The Vatican seems poised to publish a theological investigation into the diaconate that does not look kindly on women deacons. On the other hand, reports that the Vatican has outlawed women deacons are not true—at least not yet. The International Theological Commission approved a study on the diaconate during its meeting in Rome from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4, 2001. After news services correctly reported that women deacons were not ruled out, the commission’s general secretary, Georges Cottier, O.P., insisted that the document tends to support the exclusion of women from the diaconate. In fact, the 70-page French document leaked to the media neither allows for nor disallows women deacons. As a working paper, which may go before the plenarium of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the document is a short and selective exploration of the history and theology of the diaconate.
The question of women deacons has been before the commission for at least 20 years. The original study on women deacons, requested by Pope Paul VI, was suppressed. While that document remains unpublished, an article published in Orientalia Christiana Periodica in 1974 by then-commission member Cipriano Vagaggini concluded that the ordination of women deacons in the early church was sacramental. What the church had done in the past, he suggested, the church may do again. Other scholars, before and after Vagaggini, have reached similar conclusions, but the current document only refers to the debate and strenuously avoids concluding that women ever received the sacrament of holy orders.
What is unfortunately clear is that the new document is both carefully nuanced and fundamentally flawed by a need to prove its unstated point: that women never were ordained and never can be ordained. The study omits a large body of historical-theological evidence that women were sacramentally ordained. It also tries to argue that the diaconate’s participation in the sacrament of holy orders eliminates women, latching on to language that implies that the deacon, like the priest, is so configured to Christ that women are eliminated.
One commission member explained privately that the salient points in the ongoing conversation over the years, as the document grew from 18 to 70 pages, were: 1) What did women deacons do? 2) Were women deacons ever sacramentally ordained? 3) Does the ordained diaconate share in the sacrament of order? 4) Does the ordained diaconate share in the sacrament of order in such a way that it is part of the sacerdotal priesthood? This last point caused deep debate within the commission.
What did women deacons do?
While the work of women deacons—always rooted in the word, the liturgy and charity—differed regionally, the fact of women deacons is undeniable. The commission recognizes that St. Paul called Phoebe a deacon (not a deaconess) of the church at Cenechrae. But the commission ignores or relegates to footnotes significant epigraphical and literary evidence. There is a scattershot approach in the document to what is known about ordained women, and a general attitude that all persons called deacon are male, even though women deacons of the early church were called by their job title.
The commission states at the outset, citing Cardinal Walter Kasper, that it is impossible to take a few historical facts and make an argument, yet that is clearly what it attempts even as it recognizes deaconesses as one of the two branches of the diaconate. Over 40 years ago Cardinal Jean Daniélou, a French Jesuit, noted four ministerial areas of women deacons: 1) evangelization, catechesis and spiritual direction, 2) liturgical roles equivalent to porter, acolyte, lector and deacon, 3) care of the sick, including anointing and 4) liturgical prayer. Daniélou actually argued that women sacramentally anointed the sick, citing Epiphanius: the woman deacon is delegated by the priest to perform his ministry for him. This raises a deeper question and underlies the quandary imbedded in the document: can women be given the power of holy orders?
As time and practice accrued, women were ordained to the diaconate in rituals identical to those used to ordain men to the diaconate. The ordination ritual of the Apostolic Constitutions for women deacons, codified by the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (421) begins: O bishop, you shall lay hands on her in the presence of the presbytery. Perhaps the oldest known complete rite of ordination for women deacons, a mid-eighth century Byzantine manuscript known as Barbarini 336, requires that women be ordained by the bishop within the sanctuary, the proximity to the altar indicating the fact of a true ordination.
The commission recognizes only a nonsacramental ordination through the laying on of hands for deaconesses, by implication a minor order. In discussing this point, the commission does not mention the scholarship of its former member, Cipriano Vagaggini, except in a footnote referring to the famous debate about women deacons of the 1970’s and early 1980’s that included Vagaggini, Roger Gryson and Aime Georges Martimort. Gryson carried out a definitive exploration of texts and concluded that women were sacramentally ordained. Martimort argued against that interpretation. It is telling how carefully the Commission follows Martimort, as well as more recent writings by a subcommittee member, Gerhard Muller.
Share in the Sacrament of Order?
Echoing the Council of Trent, the commission finds that the majority theological opinion since the 12th century supports the sacramentality of the diaconate and says this finding must be considered in propositions regarding women deacons. The not-so-hidden agenda of the document—to prove that the diaconate shares in the sacrament of order in such a way as to exclude women—is not magisterial teaching. As the document repeats several times, the deacon is ordained not to the priesthood but to the ministry (non ad sacerdotium sed ad ministerium).
