‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae,” wrote St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans (16:1). What did Paul mean when he referred to Phoebe as a deacon? What kind of diakonos was she? How did she serve the church? Was she ordained as a deacon? And if so, what did her ordination mean? These questions, which may once have seemed arcane, have taken on greater urgency in the wake of Pope Francis’ recent decision to appoint a commission to study the historicity of women deacons.
We should note that the ordination of women to the priesthood is not under consideration. In “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” the apostolic letter promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1994, which Pope Francis has endorsed on several occasions, the late pontiff declared “definitively” that only men can be ordained to the priesthood. While St. John Paul II made no definitive pronouncement on the separate question of women deacons, the apostolic letter forestalled consideration of the issue in some quarters out of concern that discussion of women deacons would inevitably lead to talk of the ordination of women to the priesthood. We welcome Pope Francis’ decision to reopen the question of women deacons, which manifests his faith in the Holy Spirit to guide the discernment of the people of God.
This is not the first time in recent history that the Vatican has examined the role of deacons. In 2002 the International Theological Commission concluded a study of the diaconate that included commentary specific to women deacons. For example, the document concluded that in Phoebe’s case, the Greek word diakonos was meant in the broadest sense, as “one who serves.” The commission noted that “the deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church—as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised—were not purely and simply equivalent to the [male] deacons.”
At the same time, the commission said that “there is a clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other.” In other words, while all three are sacred orders, essential differences among them may allow for women deacons. In the words of Bishop Emil Wcela (see America, 10/1/12), the commission left “the ordination of women to the diaconate an open question.”
The question took a new turn in May, when a woman religious asked Pope Francis about women deacons during a meeting with the heads of women’s religious orders from around the world. The pope in his response promised to set up a commission, whose members were appointed in July. Among them is the scholar Phyllis Zagano, author of Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.
Professor Zagano’s book considers the historical evidence of women deacons, much of which might surprise many Catholics. As she wrote in America in 2003 (see Vantage Point in this issue, page 30), “While the work of women deacons—always rooted in the word, the liturgy and charity—differed regionally, the fact of women deacons is undeniable.” She is not the only reputable scholar to sift through the historical record. In their book Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, R.S.C.J., sum up the ministries that women deacons performed in the Eastern churches: “Female deacons…exercised liturgical roles, supervised the lives of women faithful, provided ongoing care for women baptizands, and were seen going on pilgrimage and interacting with their own families and the general population in a variety of ways.”
Other scholars disagree, averring that diakonos, when applied to women in New Testament times and in the early church, was more likely to have referred to service in general, according to cultural norms for women at the time. Moreover, they argue, “ordination” ceremonies for women in the early church cannot be equated with the contemporary understanding of ordination.
As indispensable as it is, the historical data is neither wholly conclusive nor ultimately dispositive. The church’s discernment regarding women deacons must be guided, in the words of the International Theological Commission, by “a greater knowledge of both historical and theological sources, as well as of the current life of the Church” (emphasis added). We should also bear in mind this additional insight of the commission: “Nowhere did the [Second Vatican] Council claim that the form of the permanent diaconate which it was proposing was a restoration of a previous form…. Vatican II never aimed to do that. What it re-established was the principle of the permanent exercise of the diaconate, and not one particular form which the diaconate had taken in the past."
This raises a question: If the church discerns in light of its reflection on the historical and theological data and the current life of the church that, at a minimum, it enjoys the freedom to admit women to the permanent diaconate, then should we do so? Yes, we should. What might that mean for the church today?
To begin with, while acknowledging the myriad ways in which women already serve the church, “ordaining women as deacons who have the necessary personal, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral qualities would give their indispensable role in the life of the church a new degree of official recognition, both of their ministry and of their direct connection to their diocesan bishop for assignments and faculties,” as Bishop Wcela has written. The church would be enriched by women’s leadership in its sacramental life. Like their male counterparts, women deacons could preside over some of the sacraments. Women deacons could preach at baptisms, weddings and funerals, providing the church with powerful models of women leading the community during some of life’s most important moments. That alone—the more complete inclusion of the voices of half the church in a sacramental setting—would be a great source of apostolic creativity and energy. While Pope Francis has said that ordained women deacons would not be permitted to preach at Mass, he has yet to offer a compelling reason why this must be so. It seems that if we are to have women deacons, then they should be permitted to perform all the functions that their male counterparts do.
It is also important to consider the possible ways that women deacons might serve as models for young women—and men. If it is true that some people have written off the church as a “patriarchal” institution, then imagine what it would mean to see a woman presiding at a liturgy. Many women in particular might feel more invited into a community in which the sacramental leadership includes them.
Ordination, of course, is not the sole way to exercise leadership, nor even the most significant. In the current church, however, the only one in which we live, ordination is an important entree into leadership. Thus the discussion of women deacons also affords us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of ecclesial governance. While some have suggested that the ordination of women as deacons will lead to their “clericalization,” the true challenge in the church today is not the possible clericalization of women but rather the urgent need to declericalize ecclesiastical power and authority. There are too many offices in the church today that require the office-holder to be a cleric, with little or no theological justification for this requirement. The discussion of female deacons should not therefore forestall a much-needed discussion about promoting laywomen, and laymen, to leadership roles with real decision-making authority—as heads of Vatican dicasteries, presidents of pontifical institutes or chancellors of dioceses.
What would the ordination of women deacons mean for the local churches? For one thing, Pope Francis would likely recognize that not every diocese or parish has the same need for and openness to the ministry of deacons generally or women deacons specifically. As the International Theological Commission stated in its report, “the true interest” of the fathers at Vatican II “was in opening a path to the restoration of the permanent diaconate which could be put into effect in a plurality of ways.” Should the church decide to ordain women deacons, therefore, the Holy See should render the practice licit but not mandatory. Owing to the wide variety of social, ecclesial and political situations throughout the world, discernment as to how, and when, female deacons can be integrated into the life of a local church should respect the autonomy of local churches under the leadership of the local bishop (in accordance with the call for greater subsidiarity that Pope Francis made repeatedly in “The Joy of Love”).
Regardless of local custom and choice, however, we are certain that the church would be greatly enriched by expanding roles for women at every level of service and governance. Almost 50 years ago, in 1967, the Second Vatican Council restored the permanent diaconate to the church. For several centuries before that, the only form of the diaconate was a “transitional” one—that is, for a man en route to the priesthood. In the early 1970s, it was a surprise for many Catholics to see a married man proclaim the Gospel and preach at Mass. Half a century on, this development is not yet finished, and the church is still coming to understand how best to put this ministry at the service of the community. Even though the restoration of the permanent diaconate has not been without challenges, it has been a blessing for the church. The addition of women to their ranks could be an equal blessing. With that in mind, we look forward to the results of the pope’s commission on women deacons and pray for its members as they begin this important work.
In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul asks the community to “welcome” Phoebe and “help her in whatever she may require from you.” Even after the commission publishes its final report, scholars will likely debate what kind of diakonos Phoebe was. What is clear already, however, is that many women have the necessary personal, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral qualities to serve in this ministry, as well as a true sense of calling to follow the pattern of Phoebe. The question remains: Does the church have the freedom to admit women to this ministry and, if so, how should it proceed? One part of that question has been entrusted to the commission, but the larger challenge and opportunity belong to all of us.
CORRECTION, Aug. 18: The title of Phyllis Zagano's book has been corrected to Holy Saturday, not Holy Saturdays.