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Should Roman Catholic Women seek to be ordained Deacons?

Should Roman Catholic Women seek to be ordained Deacons?

by John Collins

This article is a revised version of an article published in Ordination of Catholic Women Newsletter vol. 3, no. 1 (April 1996) pp. 5-11. Here republished with permission of the author.

Should Roman Catholic women seek to be ordained deacons? From various quarters - sometimes from the same quarter - one gets both a yes and a no answer to this question. I suspect, however, that one would need a certain bravado and rather more panache to carry a yes vote among most women who follow a feminist line in theology.

In putting the question for Roman Catholic women then, I am going to pick my way rather carefully before declaring a position. Indeed quite a deal of what follows is going to be about the need to clarify the question before pressing for an answer.

The first factor affecting the question is the contemporary ecclesial context. While, as we shall note, the question of diaconal ordination for women has been raised here and there for over forty years, and indeed over the last decade has been favoured at increasingly influential levels, questions about ordaining women to anything have taken on a new dimension since Pope John Paul II declared on Pentecost Sunday 1994 that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women".

One reaction to this on the part of some women has been to seek ordination to the diaconate, "a lower level of the hierarchy", in the words of the Second Vatican Council, but nonetheless "a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy". In the words of the new Catechism, the diaconate is "conferred by a sacramental act called `ordination’, that is, by the sacrament of Holy Orders". The catechism makes clear in the same teaching, however, that the diaconate is a third "degree" of hierarchy and lies outside "the two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate."

The question of women deacons has drawn further interest in recent months as a consequence of the pronouncement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on October 28, 1995, that in the Apostolic Letter the pope "has handed on" teaching which "has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium".

Those attracted to the diaconate in the light of these doctrinal developments are variously motivated. For some who continue to commit themselves to seeking priestly ordination for women, the precedent set by Anglican women has become a model for action. Just as many of them succeeded first in being ordained deacons and then moved on rapidly enough in some countries to attaining the right to priesthood - 1987 to 1992 in the case of England - some Roman Catholic women have set themselves a similar agenda.

By contrast, other women have sensed the hopelessness of pursuing priestly ordination in their own lifetimes and have committed themselves instead to assuaging their loss by taking up the struggle to attain "the lower level". In tandem with these are others who have less trouble accepting the restrictions on women in this matter and turn with a warm commitment to seeking ordination as deacons, which they have come to see as a real possibility in the Roman Catholic Church of our times.

Some of the latter are indeed women who in any circumstances would seek nothing more than to be deacons in the fashion of women in an earlier age of the church who bore that name. Close to these are yet others who are already professionally engaged in pastoral work and would cherish the opportunity to have their undertakings blessed and commissioned in the church by ordination as deacons. The same could be said for many women voluntarily engaged in similar works.

In all of these situations the allure of ordination does not necessarily lie in the expectation of spiritual benefit from the reception of the so-called permanent characterconferred through the sacrament. Rather for some the distinct advantage would be the new canonical status of belonging to the clergy, an advancement at once ecclesial and social which would, they hope, enhance their bureaucratic efficiency within official circles, facilitate their progress through the halls of power, and open eventually to an equal access for women to governance in the church.

As already suggested, among women pursuing such equality are likely to be very few of the increasing number who band together to fashion a new spirituality not dependent on a sacrament reserved to men or who pool their political skills to achieve greater effectiveness in the male-led institution.

In these circles one senses a quite vibrant intolerance of the whole question of who gets ordained and why. As is well known, the experience has provided more than enough ground for many women to walk away from the institutional church. For many again, however, the experience has stirred new energies, and their rejection of hierarchical systems is not necessarily a denial of the need for pastoral leadership within the church. What gives rise to the intolerance is the perception that both the theology of the sacrament of order and the closely associated suprastructes of canon law are so deeply imbued with androcentric character as to make it virtually impossible for these women to fashion a usable image of pastoral leadership within the church they have inherited. None of them has aspirations to be a recycled cleric. Were that to provide the paradigm, the last state of the church, in their view, would be worse than the first.

Hence the earlier hesitations about rushing into answers for the question at hand. One does not necessarily know the audience one is addressing, and a satisfactory response to one part of the audience may merely provide problems for another. Above all, in the contemporary context, the climate of discussion is often inhibited and sometimes embittered by the ecclesiastical restrictions put upon the limits within which the discussion needs to proceed. In particular, consideration of women’s ordination to the diaconate is not to be entertained within the ambit of women’s potential or aspirations for ordination to the presbyterate.

