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Women deacons the solution to priestly power problem



The American television series Madam Secretary follows US Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) as she navigates the worlds of politics and world diplomacy. Would the Vatican have a woman Secretary of State? Could it?

Stained glass image of woman preaching from bibleNot long ago, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin suggested there is nothing inherently clerical about his job. Or is there?

The Vatican's Secretary of State, one of the pope's principal advisors, must be a cardinal. And cardinals — at least since promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law — must be at least priests. So that leaves half the church out of the running entirely. Women cannot be ordained priests.

But there are three types of cardinals: cardinal bishops, cardinal priests, and cardinal deacons. And in modern times there have been cardinal deacons who indeed were deacons. And throughout history, women have been deacons.

So, is there a chance? Is there any possibility the church will have a woman Secretary of State who is a cardinal deacon?

The only barriers are what are known as 'merely ecclesiastical laws,' laws that regulate the running of the Catholic Church, but are not related to dogma or doctrine. In short, the laws that keep women from being cardinal deacons are laws until the pope decides to change them.

The first step would be to return to the Church's earlier practice of ordaining women as deacons. Ordaining women as deacons would bring them into the clerical state, required to fulfil completely many church offices. The Church's canon laws state that the laity may 'cooperate with' but not 'share' authority in the church, and that applies to many positions.

Restoring women to the ordained diaconate would allow them to hold wholly (the formal word is 'obtain') certain offices now restricted to clerics, such as chancellor and judge.


"More than one pope has called for a 'more incisive' role for women in the church. None has managed to answer."


The diaconate is a ministry of service, and deacons are ordained to ministry of the Word, the liturgy, and charity. But as the church has grown in bureaucratic complexity, so has grown the need for clerical status. And some deacons — males all — already serve in church offices that could be equally open to women if they, too, were ordained.

But the complexity of the discussion is not only about whether women can be ordained.

Some feminists argue against restoring women to the diaconate because they see it as a second-fiddle sop to quiet the evident and growing unrest among women (and many men) about the dearth of women in official church life.

Some misogynists argue against restoring women to the diaconate because they see it as the camel's nose under the tent of priesthood and episcopacy, even as they pat women's heads and accept the voluntary self-funded ministries of hundreds of thousands of women religious.

Yet attempting to appease everyone appeases no one. The Church knows full well it needs to find a way to incorporate more women into its hierarchical structures. More than one pope has called for a 'more incisive' role for women in the church. None has managed to answer his own call.

What to do? In 2002, the International Theological Commission, a Vatican body connected to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, presented a long-awaited study document on the diaconate. Work on the paper began at least by 1992.

Many reports state that in 1997 the Commission completed a positive report affirming the possibility of restoring women to the diaconate, but that the Congregation's prefect, Joseph Ratzinger, refused to sign it. In fact, in 1997, Ratzinger named a new committee, headed by one of his former graduate students, which eventually produced an inconclusive study document four times the size of the original.

The newer document, first written in French and soon published in a still widely-circulated unofficial English translation, lately appears on the Vatican website in German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. The study document concludes that male and female deacons had different roles in the early church, that priesthood and the diaconate are separate and distinct ministries, and that the question of admitting women to the diaconate was something for the Church's 'ministry of discernment' to decide.

Most scholars argue with the document's embedded implication that women cannot be restored to the one order of deacon. Among other things, they point to the fact that the Commission ignored or relegated to footnotes serious scholarship about women deacons by major scholars, including Philippe Delhaye, Roger Gryson, Corrado Marucci, Pietro Sorci and Cipriano Vagaggini, all well-known and well-published at the time. Rome has produced nothing about women deacons since.

Pope Francis may be interested in better situating women within Church governance and ministry, and there is sufficient theological evidence to readmit women to the order of deacon. Even so, significant curial roadblocks keep him from moving in the obvious direction. Women deacons could take up significant posts, at the Vatican and around the world, but in 2008 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed ordination of women a crime worthy of automatic excommunication.

Francis has decried priesthood's connection to power and authority as problematic, saying it 'presents a great challenge ... with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church's life'. But if priesthood is the problem, the diaconate is the solution.

Where would the restoration of women to the diaconate lead? In the season finale of Madam Secretary, the president of the United States asked Secretary McCord if she would be his vice-presidential running mate in the coming year. Now, that would really be something to see in the Catholic Church.


Phyllis ZaganoPhyllis Zagano is is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University, Hempstead, and the leading authority on women deacons in the Catholic Church. Her most recent book is Women Deacons? Essays with Answers, a collection of essays, many translated from their original French or Italian. On 18 May she will participate in a free teleconference on women deacons sponsored by FutureChurch.

Topic tags: Phyllis Zagano, women deacons



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Existing comments

A woman secretary of state at the Vatican would be another exercise in window dressing. Women deacons would be fine, but the entire church hierarchy must cease to be patriarchal. Women are not the problem. Men are not the problem. Religious patriarchy is the problem.

Luis Gutierrez | 11 May 2016  

When did the west did the women get to vote, and this is still issue. Women themselves have to either remove all their services altogether, until there is an equality in positions or just continue to be subservient. They are supporting this inequality.

marlene | 11 May 2016  

A meaningful role for women (and the laity) in the running of the Church, along with the associated issue of married clergy, is an obvious need to everyone, except the "boys" club mentality in the clergy that controls and runs the place. What Canon Law may say, or infer, on the subject has got nothing to do with it. Canon Law is the "excuse" for the underlying problem.

Patrick | 11 May 2016  

Restoring women to the ordained deaconate would be a step forward. So also would a change in approach by many of our local PPs in "letting go" and giving laity, especially women, greater say and authority in the everyday affairs of the parish.

