It’s Time

The Case for Women Deacons

In 2010, parishioners of St. Nicholas Parish in suburban Chicago met to discuss the diaconate. A parishioner had expressed a desire to become a deacon, so the staff, the parish council, and several parishioners began to study the issue. They hosted four speakers, including Loyola University Chicago theology professor Susan Ross (now president of the Catholic Theological Society of America), who spoke about women as deacons. Before long, St. Nicholas had a committee and a candidate: Lynne Mapes-Riordan, a married mother of two and an attorney.

In January 2011, the parish committee, the pastor, and Mapes-Riordan met with Chicago auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Kane for a preliminary discussion. Three months later the committee wrote a position paper. And on September 16, 2011, they were welcomed to the office of Cardinal Francis George, who promised to bring up the matter both to the International Theological Commission (ITC) and at his forthcoming ad limina meeting in Rome. A few months later, George met privately with Mapes-Riordan.

What was happening at St. Nicholas went unnoticed by the media until George mentioned, after a speech at the Union League Club of Chicago, that the subject of women deacons “is being talked about very slowly.” In August, Chicago Tribune reporter Manya A. Brachear broke the story about Mapes-Riordan. Brachear’s article was syndicated to the six hundred McClatchy-Tribune outlets. About two months later, retired auxiliary Bishop Emil Wcela of Rockville Centre made an argument for ordaining women to the diaconate in the pages of America.

While it has been some time since an American cardinal archbishop expressed interest in the question of women deacons (Cardinal John J. O’Connor expressed interest throughout his time in New York), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops considered the idea as early as 1982. In November of that year, a USCCB ad hoc committee on the role of women in society and the church presented the question as part of the preparatory work for its famously doomed pastoral letter on women.

When reports surfaced that the pastoral letter would recommend ordaining women as deacons, William J. Levada, then archbishop of Portland, Oregon—and a member of the ad hoc committee—strenuously objected. So did committee member Joseph L. Imesh, bishop of Joliet, who went so far as to deny any historical record of the “laying on of hands” for women deacons.

Scholarship has corrected Imesh’s mistaken view of history. Many academics agree that Pope Paul VI asked the International Theological Commission for a study of the diaconate in the early 1970s. But it wasn’t until 2002 that the ITC got around to publishing anything on the subject. The document has a strange history, one that’s been shrouded in mystery since Paul VI first issued his request.

While ITC member Cipriano Vagaggini published research on the diaconate in an Italian journal in 1974, the ITC didn’t produce its own work on that subject until about 1997. Along with Vagaggini, that ITC document affirmed what Bishop Imesh had denied years earlier: history supports the argument that women could be sacramentally ordained. Yet while news reports appeared about the document, it was never published by the Vatican. Rumors abound that it had even been assigned a Vatican document number when publication was stopped.

Some years later, a new, longer version of the study document was published: “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.” Its conclusions are rather different. Here the ITC concluded that “deaconesses” are not the same as deacons, that the priesthood and episcopacy are distinct from the diaconate and, finally, that the question of women deacons should be left to the “ministry of discernment which the Lord has left to his church.”

The first conclusion—that “deaconesses” are not deacons—flows from a selective analysis of some historical sources that seeks to demonstrate a minor nonsacramental order for women that would not include women in the major order of deacon today, a concept undermined by later (and even by earlier) scholarship. The second conclusion—that deacons are not ordained to the ministerial priesthood—comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1596, later codified by Benedict XVI through his 2009 apostolic letter Omnium in mentum, revising Canons 1008–09 to distinguish more clearly between priests and deacons). The final conclusion—that the church’s “ministry of discernment” should be applied to the matter—can be read as both pastoral and doctrinal judgment: bishops and the faithful should consider the question of women in the diaconate, as does Cardinal George and at least a few other cardinals before him, including O’Connor, Basil Hume, and Carlo Maria Martini. While the 2002 document did not rule out the question, it certainly forestalled its answer.

Of course, Rome is not exactly predisposed to ordaining women to any ministry. Shortly after the ’02 ITC document was published, one of its members, Gerhard Müller, told the German paper Die Tagespost that “deaconesses” were an “amusing anachronism.” Women teachers, pastoral associates, and directors of religious education, Müller claimed, exceed the work of ancient deaconesses. That may be so, but Müller failed to note that deaconesses, teachers, pastoral associates, and DREs are separate categories, although one person may work in more than one role. What’s more, no one is suggesting women become “deaconesses”—as distinct from deacons—but rather ordained members of the one order of deacon. (Pope John Paul II went on to appoint Müller bishop of Regensburg, and Benedict recently appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.)

