Female deacons: how likely is it to happen under Francis?
The Tablet19 May 2016 | by Phyllis Zagano | Comments: 0 Pope Francis’ proposal to examine the possibility of women joining the diaconate took people by surprise. But, asks an expert, is it merely a device to fudge an age-old question?
Just prior to Pentecost, responding to questions at the final session of the Union of International Superiors General (UISG) triennial meeting, Pope Francis said he would like to think about women deacons. The eyes of the world turned toward Rome. Women ordained as deacons? Well, the Church has never ruled against it.
Like the good Jesuit pastor he is, Francis sees the need for clarity and decision-making here. Around the world, women – and men – are asking, why not restore women to the ordained diaconate? The question will not go away; neither will it be answered quickly.
Francis appreciates the importance of careful discernment that he and every other follower of Ignatius strives for. The first step in Ignatian discernment is gathering facts, and when speaking to the women Religious, he made it clear he did not know much about the history of women in the diaconate. He said he had asked a Syrian theologian once, and had learned that female deacons were employed in immersion baptisms and full-body anointing, and they examined the bodies of women beaten by their husbands, reporting on the injuries to the bishop. Such little information is a poor periscope to the history of diaconal ministry by women over the centuries, and Francis knows it.
He told the assembled women Religious that he would ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for materials about women deacons. The CDF surely has plenty of research; in 2002, its International Theological Commission (ITC) published a study document on the diaconate. That followed an earlier study in 1997, which did not win the approval or signature of Joseph Ratzinger, then CDF prefect, who refused to promulgate it. That first, brief 17- or 18-page document reportedly found no barrier to restoring women to the ordained diaconate. The second study, quadruple in size, ended inconclusively, stating: 1) “deaconess” in history is not the same as deacons; 2) while each is part of the one sacrament of holy orders, the distinction between priests/bishops and deacons is underlined by the magisterium; and, therefore, 3) the question of women deacons is up to the “ministry of discernment the Lord has left his Church” to decide. That is: the decision is there is no decision.
With no decision, then or since, the UISG rightly asked for an answer: can women be ordained as deacons? While they did not bring the facts to the floor, surely they – and Francis – know that Eastern Orthodoxy has a deep history of ordained women deacons.
While Francis is duty-bound to ask his Curia for input on the matter, nothing from the CDF would be likely to advise restoring women to the diaconate. The 2002 ITC document is proof of this. Parts of that study include uncited sections paraphrased or taken whole from a book by Gerhard Müller, then a Munich professor and member of the sub-commission producing the study, and now cardinal prefect of the Congregation, who finds women deacons an “amusing anachronism”. Further, the study document dismisses in footnotes major scholarship on women in the diaconate.
If a CDF panel has already relegated the major scholarship supporting women deacons to the back of the filing cabinet, how will Francis make an informed decision? He seems to have answered his own discernment dilemma: form a commission to study the question. But what would the new commission study? That depends on how it is formed. If it is yet another group of hand-picked clerics and laymen seminary professors, the information (and the resulting decision by the Pope) is predictable.
Ratzinger clearly knew what he was doing when he named his former graduate student Fr Henrique de Noronha Galvão – a scholar of St Augustine – to head the second, reconfigured ITC panel. If the commission is comprised of people – including women – who have actually studied the theology and history of women in the diaconate, at least Francis will have the information for his discernment.
What would he be discerning and then deciding? The questions are often complicated historical-theological ones: were the women deacons ordained to the major order of deacons? and what were their tasks and functions? The facts present only a partial answer to the principal question: can women be ordained to the renewed order of deacon today? Some argue that the early women deacons did not receive sacramental ordination. But, if that is the case, neither did the men deacons, since the liturgies are virtually, and in at least one case exactly, identical.
Historical evidence, good as it is, cannot fully answer newer objections against ordaining women as deacons. There are New Testament references to female deacons and we know that papal and conciliar documents mention women deacons – eleventh- and twelfh-century papal letters affirm the rights of a western bishop to ordain male and female deacons. The eighteenth-century canons of the Maronite Catholic Church refer to women deacons. Even though extant ordination ceremonies – some in the Vatican Library – include the epiclesis, or calling down of the Holy Spirit, some argue a woman cannot receive the grace and charism of order, saying the female body is not a proper “subject” for diaconal ordination.
In fact, despite significant evidence that bishops intentionally did what the Church does by ordaining women deacons, the theological question of whether a woman can receive diaconal ordination seems still unsettled, no doubt because of the fear of women priests. For example, the 2002 ITC study presses against the notion of a female being “in persona Christi servi”. It implicitly argues that a woman cannot image Christ. Even as it vitiates the central notion of Christianity, that all are made in the image and likeness of God, the argument that women cannot represent the Risen Lord is embedded in the CDF document and has been recently repeated by a few writers as an argument against female deacons.
Why? Well, Pope Francis alluded to the question at the UISG meeting. He said celebration of the Eucharist and preaching during Mass are restricted to the priest, who is acting “in persona Christi.” If, by extension, no woman can act “in persona Christi,” then he would have to determine that no woman can be ordained deacon.
But the distinction between priests/bishops on the one hand and deacons on the other was codified in Canon 1009, modified in 2009 by Benedict XVI: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity”. So, the bishop or priest acts “in personal christi capitas ecclesiae” while the deacon acts “in persona christi servi.”
What restricts women from priestly ordination is the argument from authority: Jesus chose male apostles to head his Church. What points toward restoring women to the diaconate is that it is a ministry of service created by the Church.
When he spoke to the UISG, Francis praised the service of the women Religious and railed against clericalism, but he seemed to be weighing the possibilities for “a more incisive presence” of women in the Church, including their ability to preach homilies. Restoring women to the one order of deacon is a valid and legitimate way to accomplish those goals. How it all turns out is anybody’s guess, but the fact that the question was asked – and answered – so close to Pentecost gives encouragement to both sides of the discussion.
Phyllis Zagano is author of Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad, 2000). Her latest work is Women Deacons? Essays with Answers (Liturgical, 2016). She holds a research appointment at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.