VaticanFollowing up on a promise made last May in an address to 900 leaders of women’s religious orders, Pope Francis has instituted a Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women. The new commission will consider the possibility of ordaining female deacons “especially with regard to the first ages of the Church.”

The announcement came today, according to the Vatican, “after intense prayer and mature reflection.” The pope has thus indicated his willingness to listen to those (including U.S. author and academic Phyllis Zagano, who has been an outspoken proponent of women deacons) who claim that this would be a restoration of the practice of the early Church.

According to Vatican Radio:

A key question for the commission to study is the role of female deacons – known as deaconesses – in early Christianity. In 2002 a Vatican commission ruled that deaconesses were not the same as deacons but left it up up to the Church to decide to bring back this female ministry.

Heading the new Commission will be Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, S.J. Archbishop Ladaria serves as Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and is a member of the International Theological Commission. In addition to Archbishop Ladaria, the commission is composed of six women and six men drawn from academic institutions around the world. A complete list of the appointees is available through Vatican Radio.

The Case for Female Deacons

Phyllis Zagano makes the case in her book Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroads Publishing, 2000). Zagano combines research with historical and theological analysis to conclude that there were, in fact, women deacons in the early Church and to recommend that the role be opened to women once again.
Scripture is inconclusive with regard to practices in the early Church. St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy is, in the eyes of conservatives, a good argument against the establishment of a female diaconate. In 1 Timothy 3:8, Paul writes that
Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.
Notice how the text is organized: Verses 8-10 and 12, on the subject of deacons, refer specifically to men. But there in the middle (verse 11), St. Paul offers guidance for women on how to behave. Nothing says that women may not be deacons, nor does Paul specifically say that they may.
And in Romans 16:1, Paul refers to Phoebe with the same word that he uses in 1 Timothy 3:12, where he speaks of “the husband of one wife.” Is he saying that Phoebe is a deacon? Or is she simply a servant who cared for sick believers, the poor, strangers, and those in prison? Whether or not Phoebe was a deacon, she had Paul’s high respect; and he entrusted her with the task of delivering the epistle to the Romans to the church in Rome (Romans 16:1-2). Paul saw Phoebe as not inferior or not to be trusted, but as a valuable member of the body of Christ.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written about it today, looking back at a collection of liturgical and disciplinary regulations called The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles.  “Most of the document,” Fr. Longenecker writes,
“…dates from before the year 300, and we learn that, like the deacons, the deaconesses were involved in administering the charitable work of the church. They also had the job of maintaining modesty and decorum at baptisms. Since the convert was baptized naked, a woman was required to assist the female catechumens.”
You’ll want to read his whole post; but in summary, Fr. Longenecker concludes:
“Therefore the evidence from the New Testament and the early church could provide arguments for women being ordained as deaconesses. As the order of permanent deacon was re-established in modern times, the order of deaconess could also be rejuvenated. Although canon law does not presently permit it, the law could be changed. Theoretically, the Catholic church could re-establish a distinct order of deaconess, and advocates would not be shy in pointing out the undoubted practical benefits from such a decision.”

But Where Does That Leave Me?

The establishment of a female diaconate has long been a stated goal of feminists within the Catholic Church. Phyllis Zagano and her confreres at the National Catholic Reporter are no doubt happy about this new development, this willingness of Pope Francis to reopen the discussion.

“But wait!” I want to say. Everyone in the liberal camp hates clericalism, right? I mean, priests are people, too! And to suggest that what Father does is more important than what I do–well, that’s just WRONG! That’s the message of the feminist wing of the Church.

Well, isn’t it the height of clericalism to regard the diaconate as a kind of promotion, as a glass ceiling opportunity for women?

My husband is a deacon; and I respect his vocation, I love him even more because I see in him a deep love and commitment to Christ. I hope that I make his diaconal service easier by adjusting my schedule to his when necessary. However, I’ve never felt that his active role in the Church is somehow more important than my different-but-equal contributions: as a Catholic mom, as a professional working in various Catholic ministries, and now, as a Catholic writer.

Likewise, I refuse to think that women who have filled important roles in the Church, as educators and lay ministers, leading health care institutions and charitable organizations, teaching schoolchildren, even answering phones in the parish office and staying at home to care for small children or elderly parents, are “less important” than a woman deacon would be in the life of the Church.

So why the demand?

The Catholic Church may, in the next year or two, open the door to female deacons. Whether that is a matter of “restoring” a tradition long abandoned, or “instituting” a female diaconate for the first time, Phyllis Zagano–who is approaching her 69th birthday–will likely not be among that number. (Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, formation and education for deacon candidates takes five or six years; and deacons are granted “senior status” at the age of 70.)

Image of the Vatican:  Public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)