The study notes that the documents of the Second Vatican Council presuppose the sacramentality of both modes of the diaconate (permanent and transitional). It then devotes considerable space to distinguishing between how the priest acts in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ, head [of the church]) and a new term this document uses to describe how the deacon acts, in persona Christi servi (in the person of Christ servant). If in persona Christi capitis cannot be applied to a woman, then in persona Christi with any extension cannot be applied to a woman, argues the document.
The commission’s somewhat tortured logic in this respect—splitting and then rejoining the concept of Christ-head and Christ-servant—does not contribute to an understanding of the diaconate as a separate and permanent vocation and part of the sacrament of order. Neither does the new term in persona Christi servi reflect traditional magisterial teaching, which presents the deacon as the representative of the church.
Part of the Sacerdotal Priesthood?
The unstated fear evident in the document is the specter of women priests: If you can ordain a woman a deacon, you can ordain a woman a priest. The commission argues that if the diaconate is part of the sacerdotal priesthood, women are excluded from the diaconate. But such an argument could backfire. There is overwhelming historical evidence that women were ordained deacons by bishops intending to perform a sacrament. If women were sacramentally ordained deacons and the diaconate shares in the sacerdotal priesthood (as the commission argues), then women have already shared in the sacerdotal priesthood. I am not arguing for women priests, only pointing out that the argument seems to do so.
As for the diaconate, the universally accepted theology of the diaconate shows the deacon acting in the name of Christ in his church, as opposed to in the person of Christ, head of the church. The document, however, does all it can to conjoin the three grades of order. The clear attempt to define the sacrament of order narrowly, at any level, as part of the (male) priesthood of Christ to which women need not apply, makes church teachings about the equality of all persons less credible. Aside from the insinuation that women cannot represent Christ, even as servant (cannot act in persona Christi servi) the commission ignores the essential weaknesses of in persona Christi theology. In fact, the humanity of Christ overcomes the limitations of gender, and no church document argues an ontological distinction among humans except documents that address the question of ordination. This view is not likely to dampen growing worldwide enthusiasm for women deacons.
The genuine question, Why not? has remained constant since Vatican II. In 1985 the late Basil Cardinal Hume, archbishop of Westminster and president of the episcopal conferences of Europe, told an Italian journal he would be very happy if the church decided to ordain women deacons. Women already exercise the diaconate, he said, and the diaconate is not part of the sacerdotal priesthood.
Why not? remains the mantra as more evidence of an unbroken tradition of ordaining women deacons surfaces in the churches of the East, whose apostolic succession and orders are noted in Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (1964). Sister Hripsime, a woman deacon who was ordained by the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople and assisted in liturgies in the United States many years ago, is alive today. The current Armenian patriarch of Constantinople, His Beatitude Archbishop Mesrob II, has spoken favorably of ordaining more women deacons. Further, the Greek Orthodox Church ordained monastic women deacons through the 1950’s and Bartholomew, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, in 1996 said it is always possible to return to this ancient tradition of the church.
Both here and abroad the call for women deacons continues to intensify. The Joint Synod of the Dioceses of Germany has asked several times since 1975 to ordain women deacons. A 1995 report of the Canon Law Society of America noted that ordination would open the way for women to exercise diaconal service in the teaching, sanctifying and governing functions of the church, and would make them capable of holding ecclesiastical office now open to deacons but closed to lay persons. Last summer, a reader survey by the magazine U.S. Catholic found widespread support for women deacons.
But this new document of the International Theological Commission joins other negative signals from Rome. The Notification on the Diaconal Ordination of Women of September 2002 stated that it is not licit to enact initiatives which, in some way, aim to prepare [women] candidates for diaconal ordination. The notification, an administrative message, was aimed at the bishops of Germany and Austria, who indeed are preparing women for the diaconate in programs they control.
I believe that the arguments set forth in my book Holy Saturday are still valid. Men and women are ontologically equal. The church has given reasons why women, although ontologically equal to men, may not be ordained to the priesthood, but the judgment that women cannot be ordained priests does not apply to the question of whether women can be ordained deacons. Women are now called and have been called in the past to the diaconate. There are stronger arguments from Scripture, history, tradition and theology that women may be ordained deacons than that women may not be ordained deacons. Women have continually served the church in diaconal ministry, whether ordained to such service or not. The ordained ministry of service by women is necessary to the church—that is, to both the people of God and the hierarchy. As a result, the ordination of women to the diaconate is possible.
Before the Vatican issued Georges Cottier’s comments, the Rev. Thomas Norris, a professor of dogmatic theology in Ireland who is a member of the commission, affirmed that the question of restoring the female diaconate was left open. It will remain a matter for the magisterium of the church to decide, he said. Fifteen years ago in New York City, I asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the same question: Will the church return to the tradition of ordaining women deacons? He responded that it was under study. For how long?