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Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church

by Phyllis Zagano

Published by the Crossroad Publishing Company, 481 Eighth Avenue, Suite 1550, New York, NY 10001. 192 pages. ISBN 0-8245-1832-2. List price $16.95. Orders: (212) 868-1801 or fax (212) 868-2171 or email.

Restoring women's diaconate

This book contains a lot of interesting material and should be in the library of everyone studying the ordination of women to the diaconate in the Catholic Church.

The author presents a strong case for the Church to strengthen the ministry of women by restoring the diaconate of women. “The restoration of the female diaconate is necessary for the continuation of the apostolic life and ministry of the Roman Catholic Church.”

There is much in this book that I agree with, but it also contains some serious flaws in its argumentation. I will briefly comment on three.

1. The author discusses at length the debate in the Catholic Church on the ordination of women to the priesthood. She reports that the Vatican has steadfastly argued its impossibility since it would run counter to the very will of Jesus Christ. Though the author correctly sums up the arguments on both sides, she is ambiguous as to her own conclusions. She seems to finally accept the Church’s position against women priests as final and irreversible (p.63).

2. To overcome Roman intransigence, the author tries to dissociate the priesthood and the diaconate. The author contends that the Church’s resoluteness in not ordaining women to priesthood actually supports the ability of women to be ordained deacons, since one of the greatest arguments against women’s diaconal ordination is the notion that women therefore may be ordained priests. To argue that ordaining women deacons means that women may be ordained priests, she points out, is to argue against the express teachings of the Pope. Such is therefore irrelevant to the possibility of women deacons.

This argument, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. First of all, as a theologian she should be concerned with what is true or not, rather than what is convenient. More importantly, try as she may, she cannot make her argument for a radical separation of the diaconate and the priesthood stand. For the Council of Trent defined that there is within the sacrament of Holy Orders ‘a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and deacons’.

3. The author is confused when discussing the past ordination of women deacons. She presents the historical evidence of women deacons in the early Church and early Middle Ages, but suggests that their ordination or nonordination reflected the development of sacramental theology of the time. That is, if women deacons—who like men received the imposition of hands by the bishop with the recitation of the ordination prayer—were not ordained, then neither were men deacons, she says. “The majority of scholars agree that women were ordained and ordained in the present understanding of orders” (p. 98). So far so good. But the conclusion is surely that, since the diaconate of the men is recognised by the Church as part of Holy Orders, so must that of the women. How then can she say that the question of their past sacramentality is irrelevant to the question whether women in the contemporary Church may be ordained to the diaconate?

The author does reveal a forceful ecumenical argument in support of ordaining women deacons. While Church authority has often suggested that ordaining women would be detrimental to ecumenical concerns, she points out that the Church fully recognizes the apostolic succession and the sacramental validity of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which never fully discontinued ordaining women deacons and in fact ordains women deacons today. Two popes, Paul VI and John Paul II, have signed such agreements with the Armenian Apostolic Church and implicitly recognize the fact of validly ordained women deacons.

Surely, this points again at sacramentally ordained women deacons, in present-day terms?

It is a pity that this valuable book was so uncomfortable squeezed into an approach aimed at escaping the theological censorship of the Vatican. The introduction of the diaconate for women could, indeed, be a first pastoral step for the Church. Theologically, however, the diaconate and the priesthood are firmly tied together. Yes, women should be ordained deacons, but substantially for the same reasons that women should also be ordained priests.

John Wijngaards

Table of Contents of ‘Holy Saturday’



The Church must formalize the ministry of women.


The restoration of the female diaconate is necessary for the continuance of the apostolic life and ministry of the Roman Catholic Church.

  1. Men and women are ontologically equal.
  2. The Church has given reasons why women, although ontologically equal to men, may not be ordained to priesthood.
  3. The judgment that women cannot be ordained priests does not apply to the question of whether women can be ordained deacons.
  4. Women are and have been called to the diaconate.
  5. There are stronger arguments from scripture, history, tradition, and theology that women may be ordained deacons than that women may not be ordained deacons.
  6. Women have continually served the Church in diaconal ministry, whether ordained to such service or not.
  7. The ordained ministry of service by women is necessary to the Church, that is, to both the People of God and the Hierarchy.


The ordination of women to the diaconate is possible.


Phyllis Zagano is founding co-chair of the Roman Catholic Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion. She has taught philosophy, theology, literature, and communications at a number of colleges and universities on the East Coast, including Fordham University, Boston University, and St. Francis College.

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