Now, ten years after the ITC published its study document, important new research contradicts Müller’s claims about women as deacons, claims he presented in detail in his book Priestertum und Diakonat (published in English by Ignatius Press in 2002). Scholars Gary Macy, Kevin Madigan, and Carolyn Osiek, and Ute Eisen present additional literary and epigraphical evidence of ordained women deacons to that in earlier works by A. Kalsbach and Josephine Mayer.

Both Eastern and Western liturgies support the claim that women were sacramentally ordained, even as various local councils forbade the practice. In the West, the eighth-century liturgical book of Bishop Egbert of York contains one prayer for the ordination of a male or female deacon. The ninth-century Gregorian sacramentary includes precisely the same prayer. Because neither book provides a complete ceremony for the making of a female—as opposed to a male—deacon, it seems clear that candidates of either gender were ordained with the same ceremony to the same order.

The bishop of Porto, Portugal, probably still has in his archives an eleventh-century letter from Pope Benedict VIII granting him permission in perpetuity to ordain bishops, priests, and male or female deacons—a right renewed by Pope John XIX in 1025 and Pope Leo IX in 1049. Additional evidence of women deacons in the West comes from Italy and France.

While women were included in the order of deacon, not only in the early church but at least until the twelfth century in the West (and in the East up to modern times), the historical fact of women ordained as deacons is apparently not sufficient to call women back to that order today. Early documents point to bishops selectively ordaining—or not ordaining—women according to the needs of their dioceses. While the church has changed in many respects since women deacons were common, the fact that the church calls forth the people it needs for certain ministries has not changed.

Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, an ITC member and a professor at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, argued against women as ordained deacons both in the August Chicago Tribune story (she is quoted saying women who seek ordination to the diaconate are looking for power) and in the Scottish journal New Diaconal Review, where she writes that a “feminine typology for the ministry of women” mitigates against their sacramental ordination to the contemporary diaconate. But she does not respond to the question of whether the church may need ordained women.

Would ordaining women to the diaconate help? The answer depends on Rome’s priorities. If reconciliation with the Society of Saint Pius X—the Lefebvrites—takes precedence, then introducing the notion of women in sacred orders seems highly unlikely. But if reconciliation with the women of the church—especially with the women of the church in the United States and the developed world—is an issue of interest, then ordaining women as deacons becomes a genuine necessity. But even the most convincing political argument will not hold sway unless the church as a whole agrees with individual conferences of bishops, and then individual bishops, that the ordained ministry of women is necessary in their dioceses, their provinces, and throughout the world.

Diaconal ministry—of the word, the liturgy, and of charity—is clearly necessary everywhere. The service provided by the deacon at liturgy is the smallest part of the deacon’s charge—even as it is the most symbolic. The ministry of the deacon is to carry the gospel, literally as well as symbolically, and with it the charity of the church in all its forms. When deacons are involved, the soup kitchens and the religious education programs, the homeless shelters and the adult formation meetings gain new connection to the parish and ultimately to the bishop.

So the conversation continues, which is what the International Theological Commission directly asked for. At some point, however, bishops are going to have to answer the question the ITC attempted to answer. If the movement in Chicago is any guide, perhaps it won’t be long before the many words spoken about women as deacons will be overtaken by actions.


Related: Fitting Service, by Damian Barry Smyth

About the Author

Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University. She is author of <i>Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority</i> (Macmillan, 2011), <i>Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate</i> (Paulist Press, 2012), and <i>Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future</i>, with Gary Macy and William T. Ditewig (Paulist Press, 2012). Her column “Just Catholic” appears online in the <i>National Catholic Reporter</i>.



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The Eastern Orthodox Church never officially abolished the office of deaconess. There are deaconesses in some women's monasteries in Greece. However, if you study the work of deaconesses in the ancient Church you will learn that a deaconess was not simply a female deacon. Deaconesses did not have a liturgical function like their male counterparts. Their ministry was chiefly to women and children. At the time that the Church baptized people in the nude, a deaconess would baptize a woman, for obvious reasons. Deaconesses also had to be older celibate women. The order has practically died out because nuns took over most of the functions of deaconesses.