A current instance of this absolute and far-reaching restriction is the matter of a media report as I write. On the agenda of the first gathering in Australia of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations - said to be representing no less than 30 million members - had been the proposal of the French-Canadian delegation in Canberra calling for "ongoing dialogue ... within the church concerning the access of women to ordained ministries". The proposal suggested, according to the press report, that "`vocation not gender’ should determine who entered the priesthood.’" The proposal did not reach the floor, however, because the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio, Archbishop Franco Brambilla, "successfully demanded [its] withdrawal", informing the union’s president, Mrs Marie-Therese Van Heteren-Hogenhuis, that "the issue was a `matter of faith’ and therefore not to be debated." The president is reported as having been "visibly shocked" at the Pro-Nuncio’s intervention.

Given the heightened tensions generated by such interventions, let us try to simplify and at the same time clarify the question of women and diaconate by looking back to the beginning of the modern diaconate early in the course of the Second Vatican Council. Here, in October 1964, the council determined that "it will be possible in the future to restore the diaconate as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy". The future was not long coming, for in an Apostolic Letter of June 18, 1967, Paul VI issued norms for restoring the diaconate, which national conferences of bishops had the option of implementing as they saw fit.

What had the modern church done here? Throughout recorded history the church had been ordaining "deacons", and even the earliest first and second century Christian documents evidence men designated "deacons" holding an official place in local churches alongside "bishops" and "presbyters".

Although the available evidence has made the deacon’s role difficult to describe definitively, deacons survived - but not unscathed - across both western and eastern churches until the time of the sixteenth century Reformation. Within the Roman Catholic Church, where deacons as a separate body of clergy had by this era virtually disappeared, the memory of them was kept alive by recurrent liturgical commemorations of deacons of yore, including the supposed deacons Stephen and Philip of the so-called original Seven, and others like the much honoured martyr Laurence of Rome, the scholarly Ephraem of Syria, and the later Francis of Assisi. But mainly the deacon was sustained in the collective memory by making ordination to the diaconate a prerequisite for ordination to the priesthood. Diaconate thus became merely a temporary status, and any theology that may have attached to it was totally overwhelmed by the medieval theology of a cultic priesthood. Deacons retained a form of their ancient ritual garb and performed certain liturgical functions, principally singing the gospel at high mass and assisting at distribution of the eucharistic bread.

Not surprisingly the reformers, in their practicality and with their strong pastoral orientation, considered the traditional diaconate a corrupt and useless clerical appendage to the church’s ministerial body. They reacted to it in different ways, usually abandoning ordination but tending to reform this branch of the medievel order as an instrument for performing works of charity and maintenance within the local congregation. This orientation was mainly set on the assumption that in the first Christian communities such had been the role of the "deacons". John Calvin was hugely influential here.

Across the next centuries the reformed tradition too in turn lost much of its direction until, within the German Lutheran churches, where the diaconate had not ever effectively established itself, a renewed effort was undertaken in the early and middle of the nineteenth century to create a working diaconate of both women and men for the purposes of helping the sick and the underprivileged. The initiators in this were mainly Lutheran pastors, working independently of one another, and very largely with women, and never succeeding in having their groups of deaconesses and deacons recognised in their churches by any process of ordination. Their foundations were more in the form of the Roman Catholic religious congregations dedicated to works of charity and education, to whose style the founders were in fact indebted. Progressively the new diaconate embraced a huge social undertaking throughout the country which continues to this day.

Meanwhile the medieval diaconate of the Roman Catholic Church was not directly affected by the reforming Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century, continuing to be the sacramental prelude to priesthood. Indirectly it benefited from the tightening of admission to and education for the priesthood. Thus the deacon remained a living museum of ritual and vestment, his role acted out mostly by priests, until 1964.

The story of the deacon’s transition from this fossilised state to the stage where he has become one of some twenty thousand permanent deacons (most married and mostly active in pastoral and liturgical duties) is inspiring, especially in a founding mover like Hannes Kramer of Freiburg. Nonetheless the story does not take us far from the Lutheran history just alluded to. At the end of the Second World War Kramer and some associates, with the prestigious assistance of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner and others, saw a need for a European church, which was then largely pastored by bureaucratised and sacristy-bound priests, to embody in society the kind of work which Jesus undertook on the margins of his own society. This is now a familiar line - and indeed vast secular and international organisations lay down their own version of it. Then, however, it was a striking call in a church whose energies were channeled into dispensing and consuming sacraments and into devotional practices of a private kind. It was a call for the church to institutionalise a commitment to the works of social justice by bringing those working for social justice within the ambit of its hierarchical order. The church would then perhaps be less drawn to continue its long drawn-out competition in grandeur and power with the kingdoms of this world because in its midst it would carry the sacramental sign of Jesus the servant of all.

