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

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