in the mind of Pope Francis.

That given, it should surprise no one that apparently Francis paid close attention when Paul-André Durocher, archbishop of Gatineau, Quebec suggested at the October, 2015 synod that 1) that married persons have a greater role in the church, especially as preachers; 2) that women be included in Church governance; 3) that women be restored to the ordained diaconate. Francis(I am told) raised his head at Durocher’s suggestion about women in the diaconate.[3] I say the pope “apparently” paid close attention because on May 12, 2016, he responded positively to the request (given in advance) of the International Union of Superiors General that he form a commission to study the ordination of woman as deacons. He then appointed twelve scholars to a Papal Commission on Women in the Diaconate.

The most recent study document sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now published in eight languages on the Vatican’s webpages in addition to its original French[4], is the fruit of ten years’ work by subcommittees of two distinct quinquennia of the International Theological Commission. A first document, reportedly completed, printed, and numbered in 1997, did not earn the signature of the CDF prefect at the time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The second and final study document, completed in 2002 by a reconfigured subcommittee, this second subcommittee headed by one of Ratzinger’s former graduate students,[5] is quadruple the length of the first and comes to the inconclusive finding that “it pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question,” that is, the question of readmitting women to the ordained diaconate.

[4] English, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish. International Theological Commission, From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles (2002).

[5] Henrique de Noronha Galvão (b. 1937), a priest, now Professor Emeritus, Catholic University of Lisbon.

3. Discernment on Women Deacons

It seems time for the discernment to be complete. The question is not whether women were ordained as deacons in the past, or even that women continued to be ordained in modern times in Eastern Churches. The question is whether the restoration of the tradition of ordained women deacons would bring justice to women—not in terms of a “right” to be ordained, but in terms of the right of women to be ministered to by ordained women as an extension of the episcopal ministry.

How would women deacons bring justice to the parish? Durocher’s suggestions encompass the reasons: 1) more married preachers; 2) women in actual governance. I suggest each of these would come about by means of restoring women to the order of deacons.

How would not ordaining women deacons crush the Church’s face of mercy toward women? Gerhard L. Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, insists that women cannot image Christ.[6] He is one of thevery few theologians I am aware of who argue that the female gender cannot receive the grace and charism of order because women are improper “subjects” for the sacrament.[7]

Such is the dichotomy between prophecy and law: the prophetic stance typified by Durocher is opposed by the legalistic stance typified by Müller. Such in fact is the split that strikes at the heart of parish life and ministry. Women minsters and women ministered to can indeed image the Risen Lord. To recognize that fact, that women can and indeed do image Christ,is immediately both just and merciful. Women imaging Christ explodes the concept of the “evangelizing community” and allows it in both micro and macro to embrace and touch“the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”[8] The global impact of the Church announcing both really and symbolically that women image the Risen Christ—that women are made in the image and likeness of God–would be extraordinary. Ordaining women to the diaconate could change the world.

This paper briefly investigates two questions: 1) Does the history of women deacons imply or require present action? 2) Would parish life and ministrybe enhanced by women deacons?

[6] See Gerhard L. Müller, Priesthood and Diaconate: The Recipient of the Sacrament of Holy Orders from the Perspective of Creation Theology and Christology, trans. Michael J. Miller (Ignatius, 2002). German original, Priestertum und Diakonat: Der Empfänger des Weihesakramentes in schöpfungstheologischer und christologischer Prespectiv (Johannes Verlag, 2000).

[7] The other being Sara Butler, MSBT, a retired seminary professor and former member of the International Theological Commission who has transferred her argument against women as priests to women as deacons.

[8] Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, No. 24.

3.1. Does the history of women deacons imply or require present action?

There is ample historical evidence that women have been ordained as deacons in many parts of the world by bishops who used liturgies identical to or nearly identical to those used for male deacons. That women have been ordained as deacons is a given. One argument against restoring the practice is that the preponderance of evidence regarding women ordained as deacons is prior to the formal definition of sacrament and subsequent to the fading of the diaconate as a separate ministry, at least in the West. In the West, the diaconate was subsumed into the cursus honorum, the path on the way to priesthood. The Roman Catholic Church restored the diaconate as a permanent vocation for married or celibate men, following the Second Vatican Council. However, the Orthodox East and many Eastern Catholic Churches maintained and maintain a distinctive diaconate. Also, the Armenian Churches maintained and maintaina distinctive diaconate to this day, and include women in it.

