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What about the women?

by Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of “Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church” (Phyllis.Zagano@ hofstra.edu).

Ordaining women as deacons in the Catholic Church would elevate their status and lend force to their work with the poor, one of the pope’s (n.b. Benedict XVI) highest priorities, argues theologian PHYLLIS ZAGANO

Sunday Forum, March 25, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI is developing a theme for his papacy: charity. His second major document, issued March 13, was “Sacramentum Caritatis” — “The Sacrament of Charity” — and it names the Catholic Eucharist, the celebration of the Mass, as the source and summit of the church’s life and mission. The 27,000-word, closely reasoned treatise is the result of the 2005 Synod of Bishops. It links charity to church discipline and practice and law.

All well and good.

But what about the women?

The billion-member Catholic Church is arguably half-female. Women are honored in “Sacramentum Caritas” as “created in God’s image and likeness.” Honored as well is “the unique mission of women in the family and in society.” But there is not the slightest hint that women will be put on an equal footing in the hierarchy with ordained men. Nor is there any suggestion of a wider married priesthood, which would help overcome old prejudices that consider women “unclean.”

The largest part of the Catholic Church — the Latin, or Roman Catholic Church — ordinarily disallows married priests. Despite a number of strong suggestions by bishops at the 2005 Synod, Benedict XVI reaffirmed celibacy as the norm. The older tradition — married priests — is adhered to by most Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Eastern bishops are celibates — typically from monasteries — but parish priests are usually married. Their wives and children are legitimate in the eyes of both state and church.

Not so in the Latin Church. There priests, with few exceptions, must be celibate at ordination and for life. Catholic law, both east and west, is that a married man may be ordained, but an ordained man may not marry. Still, there are a few married Latin Catholic priests in the United States and elsewhere who were married Protestant ministers who converted to Catholicism.

The other problem with the pope’s “report” of the Synod, on women in ministry, collides with both history and logic. While women priests are out of the question given the current trajectory of thought in Rome, the church still could have women clergy. (Last summer’s women’s ordinations in Pittsburgh are not considered valid — or even Catholic — by Rome.) Aside from women priests, the Catholic Church could revisit its tradition of women deacons, ordained clergy who minister in charity.

Women served as ordained deacons in antiquity and beyond, and there is a treasure trove of evidence to prove it. There are women deacons in some Eastern churches the Vatican recognizes as in “imperfect communion” (related but not fully joined), and Catholic tradition, scripture and outright need argue for the widest restoration of the tradition of ordained women deacons.

What would happen if the tradition was restored? Ordained clergy act “in persona Christi” — in the person of Christ. The ordained represent Christ; ordination announces that the individual is made in the image and likeness of God. No matter how many times the church repeats that phrase, all-male assemblies of celibate Catholic clergy broadcast around the world drill in the not-so-subtle message: Women cannot come near the holy.

Women deacons could help the image problem. There is no diaconal duty a woman cannot undertake. As Benedict reminds us, in the Mass the deacon “prepares the altar, assists the priest, proclaims the Gospel, preaches the homily from time to time, reads the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful, and distributes the Eucharist to the faithful.” Women, who provide most of the church’s social services, also are best suited to interpret the gospel of charity in the face of world injustices. That is, women are perfectly well-suited to preaching, especially about the diaconal services they render.

In “Sacramentum Caritatis” the pope calls for just social structures. He says recognizing the need for justice leads to “a determination to transform unjust structures and to restore respect for the dignity of all men and women.” By raising up the role of women in the church, he could help restore respect for their dignity.

Women suffer most deeply the world’s injustices: hunger, poor health care, minimal legal and political protections. Dowry fires in India and genital mutilation in Africa are suffered by women. Most of the babies who suffer infanticide are female. Clearly they often are not seen as made in the image and likeness of God.

No matter how many words are thrown toward problems of social justice and the status of women, acting in the tradition of the church by ordaining women as deacons would go a long way toward solving them. In reaffirming the all-male celibate priesthood for the Catholic Church, and concurrently not affirming the equal dignity of women as ordainable to the rank of deacon, Pope Benedict XVI has avoided some of the very issues he seems to address.