This was how Kramer and his companions envisioned and lived a commitment which they called a diaconate. Like their Lutheran compatriots, they took the name "diaconate" from their understanding of what early Christians meant by speaking in their ancient Greek of "deacons" and "deaconing". In these words, which were variations of the Greek word diakonia, they heard the summons of the one who "came not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10.45), the same who made it plain that his followers were to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick... (Matthew 25.31-46).

At the sudden approach of the Second Vatican Council, and with the enthusiastic support of a specialist group of theologians and a broad range of bishops (but by no means of all bishops, as the interventions by Cardinal Spellman of New York in the counciliar debate evidence), Hannes Kramer experienced the joy of the rapid fulfilment of his dream. As we have seen, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church duly enshrined it.

Kramer and Rahner were careful not to overlook other aspects of diaconate beyond works of charity. Hence their inclusion among "essential features of the proposed restoration of the diaconate" of "the work of assisting in the liturgy" and "the ministry of the word" as well as "offices of charity". These too were duly registered in the council’s decree. Foremost in their vision, however, remained the "specific function of the diaconate" named as "to serve", concerning which the Formal Request made the following fulsome commendation:

The specific function of the diaconate ... is "to serve," as the word "deacon" itself implies.... Would it not further be a living testimony to the Church’s concern for the temporal and supernatural welfare of men to have deacons engaged in actual charitable work, bringing not only the Eucharistic Bread but also the necessities of temporal life to the poor and suffering, bringing Christ both sacramentally and in his burning care for the lowly and oppressed into the places of neglect and destitution, of hunger and sickness?

Over the following 35 years, for all the theological underpinning of the diaconate by reflection on the deacon’s connection with liturgy and ministry of the word, the "specific function" as conceived by "the Original Deacon Circle" has undoubtedly remained the focus of the new diaconate in the continent of Europe and in South America. The same is undoubtedly true of the diaconate in the United States, where over half of the world’s deacons have been ordained but where the deacons have a comparatively high liturgical profile. Their personal testimonies in the journal Deacon Digest provide ample evidence of their perceived highest commitment, just as their formation emphasises it.

Why have I been emphasing this orientation of the modern Roman Catholic diaconate to service of the needy and,earlier, the signs of its prior history in the initiatives of some German Lutheran pastors? Principally because a simple but possibly quite acute problem arises in many people’s minds about the need for such an ordained minister. Indeed so acute was the problem of such a diaconate to a board of enquiry in the Anglican Church - if I may appear to diverge - that they recommended "The diaconate be discontinued in the Church of England", and this mainly on the following ground:

the element of service to God and man, of devoted care particularly of the poor and needy, is an element essential to the life of the Christian Church ... but the work need not necessarily be performed by officials called deacons in an order of ministry.

The fact that some fifteen years later another Anglican working party reversed this decision and recommended the institution of a permanent (in their terms "distinctive") diaconate merely underlines the difficulty churches have been encountering in their modern attempts to define and establish a credible diaconate. In the latter case the about-turn was on the ground that the deacon should model to the church "Christ’s diaconate" who came "`not to be seved, but to serve... ‘" (Mark 10.45).

These contrary problematical positions in regard to ordained diaconate within the Anglican communion exemplify the one major difficulty experienced by all churches. As put by a study of the United Methodist Church (USA), "All of ministry is service because ministry, or diakonia, means just that. What then is the unique role of the diaconate?" Within the Roman Catholic Church the difficulty is superficially blunted by the availability of an appeal to the threefold function of deacons identified by the Second Vatican Council, namely, "the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity", but, as I have tried to illustrate within the space available, in practice the basic understanding of the permanent diaconate remains one of a diaconate of service.

Accordingly, if diaconate rises or falls on the credibility of a theology of service, a Roman Catholic woman weighing the advisability of working for the admission of women to the diaconate has to decide whether ordination to a role of service is really a gain for the church or for women, especially in the light of the situation that the individual would be ordained basically to perform service which every baptised Christian is called to. A further consideration is whether it is advisable for women at this historic stage of their empowerment to seek their first hierarchical endorsement in the church in the form of service.