The Roman Catholic Church, however,on behalf of the whole Catholic Church (East and West), repeatedly pushed aside the question of readmitting women to the diaconate. If we only focus on the past sixty years or so, we find that two bishops brought up the question of women deacons at the Second Vatican Council. Two Council fathers—one from Peru and the other from Italy—each suggested that women be restored to the order of deacon. The Italian bishop added the restriction of celibacy to those women so ordained.[9]

After the close of the Council, as Pope Paul VI was promulgating documents on the rejuvenated diaconate, he is said to have asked the International Theological Commission (ITC), or at least one of its members, Eastern liturgy expert Cipriano Vagaggini, OSB Cam., about women deacons. Vagaggini’s positive response did not come in the form of an ITC document, but rather as a dense essay written in Italian and published in 1974 in Orientalia Periodica Christiana, the journal of the Pontifical Oriental Institute,at that time edited by Robert F. Taft, SJ. Vagaggini said “yes.”

Elsewhere, Roger Gryson and Aimé Georges Martimort waged the history battle in French-language papers, each eventually publishing books with somewhat opposing findings. While Gryson supports restoring women to the diaconate, and Martimort does not, Martimort says the matter is not closed.[10]

It is obvious that there is ample literary, historical, epigraphical, Scriptural, and liturgical evidence to supportordained women deacons. It is also obvious that, since the close of Vatican Two, the official non-answer has been because the curial structure cannot say “no.” The Curia simply does not want to say “yes.”

But, why have women ordained as deacons? Many diaconal duties are available to lay persons. Lay persons can be given extraordinary faculties to witness marriages. Lay persons can and do follow the charge given to deacons in Lumen gentium: to “bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services.”[11]

If lay persons can do almost everything an ordained deacon can do, why add women deacons to the mix?

Simply, women ordained to the diaconate would meet the needs of the Church. Women ordained as deacons would bring justice to the Church and enhance the Church’s face of mercy.

[9] Bishop Leon Bonaventura de Uriarte Bengoa, OFM (1891-1970) of San Ramon, Peru and Bishop Giuseppe Ruotolo (1898-1970) of Ugento, ItalyActa et Documenta Concilio oecumenico Vaticano II apparando; Series prima (antepraeparatoria) (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1960-61) (ADA), II/II, 121.

[10] Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, tr. Jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1976 [orig.: Le ministère des femmes dans L’Église ancienne: Recherches et synthèses, Section d’histoire 4 (Gembloux, Belgium: J. Duculot, 1972)]); Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, tr. K. D. Whitehead (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986 [orig.: Les diaconesses: Essai historique (Rome: Edizioni Liturgiche, 1982)]).

[11] Paul VI, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, No. 29. At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.”(74*) For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: “Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all.” (citing Mt. 28:18, f.)

3.2. Would parish life and ministry be enhanced by women deacons?

What does a deacon do? Recent commentary focusses on what the deacon can do as an ordained cleric that a lay person may not. Importantly, a) The deacon is able to obtain certain offices that require the clerical state, and perform certain duties, such as sole canonical judge; b) The deacon is able to solemnly baptize and witness marriages. c) The deacon is able to preach the homily during the celebration of the Eucharist in a public church or oratory.[12]

a) Single judge

There is no provision for a non-cleric to be a single judge at a canonical trial. The requirement is important, given that the new annulment proceedings in place as of December 8, 2015 allow for a single judge who must be a cleric, and also that there need beno second instance.[13]

