Women Deacons: Why Now?
Recently we have been asked if, by adding women deacons to our
petition to the International Synod on the Eucharist, we aren’t
retreating from calling for open discussion of women’s ordination
to the priesthood. To the contrary, we believe putting female deacons on the table will stimulate a long overdue discussion about
women’s roles in a Church presently fearful putting “woman” and “ministry” in
the same sentence.
Women’ full ministerial inclusion is a process.
The first step is to educate
about Jesus’ inclusive practice. The second step is to bring to visibility
the women ministers already serving the church. Our Women in Church Leadership
and Celebrating Women Witnesses projects have already done
much to advance this important work.
It is a little known fact that women/lay ministers
are the “glue” helping
to hold the Church together. Worldwide, there are 783,000 women religious serving
the church’s 1.07 billion Catholicscompared to 405,000 priests. Add the
nuns to at least 1.5 million female lay ministers (catechists, missionaries and
members ofsecular institutes) and it becomes clear that Catholicism’s ministerial
crisis cannot be solved without expanding women’s roles.
The next step in the process is to ordain women deacons. This would
women’s sacramental ministry in the Church. Most Catholic women ministers
in the U.S. (conservatively, an estimated 82% of 65,000 lay pastoral ministers
and chaplains) already have qualifications (and more) to be ordained deacons
immediately. As deacons they can preach, baptize and witness marriages. This
constitutes a huge new pool of ministers who could be readily available to help
meet the sacramental needs of a growing church.
In the Anglican Church, women first became deaconesses, then deacons
and then they were ordained to the priesthood. According to two
experts on the subject,
John Wijngaard and Phyllis Zagano, the Church had deacons before we had priests
(as we understand priests today). Paul describes Phoebe as diakonos, the same
word he applied to himself. The ordination rites for women deacons were the same
as those for men deacons and they were regarded as sacramental. The reluctance
of the institutional Church to seriously consider ordaining women deacons is
probably linked to this fact. However the Vatican has not closed the door on
this discussion. Indeed it cannot, without seriously damaging its credibility.
To petition for women deacons does not mean that FutureChurch has
advocating open discussion of women’s ordination to the priesthood.
Along with the Catholic Theological Society of America we believe
this discussion is very important. We haveconflicting teachings in the Church. The Church says women are equal. But women
can’t exercise this equality since canon law says only the ordained can
govern—and of course, only men can be ordained. The discussion of governance
is an urgent one and needs to be considered in its own right since the laity
should also have voice in Church governance.
It is an unpleasant fact that ordaining women priests in the Catholic
Church will require lengthy internal processing, a change of
canon law, and revision
of some recent rather prominent proclamations. Opening the diaconate to women
on the other hand, does not require such a complicated process, nor is it ruled
out by canon law (according to the Canon Law Society of America) but seems to
be doable, reasonable next step.
Petitioning for women deacons does not mean we have stopped calling for open
discussion of women’s ordination to the priesthood. To the contrary, it
could be one key to reopening the discussion in the worldwide church.