Outside that aspect of the question, it seems for the moment at least that the modern woman need not preoccupy herself with impediments she might anticipate arising from the existing canon law, because in recent months, perhaps surprisingly, advice has been issued from the Canon Law Society of America that "ordination of women to the permanent diaconate is possible."

In her other considerations she will no doubt wish to read as widely as is realistic to expect from a busy woman among the current set of books on deacons. Here I advise her, however, that while she is likely to encounter a range of views emanating from different denominational experiences and policies she will recognise among these views a general acceptance across the denominations of the view of diaconate which led to last century’s Lutheran renewal.

Basically this view arises from an understanding that the original Greek word for deacon, which is diakonos - a word applied, incidentally, equally appropriately to a woman as to a man, meant a lowly servant; moreover, this view presents the lowly servant of early Christian parlance as acting out of a desire to meet the well-being of the person being served. This benevolent self-giving is understood to embody the pure ideal represented by Jesus when he spoke of himself as having come "to serve, and to give his life... " (Mark 10.45), because here the Greek verb for "serve" is related to noun diakonos.

This linguistic view pervades virtually all modern writing about diaconate, and I draw attention to only two books. One is the second edition of James Monroe Barnett’s widely readThe Diaconate. A Full and Equal Order and the other is Ormonde Plater’s Many Servants. An Introduction to Deacons. Both write from within the tradition of the North American Episcopal Church, which draws strongly on the Roman Catholic tradition. In the one case Barnett makes the framework of all his theology of church an understanding that diakonia, service, underlies all forms of ordination and is a common calling of all the baptised, with the essential role of the deacon being to symbolise this calling to all, both ordained and non-ordained.

The weakness of this almost universally accepted position is its total dependence on the linguistic understanding of diakonia as lowly or loving service to others. This is exactly the position which my own published linguistic research has demonstrated to be untenable, and the second writer, Plater, came quickly to acknowledge this at a very awkward stage of the production of his own study. So convinced was he of the error of the contemporary assumptions about diakonia as a loving Christian service that he held up publication until he could use the newly published linguistic findings about diakonia to modify his picture of the deacon.

These contrasting approaches to the very meaning of the deacon’s office and title naturally produce different theologies of the office and call for different job descriptions for the deacon. Precisely here commentators either acknowledge the importance of the new linguistic evaluation of diakonia in regard to diaconate or decry its nuisance value. Thus Michael Putney, a consultant to the Australian Episcopal Conference on diaconate (and himself now a member of the conference), extols the theology of diaconate which can be constructed from the new understanding of diakonia over the theologies depicted by Karl Rahner or the Bishops’ Committee on the Permanent Diaconate (USA), asserting elsewhere that "this whole area of theology can never be the same." The French-American scholar of church and ecumenism, George H. Tavard, who had been a consultant (peritus) at the Second Vatican Council, considers that had the book Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources been published at the time of the council, it "could have provided a basis for the needed theological reflection." Against such positive evaluations, a few writers have expressed dissatisfaction either with the linguistic work itself or with its applications in theology.

The outcome of these few reflections on the state of research on the origins and purpose of the diaconate would seem to be clear. Until there is a measure of agreement on what the office means, what point is there for women to seek entry into it? Career decisions can only be made on sound information. Why should pastoral vocation be different? In my view conditions for women’s decisions in this matter are not yet right. What the report will contain which we will eventually receive from the major review of diaconate by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy last November may determine whether it will be worth women’s while working for admission to the diaconate.

On the other hand, on the view of diaconate which I have sketched in some publications on the basis of the new linguistic description of diakonia, I believe that possibilities exist for an engagement by women and men in the real business of the ministry of the churches, which is in the nurturing of our life of faith. Essentially the diaconate would lie in the relationship with the pastoral leaders, bishop in the first place and then the presbyters, but, as I have also written in places, no relationship of real pastoral relevance is likely to develop - hence no authentic diaconate - until the full pastoral refurbishment of the office of bishop is taken up.

Should women ever get the opportunity to be officially engaged in this process as deacons, what kind of enriched local churches might we have, and what kind of further ministerial possibilities might these enlivened churches wish their women and men to explore?

Perhaps we can conclude with words of advice from the outstanding Orthodox advocate of women’s ministerial rights and capacities, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel; words from her quarter may well be heard with sympathy by women taking the trouble to read these pages.

The feminine deaconate should in no way be seen as a substitute for their [women’s] participation in the presbyteral ministry. Nor should it serve as an alibi for avoiding a serious theological reflection about the ordination of women to the priesthood.

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