A Man with a Mission
Dr John Wijngaards resigned his priestly ministry to campaign for women priests and to unearth the ‘truth’ about women deacons. Fr Francis Marsden counsels caution.
Review of No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church by John Wijngaards, 222pp, pb, Canterbury Press, £9.99; in MASS OF AGES, May 2003, p. 16.
Who were these female deacons? What role did they occupy in the early church? Did they share in Holy Orders? Should the Church re-introduce a female diaconate today? Dr John Wijngaards is convinced that the Catholic Church is perpetrating an injustice against women by refusing to ordain them either to the priesthood or the diaconate. By attempting to prove that women deacons shared in Holy Orders, he wishes to demonstrate beyond all doubt that women have the right to the diaconate. Additionally, he asserts, there is no reason why they should not also be admitted to priesthood. “For if the diaconate of women was a true diaconate, if it was one valid expression of the sacrament of Holy Orders, then women did in fact receive Holy Orders and the priesthood too is open to them.”
Now, of course, this argument contains a logical non-sequitur. It would be possible in theory for the diaconate but not the priesthood to be open to women, although at the expense of introducing a certain division into the threefold Sacrament of Order.
Dr Wijngaards’ book claims that he “leads academic support for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church.” The Catholic reader, will however bear in mind the fact that in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, signed at Pentecost, 1994, Pope John Paul II declared infallibly that, “The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly Ordination on women.” He ruled out for all time any possibility of women priests in the Catholic Church. “This judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” he warned.
Dr Wijngaards writes well and with passion for his cause. However, in a matter like the female diaconate, passion and a sense of injustice do not necessarily add up to the best scholarship.
Sifting the evidence
If we compare Dr Wijngaards’ book with scholarly and balanced treatments such as Georges Martimort’s Deaconesses — An Historical Study, or Manfred Hauke’s Women in the Priesthood, we find a sharp contrast. Martimort is very tentative in his conclusions about women’s diaconate. It is not clear at all that the women deacons of the Greek and Syriac churches shared in Holy Orders, because their ministry was not ordained towards the altar and the Divine Mysteries, in the way that the male diaconate is. The women deacons’ role was more concerned with the pastoral and sacramental care of the female portion of the congregation: helping with anointings and immersion during women’s baptisms, taking Holy Communion to the sick, etc.
Although Dr Wijngaards produces much interesting material, he nevertheless fails to prove his case. For instance, he downplays the differences between the ordination rites for male and female deacons. If their sharing in Holy Orders was the same, then one might expect pretty well identical forms of the ordination prayers. Words and gestures, however, vary quite widely, suggesting that the two offices were not considered equivalent at all. In some lists of Orders, the female diaconate is mentioned immediately after the male diaconate. Elsewhere, however, it comes after the subdiaconate, or among or after the minor orders. Local practices varied widely.
The difference in office and function is highlighted by the fact that whereas eastern-rite deacons continue to the present day to have a most prominent role in the entire Liturgy, the women deacons faded away by the tenth century, or evolved into the orders of consecrated virgins: nuns and religious.
For such reasons, the International Theological Commission, in its 100 page report, recently stated that deaconesses in the ancient Christian church “cannot purely and simply be compared to the sacramental diaconate” that exists today, since there is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions they exercised. The Commission has not called for a ban on women deacons, but asks for further “discernment about what the Lord has established for the church.” Do not St Paul’s own words tend to rule out a woman diaconate as part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders? “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent” (I Tim 2:14).
Dr Wijngaards makes a brave attempt, but the counterarguments, all considered, are probably stronger. Women deacons washing the altar linen, sweeping the sanctuary and lighting the sanctuary lamp hardly add up to a liturgical ministry at the altar.
At times he oversteps the mark or uses specious arguments. Women deacons did not serve at the altar, he suggests, because of the risk of hanky-panky with the male priest during the Liturgy! He claims that because the blessing/ordination of women deacons took place publicly, it was therefore a full sacramental ordination. What does that imply about institution to the orders of lectorate, acolyte or, in the old rite, subdiaconate? These too are publicly performed, but not sacramental.
One needs to read Dr Wijngaards’ book cautiously. He is a man with a mission. Whether his mission is correct or not is for .cooler heads and probably the Magisterium to decide. He is inclined to assume what cannot be proven from history. Those, like Martimort, who cannot agree with him, come in for some rough handling. Dr Wijngaards gives us an interesting piece of propaganda, but not impartial scholarship.
This 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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