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Women Deacons
- the fears of Rome

by Phyllis Zagano
published in The Furrow, September 2003, VolumeLIV,
Number 9, pp. 478-480.

Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, where she teaches in the department of philosophy and religion. She is author of the award-winning Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate (Crossroad, 2000).

If the two most recent documents touching on the restoration of the female diaconate are any indication, advocates of the ordination of women deacons are in for a long wait. Or possibly not, depending on the longevity of the proponents of the status quo, their ability to self-replicate, and the Church’s belief in its own teachings.

In September 2001 the prefects of three Vatican congregations - Clergy, Divine Worship, and Doctrine of the Faith - issued a four paragraph ‘notification’ reminding diocesan ordinaries that women have not been readmitted to the diaconate, and hence should not be enrolled in preparatory courses for ordination. The ‘notification’, an administrative message aimed squarely at German-speaking bishops who indeed have been training women for diaconal service, if not for ordination, is a statement of current discipline that carries no doctrinal weight. Even so, it encourages those so inclined to believe that the matter is closed.

A little over a year later, at its October 2002 meeting in Rome, the International Theological Commission approved its second investigation of the diaconate. An earlier report was prepared at the request of Pope Paul VI by a previous iteration of the ITC, but never published. Despite the suppression of the earlier study, its research quite probably appeared in a 1974 paper by Cipriano Vagaggini, a liturgy expert and member of the ITC, which presented the sacramental nature of the ordination of women deacons in the Greek and Byzantine tradition.

While the first ITC document has never appeared, the second is gradually being translated and published. Both the original French and the Italian are available, (in la documentation catholique and in la civilita cattolica), and an English translation is under way by the London Catholic Truth Society. The 2002 document, 71 pages in manuscript, only notes Vagaggini’s work. It depends rather on the work of ITC member Gerhard L. Müller, a theology professor named bishop of Regensburg, Germany, during the fall 2002 ITC meeting. A number of theologians disagree with Müller’s assertions that women never were and never can be sacramentally ordained, but they are either not mentioned or relegated along with Vagaggini to footnotes. Neither does the ITC document disconnect the historical fact or non-fact of diaconal ordination of women from the current understanding of women as fully human, and therefore able to be ordained.

The crux of the problem appears to be the fear that ordaining women to the diaconate would automatically allow women priests. The unfounded fear is supported by the ITC’s own efforts to deny a restoration of the female diaconate. The ITC argues that, since the diaconate is part of the sacerdotal priesthood and women cannot be ordained priests (as the 1976 Inter insigniores and the 1994 Ordinatio sacerdotalis state), then neither can women be deacons. However, the opposite is true. That is, since women have been sacramentally ordained to the diaconate, if the diaconate shares in priesthood then women can also be ordained to the priesthood. What the Church has done the Church can do again.

Inter insigniores, the first Vatican response to calls for the ordination of women, argues most substantially from authority - Jesus chose only men - and through in persona Christi theology - only a male can represent Jesus. Tellingly, Inter insigniores, a publication of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explicitly leaves the matter of women deacons for further discussion. Eighteen years later in 1994, Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis retained the argument from authority against women priests, did not mention women deacons, and quietly dropped the in persona Christi argument.

The concept that the maleness of Jesus takes precedence over his humanness is both insulting and wrong. Women cannot represent Jesus in expressly the same way men can, when the accidents of gender are considered, but women most clearly can - and do - represent Jesus in his human nature. In the 2002 ITC document, every effort is made to recast the in persona Christi argument, despite its abandonment at the papal level, as one that would close the door to women deacons as well as to women priests. The ITC language is both confusing and interesting. The ITC presupposes, along with Vatican II, the sacramentality of both the permanent and transitional diaconate, and then spends considerable space distinguishing in persona Christi capitis (how the priest acts) and a term new in this document, in persona Christi servi (how the deacon acts). The assumption is that since the action of the priest in persona Christi capitis is denied to women, women are automatically excluded from acting in persona Christi servi. That is, women can perform ministries of service, but cannot essentially be conformed to Christ to act in persona Christi servi. Neither Does this new term in persona Christi servi reflect ordinary teaching, which presents the deacon as the representative of the Church who acts in nomine Christi, not in persona Christi servi.

True, the deacon acts as the servant-Christ, but as the representative of the entire people of God. The extension of the ITC logic effectively removes women from the Church. Others have commented on this implicit attitude common in discussion about the ordination of women, but perhaps none so cogently as American theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, writing in Commonweal in 1996:

... let it be plainly stated that women are icons of Christ, imago Christi, in every essential way. There is a natural resemblance between women and Jesus Christ in terms of a common humanity and participation in divine grace. To teach otherwise is a pernicious error that vitiates the power of baptism. The naive physicalism that reduces resembling Christ to being male is so deviant from scripture and so theologically distorted as to be dangerous to the faith itself.

There is much at stake in the persistent refusal to restore the female diaconate. The greatest liberals and the staunchest traditionalists alike know that the ordination to the diaconate does not automatically imply priesthood. There remains, no matter anything else, the question of authority and the Catholic understanding of sacramental theology. The apostles chose the first deacons; their successors are fully able to choose more. As for women priests, how could the Pope do what he truly believes he cannot do? For him to ordain a woman priest, he must intend to do what he has the power and authority to do, and he has plainly stated he does not believe he has the authority to ordain women priests. That alone should answer any problems with the ordination of women deacons.

There is a deeper problem. Continued refusal to readmit women to the sacramental diaconate, something that the Church has both the power and the authority to do, will erode the very mission of the Church. The gospel teaches the dignity of all human beings. The greater the Church’s evangelization efforts, the greater its creation of a cognitive dissonance on the part of those who perchance hear the good news,

This should not be a confusing statement: We are all made in the image and likeness of God.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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