John Ormond Kennedy | 11 May 2016  

I mut disagree with the proposal to create a diaconate of women. Indeed a diaconate of men also, as it is practised in the church today. Deacons in the early church, as gar as I can tell, were different. Increasing the clerical component of the church authority and status structures is, in my view, not called for. If we allowed lay people to fulfil all the roles which their baptism and confirmation opened to them, we would not need a diaconate,

Alison Healey | 11 May 2016  

"The first step would be to return to the Church's earlier practice of ordaining women as deacons". Well, wasn't the initial practice actually ordaining women as priests? Before patriarchal Rome decided to intervene? Women as priests, what a thought. The Anglicans have managed for 20 years...and, dare I say it, survived. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10804522/Twenty-years-of-women-priests-And-the-Church-has-survived-just-fine.html

lucinda gabrielle | 11 May 2016  

Hello Phylliis, what a great article. I am National Coordinator for the Permanent Diaconate for the ACBC. I would very much like to keep in contact. The teleconference sounds very encouraging. I wish you well in your work. Deacon Tony

Deacon Tony Aspinall | 11 May 2016  

John O'Donohue, priest, philosopher and poet, encouraged us to see that the priestliness in every person is our human "participation in the creative and transfigurative nature of God". He continues, "In priesthood priestliness becomes explicit as a commitment". That commitment to embody and express the creative and transfigurative can be expressed authentically and diversely by all persons according to their giftedness. We have developed priesthood in the image of patriarchy and hierarchy to express a number of functions that only males may exercise. To let go these deforming shapes that burden priesthood currently would bring back into focus the priestliness of every person. New expressions of commitment that are available to all persons could be welcomed.

Alex Nelson | 11 May 2016  

So, so frustrating. As a Catholic grandparent, disengaged from Catholic structure except through a genuine commitment to St Mary's in Exile St Brisbane, I now have a grandson at an Anglican school with a creative, dynamic Anglican female Priest. So much the Catholic Church is now missing out on.

Narelle Mullins | 11 May 2016  

'But if priesthood is the problem, the diaconate is the solution.' I disagree. To my mind Alison Healey is on the money here. The Catholic Church is already an unwieldy organisation with a huge number of clergy and ancillary religious operatives. I think any attempt to create another 'officer class' would be detrimental to the huge number of women and men who are involved in the ministry of the Church as laypeople. The Church needs slimming down, more humility and grass roots involvement.

Edward Fido | 12 May 2016  

In her 1993 collection of papers, Discipleship of Equals, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza asked 'Should Women Aim for Ordination to the Lowest Rung of the Hierarchical Ladder?" This leading feminist theologian gave an emphatic "No" to her own question, stressing that women, as valuable as men in the sight of God, need to work for a dismantling of the whole hierarchical structure of the church, not admission to its lowest level. She stresses that women, as baptized recipients of the Holy Spirit, have a right to be recognized as leaders in all positions. Pope Francis, only last week, stated that the Holy Spirit is not the possession of the hierarchical clergy. Women should constantly remind themselves of this fact.

Anna Summerfield | 13 May 2016  

The Orthodox churches have a reasonably long history of female deacons, in one form or another. Given the Catholic Church recognises the validity of Orthodox orders, do we recognise the validity of their female deacons?

Neil Ormerod | 16 May 2016  

Why should men or women have to have some form of orders in order to have a senior role? We should not be continuing this need for a priestly caste (who can celebrate sacraments) for administrative, spiritual and pastoral leadership in the church.

Stephen Holgate | 29 July 2016  

Aimé Georges Martimort, whose careful analysis, "Deaconesses: An Historical Study" is considered a classic on the topic, admits the existence of women deacons but denies that they were ever considered clergy.

Father John George | 29 July 2016  

Ms Mullins the essential question is not abundance of personal gifts and charisms but does Christ and his church approve deaconesses as an ordained ministry versus as in early church a female lay ministry

Father John George | 29 July 2016  

Mr Ormerod The Catholic Church cannot regard as valid Orthodox Deaconesses, as they have never been a clerical order in Catholic Sacramentology, Canon law, Scripture, or tradition versus non clerical unordained deaconesses-Martimort[ad supra] has fine combed ancient diaconal liturgies of induction of deaconesses but no ordinations versus blessings over deaconesses In 1965, the Vatican2 Fathers ignored official plea of St Joan Alliance to extend permanent diaconate to women!!

Father John George | 31 July 2016  

Not all Orthodox churches are enamoured with ordained deaconesses, eg The Coptic Holy Synod has made it clear that deaconesses may not in any way participate in service of the altar or sacerdotal service. The rite of initiation into the female diaconate is performed by a bishop without the laying-on-of-hands but with a signing of the cross three times over the candidate. In their ministry they are to work exclusively with women and children. They assist at the baptism of women, visit sick women in hospitals, supervise women's activities in parishes, and clean the church building except for the sanctuary area which they may not enter.

Father John George | 02 August 2016  

His Holiness Pope Francis has set up a Commission on Deaconesses under the watchful eye of a top CDF member[Arch Ferrer] as head. Pope Francis has noted that the deaconesses of the early church weren't ordained as the male deacons of today are.

Father John George | 03 August 2016  

Sorry guys it is not on! In 2013Pope Francis answered La Stampa on Cardinalesses **LS May I ask you if the Church will have women Cardinals in the future? ***Pope: “I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not “clericalised”. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”

Father John George | 04 August 2016  

Deaconesses possibly to be revived in Russian Orthodox Church!!

Father John George | 07 August 2016  

An excellent plea for the ordination of women to the diaconate, ms, Zagano! I sincerely hope pope Francis will have the courage to withstand the Curia. May you be the first female collegue of mine!

Nico Smit (deacon) | 11 May 2017  

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