US academic makes case for women deacons

Catholic scholar and author Phyllis Zagano.

The fact that the ordination of women to the diaconate is in the Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod on Synodality to be held in October is “hopeful”, because then there will be a “real discussion” on the issue, according to internationally-acclaimed Catholic scholar Dr Phyllis Zagano.

Dr Zagano, author and lecturer on contemporary spirituality and women’s issues in the Church, gave an online public lecture on August 7 titled “Seeking the truth about women deacons”. The lecture was sponsored by the Australian Catholic University, and was moderated by ACU Centre for Liturgy director Professor Clare Johnson.

“The question in everybody’s mind is, what happens now? In my mind, at least from my vantage point, Australia and New Zealand [and] a few [others] have made their synodal wishes known,” she said.

Dr Zagano was one of 12 experts appointed to Pope Francis’ commission to study the history of women deacons in 2016. She had written 25 books including “Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church”. She also taught and lectured in several Catholic universities in the United States and Europe on the topic of women deacons.

“The Church can and, in fact, should, restore women to the ordained diaconate, and historical facts about women deacons are well-known,” she said.

She also pointed out that “the only person in Scripture with the job title deacon is St Phoebe”.

Dr Zagano said that several manuscripts from the Apostolic Library, as well as the eighth century Book of Rituals of Egbert, Archbishop of York, vouched for the practice of ordaining women as deacons.

“As early as the 17th century, Oratorian priest Jean Morin produced an extensive study of liturgical rituals used by bishops to ordain women as deacons. Reviewing manuscripts in Greek, Latin and Syriac, Morin concluded that these met the criteria for true ordinations as set down by the Council of Trent,” she said.

From the ancient Church up to possibly the twelfth century, women had been ordained as deacons, until the diaconate became ceremonial and merely a step before priesthood.

When the Second Vatican Council called for the re-establishment of the diaconate as a distinct and permanent order, Pope Paul VI asked about the ordination of women as deacons, Dr Zagano said.

“It is presumed, but not verified, that the paper prepared by liturgist Cipriano Vagaggini is a response to a direct request of Pope Paul VI, either to the International Theological Commission (ITC) or to Vagaggini himself,” she said.

“In an article published in 1974, Vagaggini writes that the women deacons of history were indeed ordained just as the male deacons were, and there is no reason not to return to the practice.”

She said that this conclusion was echoed by Leuven University emeritus professor and historian Roger Gryson.

Dr Zagano said that Vagaggini, himself, repeated his conclusion at the 1987 Synod on the Laity.

In 1992, the ITC picked up the question, and “saw no problem restoring the tradition of ordaining women as deacons”.

“But the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger refused to sign and promulgate it,” she said.

Dr Zagano said that a new ITC sub-committee was called from 1997-2002, and its report drew heavily on French Liturgist Aime Georges Martimort, who had the opposite interpretation.

“Also, some 18 sections or sentences paraphrased or taken in their entirety from a book by then Fr Gerhard L. Müller (now Cardinal) . . . are not cited,” she said. Cardinal Müller was appointed by Pope Benedict as a prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012.

Dr Zagano said that, somehow, the issue of ordaining women as deacons and as priests had been conflated.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, in an Omnium in mentem (To everyone’s attention), specifically delineated the distinction between the diaconate and the priesthood. But still, he said that there was no definitive certainty on the matter of women deacons.

In 2016, the International Union of Superiors General asked Pope Francis why women could not be ordained as deacons today, given that so many women were already performing diaconate ministry.

In response, Pope Francis convened two commissions in 2016 and in 2019 to study the possibility of women deacons. However, the reports of both commissions were not published.

This year, though, the Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod on Synodality put forth this question: “Most of the continental assemblies and the syntheses of several episcopal conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?”

Dr Zagano noted that the three buzz words for the synod are communion, mission and participation.

Participation is where the problem arises for women.

“The idea of some kind of a fourth order non-ordained has been floated, and I think that will be disastrous because the argument that I was given twice in person by staff in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is that women cannot image Christ,” she said.

“Can you spell heresy? I mean that’s ridiculous. That’s really what is called naïve physicalism . . . The mistake is between the human male Jesus and the Risen Lord. The Risen Lord is in you and in me. If I  can’t see Jesus in males and females, I don’t see Jesus at all.”




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