What or who are we afraid of? The Lefevrites? The macho culture that prevails in Latin America, Africa, Asia and even in the U.S. and western Europe? The most significant aspect of modern church activity is that we are woefully understaffed. And if we continue to disenfranchise over 50% of our practicing members who have the most direct contact with the family in the home, we cannot expect to grow but to simply contract into a 'museum church.' The good sisters are on the bus and those who remain in convents are simply dying away. Women (married and mothers, too) would be a great gift of ordained diaconal leadership and ministry to our church.

Today IS a new day and it requires new ideas, new hermeneutics and a (re)newed Church. That this discussion is happening means there is movement of retrieval of the past Tradition-- reformed in light of centuries of an evolving humanity who no longer has distorted anthropological beliefs about women. Can we stop questioning whether women can lead, can pray, can minister, can even read and write and speak in public? Millions do it and have done it in the Church, and outside the Church. We all know we can do these things and have those charisms, gifts and abilities.  Let's look deeper for the real message here.


The question here is how the magisterium and canon law will be rewritten to accommodate the changes needed to include us in the picture. We must remember that when women led in the early church, the roles were less well-defined because they were in formation as any company adds jobs and positions as it expands in order to adjust to growth and expansion. Our Church was no different. Roles became more solidly defined as the university system took hold in Europe when women were systematically written out of the picture and all their powers of ministry were stripped from them.


If canon laws can be changed and modified as Phyllis expounds here; well, they can be changed and modified some more to include women wholly and in full equity because 83 % of people working in ministry in our Church in America are women and most of them have not been paid a single dime for all they do.


The charisms we bring are rich and we are called and we have discerned or else we would not be here. As example, I am on my parish council, I am an EM, I sing in the choir and I just completed a Master's in Pastoral Theology and am now working on a Ph.D. We are half the church and we want to do our part as equals, not half-persons. I do it because I am called to write, to minister and to find the arguments and the facts within our Tradition that call for the laity as Kung, Knitter, Sr. Simone, Sr. Chittister, Sr. Donohue, Sr. Farrell, Ruether, Macy, Ditewig and so many others to help those who are in the dark see the light of equal ministry and ordination at all levels because it will reflect true society and true humanity as it must.


Organizations run by a solely male leadership must stand aside and understand that this paradigm is ending and new one is coming that better reflects Art. 29 of Gaudium e Spes in a balanced Imago Dei that has been off kilter for so long that it is now crumbling and can no longer stand.


A new order (ordo) is forming and it brings into focus the 2 greatest commandments - love of God and love of the 'other', but not in the old forms, but in a new form where the androcentricity of Ego disappears so that the 'Other' can flourish on its own terms and no longer sit in silence because the silence has been broken forever and there is no going back.

It is time for those who have been speaking to listen in respectful silence and hear what is being said because it concerns the Other half of humanity who has a right to speak and just as much right to be heard, but also to be understood as the Church has never been able to do, but must learn--this is a tough lesson, but not unfathomable.  It's time!!


Following on Janice Poss's deeper analysis....

While establishing a precedent for continuity is important for opening up ecclesial space for conversation about women and the diaconate, the real challenge facing our church is perceiving the "something new" that is unfolding.

As we know it today, the Permanent Diaconate, for all its good to the church, is also too often a carrier of clericalism. Many women (and men) who serve in the church as lay ecclesial ministers are not interested in perpetuating this. What a pity it would be, especially for women, who for so long have been invisible in the order of the institution, to be vacuumed up into it and to have their focus on service disappear in a wholly new way.

Perhaps our challenge in 2012 is to imagine new models for church order which include all of us--not in an effort to side-step the issues of our practice thus far--but to better serve the needs of our people, our church and our world.




The below response is appropo to this discussion as well. 

Ms. Poss says: "Organizations run by a solely male leadership must stand aside and understand that this paradigm is ending and new one is coming that better reflects Art. 29 of Gaudium e Spes in a balanced Imago Dei that has been off kilter for so long that it is now crumbling and can no longer stand."

Start your own organization, then.

Response to Sister Chittester’s Column in National Catholic reporter–Vatican Could Learn a thing or Two from women religious.

