I had the opportunity this past week to attend a lecture given by Dr. Phyllis Zagano. In fact, it was her last public appearance before leaving for Rome in November to serve on the papal commission convened to examine, yet again, the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. She will not speak publicly again until the commission’s work is concluded.
Dr. Zagano spoke in great detail about the history of women in the diaconate. This has been her passion and her life’s work and, as she quipped, every word is not only researched but footnoted. She spoke of rights, of justice, and of mercy. She stressed repeatedly that no one, male or female, has the right to be ordained. Thus, ordaining women to the diaconate is not about a woman’s right to be ordained. There is no such thing. Rather it is about the right of the community to be ministered to by women who have been called to serve.
In addition to preaching, baptizing and officiating at weddings, women ordained to the diaconate would be able to serve in offices reserved for those in the clerical state. It is the right of parishes, dioceses, and the entire Church to be ministered to by women in these ways, women who bring with them the unique gifts and perspectives of womanhood. This isn’t just about positions in the Curia, but also about looking much closer to home where it could mean women serving as an canonical judges. Under the new guidelines for annulments, a single judge may issue a decision without the need for a second trial. While women currently serve on tribunals as canon lawyers and judges, their work is overseen by ordained men and cases overseen by a single judge must be decided by clerics. Ordained women would be able to fill this role.
She spoke of justice in the Church and how that carries out into the world. One of the arguments that has long been championed as the central reason for the all-male clergy is the maleness of Jesus. This flawed line of reasoning holds that women don’t match Christ’s image. This carries an implication that women, simply based on their gender, cannot image Christ or do so in away that is fundamentally flawed. It runs counter to the understanding that all people are made in the image of Christ. That is an injustice and one that radiates out into the world. Indeed, the long history of the subjugation of women is based entirely on the view of women as being less than a man. The Church has the opportunity and the responsibility to correct that worldview.
Finally, she spoke of mercy and the role of the Church to recognize and touch the suffering within the community. Women within their communities are often willing and able to be ministers of mercy but are limited by the roles they are currently permitted to hold. Whether that means a woman serving as a deacon in Latin America, traveling to the remote villages where the priest can rarely visit or a woman serving as a deacon in a suburban parish down the street, preaching the gospel and touching the lives of those around her in service and charity.
Ultimately, there is a wealth of historical evidence, including rites of ordination, that women served as deacons. The topic of reviving this role for women was raised at the Second Vatican Council and at the close of the council, it was slated as a topic that warranted further study but was largely neglected. In 1997, a commission studied all of the evidence and created a detailed report which concluded that yes, women could be ordained to the diaconate. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time served as President of the International Theological Commission, refused to sign it. In 2002, a new commission was convened to study the same question. It subsumed the entire 1997 report into its own 78-page report, which concluded that there was no conclusion. Dr. Zagano summed up the discussions of the last 50 years in one succinct statement: They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes.
They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes.
Now, Pope Francis has handpicked a new commission made up of twelve highly respected scholars. There are six men and six women. Dr. Zagano said she has no idea what the outcome will be. And she refused to entertain questions on women serving in the priesthood. She did, however, state that Benedict XVI defined the diaconate as a ministry entirely separate from the presbyteriate and the episcopacy. In simple English, ordaining women to the diaconate poses no theological challenge to maintaining an all-male priesthood. There are some who argue that the diaconate, presbyteriate, and episcopacy are inextricably entwined. If that were ever determined to be an inviolable theological truth, then women would have to be ordained to the priesthood based in the historical evidence of women serving in the diaconate for many centuries in the early Church. But that is not the role of the current commission to determine nor to consider. Their role is solely to determine whether women can be ordained to the diaconate. Dr. Zagano plainly stated that all of her work leads to a clear yes, they can. They were in the past and should be again.
The sheer volume of historical evidence she traced out for us was nearly overwhelming. And for me, just being in that space, surrounded mostly by women of a certain age, women who really know how far we have come, was an amazing experience in and of itself. There was an air of excitement and hope, not optimism or wishful thinking but a true, deeply held, rarely displayed, soul level hope. It was the kind of perennial hope only progressives, and maybe lifelong Cubs fans, would truly understand. Maybe this is our time. The Cubs finally had their year. Will we?