Do We Need Women Deacons?

COMMENTARY: It would be much better for the whole Church to continue to explore and expand the role of both lay men and women in the Church

By Father Dwight Longenecker

At our chrism Mass this week, more than 100 priests stood with their bishop and affirmed our priestly vows. It struck me then that the “icon” of the male priest as father in the Church is a powerful image of patriarchy and fatherly-priestly service to Christ’s Church.

That icon of male leadership and the male icon of Christ has traditionally been extended to deacons also. However, the Holy Father then reopened the discussion about the possibility that women may be admitted to diaconal orders.

Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University is an avid campaigner for women’s ordination to the diaconate. Zagano serves on Pope Francis’ commission to study the question, so a review of her work is a good way to consider the arguments in favor. 

A summary of Zagano’s research and arguments are found in her book Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.

Zagano marshals her research, sets up her artillery and fires away in seven main points:

  1. Women and men are equal.
  2. The Church’s reasons why women may not be ordained to the priesthood.
  3. The ban from priestly ordination does not extend to the diaconate.
  4. Women have been called and are currently called to the diaconate.
  5. In Scripture and Tradition, there are stronger arguments in favor of women deacons than against it.
  6. Women have continually served in diaconal-like service, whether ordained or not.
  7. The ordained ministry of women is necessary for the Church.

Zagano’s first argument is that men and women are equally created in God’s image. She calls this “ontological equality.” However, like most contemporary feminists, Zagano does not spend much time on the concept of complementarity between male and female. Indeed, she argues for a “single nature anthropology” in which the human person is, at a fundamental level, “beyond sexuality.”

Hilaire Belloc said, “Every argument is a theological argument,” and since Zagano establishes the idea of a “single nature anthropology” as the foundation of her argument, it is important to give this concept some attention.

If what Zagano posits is true, then it is essentially the same philosophy the “transgender” movement espouses: that sex and gender are not coterminous. In other words, your maleness and your femaleness are not that important. They’re just part of this temporal, physical world. 

It is true that Our Lord teaches that in heaven “they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). But this does not mean that in heaven everyone will be androgynous. It just means we will not have sexual relations.

We were created male and female. Our sexuality is therefore part of who we are as individuals and as a race. So while there is a basic ontological equality, that equality is expressed and fulfilled through our male and female nature. To suppose otherwise is to negate God’s created order.

We must imagine, therefore, that after the resurrection we will not be “beyond sexuality.” Instead, our sexuality will be fulfilled and transposed. We will not be less male or female, but more male or female.

Further to this point, it is therefore not surprising that while Zagano talks much about equality between men and women, she does not spend much time actually meditating on what it means to be a woman or a man. 

In the creation account, immediately after it says, “He created them male and female,” God gives the first commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Being male and being female is therefore intrinsically linked with procreation. Put simply, to be a man is to be a father. To be a woman is to be a mother. Even those who, for a range of reasons, are not mothers and fathers are men because they are potential fathers and women because they are potential mothers.

Without this biological reality as a fixed point it is difficult to say exactly what masculinity is and what femininity is. It is no wonder, therefore, that many in our society are confused about gender.

It appears that Zagano believes that we are essentially “beyond sexuality.” I believe it follows that what it means to be a man or a woman was not considered important to Zagano. The meaning of sexuality as it is linked with the concepts of marriage and the family were absent from her core argument, which instead dwelt heavily on power structures in the Church and the need for women to be a formal part of that.

I’m convinced that this theological problem at the heart of Zagano’s argument is one of the reasons why many are opposed to women’s ordination — because everything Catholic is connected, and when you tinker with the established roles in the Church, you must necessarily be affecting everything else.

In the Anglican church, proponents of women’s ordination declared that it was a matter of justice, not theology, but their feminist theology, which proposed a “goddess,” made it clear that this was not the case. Likewise, Zagano’s own idea of a “single nature anthropology” confirms the point that this debate is about more than simply the recognition of women in ministry.

Zagano does a good job presenting the historical background of women deacons, and this is the most valuable part of the book, in my opinion. It is genuinely interesting to see how the Church experimented with the idea and practice of women deacons. No clear practice or discipline emerges either from the Scriptures, the early Church or from the subsequent Tradition.

To be sure, there are traces of women being ordained as deaconesses. However, what that meant and how it was worked out is varied, vague and undefined. What is most interesting is that the Church eventually abandoned the practice. 

It is easy enough to write this off as part of an evil patriarchal domination, and no doubt one can find examples of misogyny and male domination in the history of the Church. However, the eventual abandonment of women deacons may simply be that the need for them disappeared with the rise of women’s religious orders.

Instead of patriarchal evil, the reason for the disappearance of women deacons may also be put to the Spirit-led development within the Church. In other words, women deacons may have disappeared because they are not really part of God’s plan for the Church.

This brings us to the practicalities. I read Zagano to assert that women’s ordination to the diaconate is necessary, but, in my opinion, this most important point is the weakest part of her campaign. Why exactly is this innovation necessary? Do we require women to be ordained so that they might have the authority to administer the Church’s charitable work? Do we need deaconesses to be diocesan chancellors, school principals, parish pastoral associates, directors of faith formation, Vatican administrators, professional consultants, diplomats, journalists and financial advisers? Do we need women to be ordained as deaconesses to be spiritual directors, theologians, cultural activists, broadcasters, evangelists, artists, writers and scholars? No. Amazing women are already fulfilling all of these roles and more.

Do we need women deacons to perform certain liturgical or canonical functions — baptizing or officiating at marriages or signing marriage nullity documents where there is a clergy shortage? Not really. Instead of creating another level of clergy, it would be just as easy to authorize catechists — both male and female — to perform such functions. 

The only reason, therefore, to have deaconesses is to include women in the ranks of the clergy, but isn’t it counterproductive to add yet another layer of clergy to the Church? Furthermore, doesn’t it send the wrong signal to the women of the world that the only way a Catholic woman can really be important to the Church is to assume a job that has traditionally been reserved to men?

Doesn’t it also send a message to all laypeople that they are not bona fide disciples of Jesus Christ unless they have become a member of the clerical caste?

It would be much better for the whole Church to continue to explore and expand the role of both lay men and women in the Church, and thus fulfill the vision of Apostolicam Actuositatem — the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, which states:

“Our own times require of the laity no less zeal. In fact, modern conditions demand that their apostolate be broadened and intensified. … An indication of this manifold and pressing need is the unmistakable work being done today by the Holy Spirit in making the laity ever more conscious of their own responsibility and encouraging them to serve Christ and the Church in all circumstances.”

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