Honest to God, Sister Chittester, I don’t understand you. You say, regarding the symbols surrounding the Pope: the interregnum, the red shoes, the court as “The messages were clear: To a vast population of the world, the papacy of the Roman Catholic church is some kind of meaningless monarchy, colorful, intriguing and irrelevant.”It was Christ who established his kingdom on earth by appointing Peter, the fisherman–a fisher of men.The red shoes are the shoes of the fisherman. The Pope is Peter’s successor–and symbolic of Christ as the shepherd. And, since sheep do stray, we need a shepherd. Christ understood us as the Creator better than any man or woman.The kingdom, refers to the heaven and where our hearts and minds are to be directed, not the kingdom of this world. There is a hierarchy in heaven–seraphin, cherubim, archangels, man, saints, the Trinity. The Papacy and the Vatican symbolize Christ’s kingdom, not the familial kingdoms man established on earth through blue bloodlines. Everything in creation is hierarchical–read the science.Symbols are extremely important in parables and analogies to impart important ideas. You speak of the nuns’ habits as dating from another time period. Yes, they were symbolic of other worldliness–they imitated the garb of the Blessed Mother. Doesn’t the priests’ garb imitate what Christ wore? Isn’t that what it’s all about? The way one dresses reveals one’s attitude. The Kingdom of God exists outside of time and space and that’s what the habits symbolized. Focusing on present day style shifts one to the material world and away from the spiritual–just who are nuns dressing like now? Certainly not like the Blessed Mother.The priests haven’t changed their garb. The mass hasn’t changed in 2,000 years–being said hundreds of times a day in the same way. Should that be updated? Should we be serving nuts and grapes and cheese instead of just unleavened bread? Or is the bread and wine significant? I don’t know, Sister Chittester–you tell me.If one believes that God created man and woman–the two halves that constitute the human race–don’t you think He knows that each in their own way contributes to the saving of souls?This patriarchal nonsense has to stop. The world as created is matriarchal and women have been running it since the beginning of time. In Christ’s birth God was fair to His crowning creation, human beings–he chose to be a man born through a woman who was elevated to perfection. If one believes that men have been oppressing women since the beginning of time, there’s only one place where men could possibly have gotten that idea–from their mothers–and they didn’t ever get that idea from their mothers. Look at how Christ treated his mother–with honor and respect.Why is there a focus on wanting to be like a man?According to the story of creation–if looked at totally objectively–woman was the last and most perfect creation of God. For a woman to be equal to a man she would have to be dragged screaming backwards down twenty five steps of a ladder–that’s what feminism has done. Women were never beneath men. And, any woman who knows men, knows that. He grounds her and she inspires him.Where’s the inspiration, Sister? Why are the feminist nuns concentrating on insulting one half of the human race–the men–instead of focusing on what they have control over–every single living being they come in contact with whose soul needs to be inspired by the words of God?And, lastly, your suggestion that the Church needs to learn something from women totally mystifies me. Hundreds of women Saints have helped inform the Church’s teachings and the Blessed Mother’s words and actions most of all.Maybe, Sister, nuns should keep their own counsel as women. For, if they did, maybe there’d be more young women entering convents. If the nuns as women have so much advice for the Church in how things should be properly run—why then are there no examples of this scholarly advice in bustling convents—why is there a shortage of women entering religious life? Does it have something to do with the message from the women religious? Think about it, Sister.Where can you point out that women have done a better job in formation of the religious and of educating those in Catholicism and devotion to the word of God than men? Nuns have been in charge of that portion for a long, long time and I think they have failed. So, put your own house in order before you criticize theirs.The great issue of our time, of all time is saving souls–as time does not change human nature.It seems to me that you are focused on worldliness and not on Godliness.And, please understand, that as a woman, I want you to know that you do not represent me in any way, shape or form, so stop pretending you represent all women–you do not. You represent radical feminists and it’s that false teaching, that false ideology that you place before the Word of God.

Sorry, Janice.....this Church is founded on a belief of spiritual grace not secular nonsense.

Your demand that the Catholic Church accomodate feminism is as off the wall as demanding it accomodate Aryanism.

It is a matter of justice and fairness. Not accomadation to the times we live in. The time we live in is significant in that women cannot be muffled and denied thier right as deserving as males. Males have used force rather than reason to deny women equa accessl. Only men who are backward and ignorant will deny what is a matter of justice. 

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