Some of the findings of a study on the history of women deacons, as commissioned last year by Pope Francis, were presented at a panel discussion at Fordham University in New York on 15 January 2019. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell shares what she heard, and her own sense of what this might be saying of the possibility for ordaining Catholic women to the diaconate in the future.
In 2016 Pope Francis agreed to establish a commission to look into the question of women deacons. This was in response to a request from women religious, who, at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), asked for a study into the matter.
It is unsurprising that with this, hopes were raised that should scholars find that women had indeed been ordained to the diaconate in the past, ecclesiastical law would be changed to allow for the practice again.
The appointed commission, under Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ, the present Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, consisted of 12 members. It is the only commission made up of an equal split between men and women.
It must be stressed that the brief of the commission was to study the history and the role of women deacons in the early Church and establish whether they were in fact ordained for ministry and not whether the Church should allow for women deacons today.
On 15 January 2019 at the Jesuits’ Fordham University in New York, a widely publicised panel discussion was held on the matter. It was also live-streamed so that those who couldn’t be there could participate virtually. This has been the first time that we have had feedback from anyone appointed to the commission.
The panellists were Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate as Hofstra University and author of a number of books on the subject of women’s diaconate; Bernard Pottier SJ, a member of the International Theological Commission; and Sr Donna Ciangio OP, who is Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Newark.
A few weeks before the panel discussion, there was the launch of a free study guide for parishes, to encourage discussion and reflection on Zagano’s book “Women Deacons Past Present and Future.” Additionally, a series of interviews with Zagano and Pottier are available online, through Salt and Light Media and America magazine. Following the discussion a webinar is also planned.
With all this, it would seem that things are “hotting-up”. Why, one wonders, this intentional focus to get people to understand the issues? Could it be that Pope Francis is preparing to make a statement on the question of women deacons. It could also be that this push is simply an attempt at eliciting or speeding-up the Pope’s response to the commission’s finding.
According to Zagano and Pottier there is overwhelming historical evidence to show that until the 12th Century the role of deacon in the Western Church was exercised by both men and women.
It appears that it was only when the Church started to concretise the idea of the hierarchy of Holy Orders (causa honorum), deacon leading to priest and priest potentially to Bishop, that the Church’s hierarchy began to get nervous.
The hierarchy were not in favour of women’s ordination to the presbyterate. Given this it seems, they thought, it made little sense to ordain women to the diaconate if they could not proceed further in the hierarchy. Women’s ordination to the diaconate was subsequently suppressed and by the beginning of the 13th century it died out.
The Second Vatican Council restored the ministry of the permanent diaconate. Permanent deacons are those men ordained deacons for life who will never become priests. Many of these men are married. According to Vatican records there are now around 45000 permanent deacons.
But here’s the point.
Given the restoration of the permanent diaconate, the concern about the diaconate as an automatic stepping-stone to priestly ordination can no longer be used as an argument against the ordination of women to the diaconate.
There are those in the Church who hope that if women are ordained to the diaconate, their priesthood would likely become a possibility in the future. However the speakers from the commission were at pains to keep the issue of ordination to the diaconate and priesthood separate and engaged only with the issue of the diaconate.
Zagano said that they had also found that women were ordained to the diaconate using exactly the same rite as was used for male deacons. The laying on of hands, the calling down of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis), being given the chalice to self-communicate and the investiture with a stole.
Additionally, the words “blessing” and “ordination” are both used in the early writings (as late as the 6th Century). According to Zagano’s studies these were used interchangeably at the time. And it is clear that the rite for men and women did not differ. For both men and women it is at times referred to as blessing and at others ordination but it meant the same thing in that context.
All three panellists spoke of a need for women to minister formally in the Church. Ciangio said that in her extensive work in parishes across the United States many were calling for the ministry of women as deacons. She spoke of the excitement of the pilot group that she accompanied on the study of Zagano’s book.
While some places in the United States are ready for the ministry of women as deacons, one wonders what the response will be in Africa.
On the whole we are still a very patriarchal society. It is likely that if Pope Francis allows for the ministry of women deacons, individual Bishops Conferences will still decide whether or not they will implement the ordination of women deacons in their own dioceses. This is obviously something that needs to be embraced at a local level. People would first need to understand the reasons behind such a decision.
Everything now rests on the response that Pope Francis will make to the commission’s report.
The panellists acknowledge that with the focus on the sexual abuse crisis, this matter has probably not been top of his agenda. However to include women in the significant and recognised ministry of deacon could be an important dimension of the healing needed in the Church, on many levels.
The issue of women deacons is, sadly, still contentious. There are those who hold Pope John Paul II’s position on “complementarity” and “feminine genius”, that the distinctive and critical role of women is in mothering, physically and spiritually. On the other hand, there are those who believe that women who feel called by God to preach the word and serve the poor must be allowed to respond to that call and to use their God-given gifts for preaching and accompaniment in the service of the Church. Still, there are those who feel strongly that only ordaining women to the diaconate does not go far enough.
My own hope is that the call of the Synod on Young People will be heeded and that there will be greater inclusion of women in the leadership of the Church.
Our Church needs to witness to the inclusion of women: to see that we too are made in the image and likeness of God and called to serve. Yes, in the privileged roles of wives and mothers; but also —for those who are called to it by God — in the formal preaching of the Word and service of the needy.
At the risk of raising the hopes of those who are in favour of the woman’s diaconate: things look more promising now than, perhaps, they have for a very long time.