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Whatever happened to women deacons?

The exponential growth of the permanent order of deacon in the Roman Catholic church carries with it questions about restoring the ancient tradition of women deacons. These questions have nothing to do with the discussion of women priests, a discussion the Vatican tried to close by opining that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter stating the church has no authority to ordain women as priests, is part of the church's definitive teachings. Definitive teaching or not, if the hierarchal church believes it cannot ordain women as priests, no attempt to do so would "work." Quite simply, in order to perform a sacrament you must intend to do "as the church does." No one can have dual intentions, both to do and not to do as the church does; in one act.

Further, if Ordinatio Sac-eredotalis is to be definitively held by the faithful, there should be no complaining that the ordination of women as deacons is somehow a backdoor opening to women priests. In fact, before a candidate is ordained he (or, hopefully one day she) must assent to the profession of faith and oath of fidelity.

When Pope Paul VI implemented the Second Vatican Council's decision to renew the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry, he asked the logical question: What about women deacons? The question went before the Vatican's International Theological Commission, but no official answer came back. However, the research (and, possibly, the report) eventually appeared as an article by Camaldolese monk Cipriano Vagaggini in 1974 in the influential Roman periodical Orientalia Christiana. Yes, Vagaggini wrote, women were ordained to the diaconate, by the bishop, inside the sanctuary, and by the imposition of hands.'

After repeatedly taking up the question in ensuing sessions, in 2002 the International Theological Commission finally issued a report that leans as far away as possible from the tradition of women deacons and barely mentions Vagaggini. Yet the report has no real conclusions, except to say that functions of early women deacons were not identical to those of today's male deacons, and the magisterium must determine what to do.

So, even though Vagaggini answered the question, there remains no official resolution. Why? Quite simply, Rome does not want to say yes, and it cannot say no.

Of course, some say the magisterium has already spoken, both definitively and in the affirmative. In 1018, Pope Benedict VIII gave the bishop of Porto, Portugal, written authority to ordain women deacons; his successor popes did much the same over the next hundred years. Earlier conciliar statements had already defined the conditions and requirements for women deacons. These and many other historical facts indicate the church can restore the female diaconate. But should it?

The history of women deacons gains import when joined to the contemporary call of the people of God to restore women to formal diaconal ministry. Current organized attempts to bring the discussion forward include Cleveland-based FutureChurch's international postcard and e-mail campaign for women deacons. Women's ordination Web sites are increasingly making the deacon-priest distinction clear, separately calling for women deacons.

These efforts rest in the belief that the people of God need the diaconate in general and women deacons in particular. They hunger for-the diaconal ministry of the Word, the liturgy, and charity. Around the globe, ordaining women deacons repeatedly emerges as an answer to the pressing ministerial needs of the church.

What's more, the people of God are asking for a renewed diaconate, where diaconal ministry is directly in the service of the diocesan bishop as they steward the church's goods and oversee the bishop's distribution of those goods to the poor.

The radicality of such a fully restored diaconate--of men and of women--cannot be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of women already serve the church in diaconal roles, as professed apostolic religious and lay ecclesial ministers. However, none of these women serves her bishop in any direct, permanent manner. Those who work in parochial or diocesan structures are employees. The many others who work in other structures, many owned and operated by religious institutes, are similarly employees. They minister in charity, but do not formally minister in the liturgy or through the Word as preachers.

While ordination to the diaconate does not confer any job security, it does confer permanent clerical status and, along with it, the ability to obtain office within the church. Although the conversation is very much about what a deacon can do--baptize, preach, serve as single canonical judge--it is more the fact of who a deacon is that calls women forth to the restored diaconate.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI made the distinctions between the ordained priest or bishop and the ordained deacon crystal clear. In a motu propria entitled Omnium in Mentem, the pope restated the catechism's specification: "The minister constituted into the order of the episcopate or the priesthood receives the mission and power to act in the person of Christ the head, while deacons receive the faculty to serve the people of God in the diaconates of the liturgy, of the Word and of charity"

It couldn't be clearer. Deacons do not act "in the person of Christ the head" (in person-ae Christi capitis ecclesiae); deacons serve the people of God through the liturgy, the Word and charity If deacons are not directly representing "Christ the head," but, rather, taking up the ancient ministry established by the apostles after Jesus' death, there can be no confusion among the orders. Neither is there any barrier to women returning to ordained diaconal ministry.

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict directly noted the long history of women's diaconal service. In speaking with the priests of the diocese of Rome a few years ago, Benedict said women should have greater roles in governance and ministry. As a historical theologian, he surely knows what is possible. As the head of a church suffering from awful events and perhaps facing worse revelations in the future, he has both the opportunity and ability to boldly lead the church's ministerial renewal.

It is quite possible that by returning to its tradition of women deacons, the church could restore some of its tarnished reputation and genuinely minister to its own. It is no secret that women are ill-treated in many Christian territories. Ordination, which further configures the individual to Christ, serves as a reminder of the Catholic teaching that all are made in the image and likeness of God. Whether the magisterium will move to solidify this teaching by restoring women deacons remains to be seen.

[NCR columnist Phyllis Zagano is the author of Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church, and the forthcoming 2011 books Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority, Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions on the Diaconate; and, with Gary Macy and William T. Ditewig, Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future.]
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Title Annotation:DEACONS
Author:Zagano, Phyllis
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 4, 2011
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