The new annulment procedures actually present a striking need for women deacons at the diocesan level. While canon law restricts any oversight or judgement of priests by non-priests, and only a priest may be a diocesan Judicial Vicar, the new procedures present the need for women deacon judgesas single judges and in diocesan tribunals. In addition, while a tribunal may include two lay judges, any tribunal must be headed by a cleric.[14]

b) Baptizing and Witnessing Marriages

Women ordained as deacons could ordinarily solemnly baptize and witness marriages, bringing another dimension to parish life and ministry. Lay persons might perform these functions, but only in limited circumstances. For example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed some time ago to allow its member diocesan bishops (actually only those in Alaska) to request rescripts for them to allow lay persons to extraordinarily witness marriages. In the Archdiocese of Anchorage, at least, the rescript wastwice granted for five years, and again granted in 1999 with no terminal date.[15]

Consider here mission territories, and the need to extend the parish extra-territorially. Women ordained to the diaconate could solemnly baptize and witness marriages in places where a priest might show up only once or twice a year.

c) Preaching

Perhaps the faculty that attracts the most attention regarding women in the diaconate is preaching the homily at Mass. There is no ordinary provision for a non-cleric to preach the homily at a public Mass, excepting Masses for children, for which the diocesan bishop can give permission to a non-cleric.[16]

Preachinginvolves the dual neuralgic issues of authority and vestments. An ordained deacon who participates in a Eucharist—either as the deacon of the word or the deacon of the cup—wears a stole and, often, a dalmatic. What would a vested woman say to the assembly at the liturgy? The confusion between priests and deacons is not new, but the fact that a woman would stand, vested, before the assembly and proclaim the Gospel, and then preach, would bring justice to the parish in its experience of the entire ministering Church.

The charge of the deacon to minister through the Word, the liturgy, and charity comes to a head with the notion of preaching. The deacon—male of female—who symbolically carries the Gospel book in the liturgy, really carries the Gospel to the world, both as Word and as charity. Returning to the ambo, the deacon preaches about what he does. The woman deacon living the life of charity would bring that life of charity to the homily in a new way.

The notion of a woman deacon at the ambo is central to the question of restoring women to this ordained ministry. Women especially serve in ministries of charity. How enlivened would the parish be if women brought their lives of service formally to the celebration of the Eucharist? How just to see a woman, from the place of authority, proclaim the Gospel and then speak about it.

[12] Canon 764.

[13] Francis, Apostolic letter Motu proprio, Mitis Iudex Dominus Jesus (August 15, 2015).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Telephone conversation Deacon William Finnegan, Archdiocese of Alaska, June 7, 2016.

[16] Only an ordained cleric may preach the homily at a Mass. “Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest” (13 August 1997), signed by the prefects of the Congregations for Clergy, Doctrine of the Faith, Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Bishops, Evangelization of Peoples, Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Pontifical Councils for the Laity, and for the Interpretation of texts andapproved in forma specifica by John Paul II.

4. Conclusion

Pope Francis told the members of the International Centre for the Diaconate at the close of the diaconate’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations recently: “Deacons are the face of the Church in everyday life, of a community that lives and journeys in the midst of the people, and where the great are not those who command, but rather those who serve.”[17]

May we not add: women are the face of the Church in everyday life; women live and journey in the midst of the people; women are those who serve? The question was about justice in the life of the parish. It is the face of the whole Church, the male and female Church, which brings justice and mercy to the parish.

[17] Pope Francis, Address to members of the Diaconate.


Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University (Mepstedt, NY) and founding co-chair of the Roman Catholic Studies Group of the American Academy of ReligionShe is the author or editor of twenty books in religious studies, including Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad, 2000), winner of Catholic Press Association and College Theology Society Annual Book Awards and Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority (Macmillan, 2012), (Catholic Press Association Book Award).Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future (with Gary Macy and William T. Ditewig) (Paulist Press, 2011), Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions on the Diaconate (Paulist Press, 2012), Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches (translations of essays by CiprianoVagaggini) (Liturgical Press, 2013), and Women Deacons? Essays with Answers (Liturgical Press, 2016)On August 2, 2016, Pope Francis appointed her to the Papal Commission on Women in the Diaconate.