As the Church prepares for the next phase of the Synod on Synodality, one of the most pressing issues is the relationship between women and the Church, combined with the problem of clericalism. The Working Document clearly states that “almost all reports raise the issue of full and equal participation of women.” (No. 64.)
Many national reports asked to restore women to the ordained diaconate, yet the Synod’s Working Document for the Continental Stage refers to “a female diaconate.” Does this indicate ongoing discernment about the ability of women to receive sacramental ordination as deacons, despite the historical evidence of ordained women deacons? While women are increasingly included as professional managers within Church structures, notably within the Roman Curia, deep resistance to accepting historical precedence of women’s ordained ministry remains.
Can the Church overcome clericalism and the denial of history?
Preach the Gospel!
Pope Francis’s Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium: On the Roman Curia and Its Service to the Church in the World makes it abundantly clear that the Church’s mission is to preach the Gospel. The Apostolic Constitution breaks the link between clerical status and Curial service, taking a major step in preaching the Gospel truth of the equality of all persons.
In fact, preaching the Gospel is a task for all Christians, but preaching the Gospel during the liturgy of the Mass is a specific diaconal task.
While historical records and liturgical manuscripts demonstrate that both Eastern and Western bishops ordained women as deacons, controversy lingers over the exact nature of those ordinations. Even so, history affirms that bishops in different eras and in various territories ordained women as deacons within the sanctuary, during Mass and in the presence of other clergy, through the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. The new women deacons self- communicated from the chalice and the bishop placed a stole around their necks. Most importantly, the bishop called these women deacons, like Saint Phoebe before them (Rom 16:1-2).
Contemporary discussion revolves around two questions: 1) can a woman represent Christ, the Risen Lord? 2) does the ban on women priests apply to women deacons? Despite some scholarly obfuscation, the answers are clear: yes, women can image Christ; no, the priesthood is not the diaconate.
Can a woman represent Christ?
The so-called “iconic argument,” that a woman cannot represent Christ, appeared in the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration Inter Insigniores: On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (October 15, 1976). The declaration cites Saint Thomas Aquinas’s statement that “Sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance,” further arguing that the necessary “natural resemblance” is to the maleness of Jesus, “for Christ himself was and remains a man.” Such emphasizes the accident of gender over the substance of the Incarnation: God became human. The human male Jesus is not the Risen Lord, the Christ whom all Christians can represent.
The second major point in Inter Insigniores is that Jesus chose only male apostles, thereby affirming the document’s early statement: “The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women.” But in supporting its “iconic argument,” Inter Insigniores does not mention the diaconate. Eighteen years after Inter Insigniores, John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone (1994), dropped the “iconic argument.” Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not mention the diaconate.
Does the ban on women priests apply to women deacons?
While neither Ordinatio Sacerdotalis nor Inter Insigniores addresses the question of women deacons, some commentators present what they term the “unicity of orders” to connect the diaconate and the priesthood. Their argument assumes that diaconal ordination implies eligibility for priestly ordination and because women cannot be ordained priests, neither can they be ordained as deacons.
The false reasoning of the “unicity of orders” argument is rooted in the medieval cursus honorum (course of honor), the clerical steps from tonsure through the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte and the major orders of subdeacon, deacon, and priest. The cursus honorum required that anyone to be ordained deacon had to be eligible for priestly ordination, effectively ending the diaconate as a permanent vocation.
Although diaconal ordination had become only a step toward priestly ordination, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) discussed the minor orders and the diaconate. During its Twenty-third session, as the Council was nearing its end, it approved a canon allowing married clerics to exercise the four minor orders. The Council also apparently affirmed the sacramentality of diaconal ordination, despite continued academic discussion on the question. Any discussion then about the historical ordinations of women, known to the 12th century in the West, is unknown.
Restoring and Renewing the Diaconate
Since its restoration by the Second Vatican Council as a permanent office to include married men, the diaconate has flourished. Lumen Gentium 29 affirmed that deacons receive the imposition of hands “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service,” and to date some 47,000 men have accepted the call to ordained diaconal ministry.
Two bishops, one from Italy and another from Peru, had suggested women deacons to the Council, which took no decision. Some years later, Paul VI reportedly asked the International Theological Commission (ITC), or some of its members, to review the question. Both Cipriano Vagaggini, a member of the ITC, and Philippe Delhaye, its secretary, wrote positively about ordained women deacons in the 1970s, joined by Roger Gryson. A decade later Aimé-Georges Martimort published a negative rejoinder.
While an ITC subcommittee studied the topic between 1992-1997, its reported positive report was not published.
Then, in 1998, the Congregation for Catholic Education’s Ratio fundamentalis institutionis diaconaorum permenentium affirmed, “with sacred ordination, he [the deacon] is constituted a living icon of Christ the servant within the Church,” possibly attempting to eliminate the restoration of women to the order.
By 2002, a second ITC subcommittee report identified the deacon as being and as acting in persona Christi servi, revivifying the abandoned “iconic argument.” The ITC subcommittee stated that male and female deacons of history did not share identical tasks and duties, overlooking the sacramental tasks of women deacons. Further, it wrote that their ordination rites differed, ignoring those rites that were identical excepting for the use of pronouns. Importantly, the 2002 document affirmed that the diaconate and the priesthood were distinct orders, concluding that the question of women deacons required a Magisterial decision.
At the request of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), Pope Francis named a commission to study women in the diaconate that met between 2016 and 2018. He called a second commission in 2020, which seems to have met between 2021-2022. Neither commission report has been published.
What can the Synod do?
The point of the Synod is to prepare a listening Church, one that surely listens to questions about inclusion, but one that listens as well to the Word of God as clarified by the Magisterium. Some issues are genuinely painful, and the People of God may find it difficult to “walk together” when the answer to their questions is “no.”
But the question of restoring women to the ordained diaconate, a permanent vocation that does not imply eligibility for priesthood, is easy to answer in the affirmative. The historical, anthropological, and theological work is complete. Women were ordained as deacons. Women are made in the image and likeness of God. The diaconate is not the priesthood.
People around the world have asked the Church to outgrow clericalism and recognize the managerial and ministerial abilities of women. There is progress in adding women to management. The extended Synod process should not delay the restoration of women to ordained diaconal ministry.
by Phyllis Zagano
PhD from the State University of New York at Stony Brook (1979), Phyllis Zagano is senior research fellow in residence and adjunct professor of Religion at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York. In 2016, she was appointed by Pope Francis to the Study Commission on the Diaconate of Women