NEW YORK — There’s arguably no one in the United States that has championed the cause of women deacons more the Phyllis Zagano — a senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University — who was tapped by Pope Francis in 2016 to serve on the Vatican commission to study the historical evidence as to whether there were women deacons in the early Church.

While many had expected that Pope Francis would green light the proposal to ordain women as deacons in the Amazon after last October’s Synod on the region, instead the pope has said that he would reconstitute a new commission to study the issue further.

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In her new book, Women: Icons of Christ, Zagano presents her own evidence regarding the historical role women have played in ministry, including the diaconate. In an interview with Crux, she makes her case as to why women should be preaching, serving as spiritual directors, and much more, and why she believes that “until a vested woman is standing next to the pope at the altar in St. Peter’s, nothing the Church says about the dignity of women will be heard inside or outside the Church.”

Crux: You write that women cannot be ordained because, it is said, they cannot image Christ and that this view leads to “dangerous” views of women throughout the world. How so?

Zagano: There is a pernicious argument that women cannot image Christ, cannot be icons of Christ. Such is nearly heretical. It is also dangerous and malicious.

Many years ago, the “querelle des femmes” raged in Europe. The question: are women the same species as men? From the 1400s through the 1700s, the nature and status of women continued to be debated. Today, women in many regions of the world suffer rape, torture, and spousal abuse, in large part because they are considered property and second-rate beings. Women are seen as unclean; they are placed in menstruation huts; many suffer female genital mutilation.

I think objections to ordaining women as deacons are related to deacons’ altar service. The underlying objection is to an “unclean” woman being near the sacred. Yet, we know women were serving at the altar because Pope Gelasius I complained about that fact during the 5th century. Here and there a succeeding pope or another bishop would make the same complaint. So, we know that women were serving at the altar and men were upset about it. Why? Because of the superstitious belief that women are unclean.

The argument that women cannot be ordained because they cannot image the risen Lord supports the dangerous and disgraceful mindset that women are unclean and, even, that women belong to some sort of secondary species. However, the extraordinary fact of the Incarnation is that Christ became human and endowed humanity with the dignity all should enjoy. Unless and until the Church restores women to the ordained diaconate and unless and until a vested woman is standing next to the pope at the altar in St. Peter’s, nothing the Church says about the dignity of women will be heard inside or outside the Church.

Today it is argued by some that a person receiving Holy Orders of deacon, priest, or bishop should be capable of receiving any of the sacraments of order, but you write that in the early Church ministry wasn’t viewed in progressive stages. When did this change and how has this influenced the way women have been allowed to participate in Church life?

There are unsupported claims that the so-called “unicity of orders” proves one must be capable of receiving all grades of order to be eligible to receive one grade. This incorrect view ignores the fact that that married men (East and West) cannot be ordained as bishops, and that marriage is an impediment to priestly ordination in the West.

The earliest offices are diaconate and episcopate, with the presbyterate coming somewhat later. While the three offices (bishop, priest, deacon) are noted in early writings, they are not always noted progressively. We know that the presbyterate and episcopate are separate from the diaconate in the constant teaching of the Church, a fact emphasized in the post-Conciliar Magisterium, and noted in the 1983 Catechism of the Catholic Church, and codified by Benedict XVI with Omnium in mentem in 2009.

By the 12th century in the West, the practice of following the cursus honorum (course of honor) adapted from Roman political practice became codified. Then, only persons destined for priesthood could be ordained as deacons. The cursus honorum formally ended with Pope Paul VI’s Ministeria quaedam (1972), which suppressed tonsure and the minor orders of lector, porter, exorcist, and acolyte as well as the major order of sub-deacon. These were replaced by the installed ministries of lector and acolyte, currently available only to men. In fact, a sort of cursus honorum remains, because those men usually installed as lector or acolyte are headed for diaconal orders, and some will also be ordained as priests.

Does women preaching and offering spiritual direction depend on their ordination to the diaconate or is there space for them to serve in ministry while the debate over the female diaconate continues? 

Certainly, there is space for women in ministry as discussion about restoring women to the ordained diaconate continues, although it is becoming painfully obvious that the people of God are not interested in more “debate.” Ordained women deacons are historically documented, doctrinally possible, and pastorally necessary. Unfortunately, the “debate” has devolved into historical revisionism.

Those who recognize the sacramentality of the ordinations of early male deacons somehow exclude women from ever having received a sacrament, despite the fact that identical or nearly identical liturgies were used by the ordaining bishops. To argue that the women were not sacramentally ordained either questions the intent of the ordaining bishops or determines that women are unable to receive the sacrament, or both.

As for the various ministries of the women deacons of history, we cannot say that all performed the same ministries in all locations in all eras. Some assisted with anointing women in baptism, some anointed ill women and brought them Eucharist, some preached, performed altar service, catechized, and/or offered spiritual direction. What is known for sure is that women were ordained, by their bishops, at the altar, during celebration of Mass, in the presence of the presbyterate and other male and female deacons; they were ordained through the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit; they self-communicated from the chalice; the bishop placed a stole around their necks. Most importantly, the ordaining bishop called them deacons.

History is often revisionist. Interpretation of facts depends on the view of the historian. Hence, to root the question only in history can force it into an unending loop. Even the most-quoted writer against the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate, Aimé-Georges Martimort (1911-2000), points out that history alone is not dispositive. So, independent of history, the question becomes: can women receive this sacrament and, if not, why not? The notion that women cannot be and serve in persona Christi servi (in the person of Christ the servant) reduces to the argument that women cannot image Christ, the risen Lord, and echoes the logic of the querelle des femmes.

Ordination to the diaconate is an important advance in the possibilities for ministry by women. While non-ordained persons can and do offer spiritual direction, only a deacon, priest, or bishop actually participating in a given Mass may preach the homily during it. The best-known exception to the liturgical law states that within Masses for children others more able to speak with children may preach the homily. In addition, other tasks and duties, mainly of an administrative nature, are restricted to clerics (such as serving as a single judge in a canonical proceeding).

Canon 129 states that only the ordained are capable of the “power of governance,” and that lay persons may cooperate but not share such authority. While there is much talk about increasing the influence of women in the Church, so long as women are restricted from diaconal ordination, no woman can have any “power of governance.”

You write that the question of women deacons is a legal, not a doctrinal, one. Can you explain this? 

There is no defined doctrine that states women cannot be ordained as deacons. Throughout history, one or another local synod, often a gathering of twenty or thirty local clerics, voted against continuing the practice. However, there is no universal law specifically outlawing the ordination of women as deacons. People often cite Canon 1024, “A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly,” but the codification of this practice is connected to the cursus honorum, when only men destined for priesthood were ordained. It is most important here to underscore the distinction between diaconal and presbyteral orders.

We see the distinctions immediately in the ordination ceremonies. There are no sacred oils used the ordinations of deacons; anointing takes place only in the ordination of priests and bishops. Further, it is good to note that here liceity (legality) is used to determine sacramental validity. The deeper question in this canon is whether it applies to the diaconate as well as to priesthood.

There is a 2001 document mainly addressed to the bishops of German-speaking nations who appeared to have been training women for the diaconate that states they should not do so because the signers (three Curia members) did not foresee such ordinations. The two modern documents ruling on women priests (Inter insigniores, 1976 and Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 1994) explicitly leave the question of women deacons aside. I am told by canon lawyers that the question of women deacons rests in what is technically termed “merely ecclesiastical law.”

Many people hoping for women deacons were disappointed in the outcome of the Amazon Synod and the follow-up apostolic exhortation, which doesn’t seem to move forward the question at the moment. What was your reaction and what do you think is the pope’s long game here? 

I think that Pope Francis is waiting for consensus. Unfortunately, while such consensus is already available in larger portions of the Church — recall that the Final Document of the Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region noted that most of the language groups requested women deacons — the pope also hears strong voices, even from within his own Curia, claiming the women cannot image Christ and therefore cannot be ordained as deacons.

Several points must be considered regarding the Amazon Synod. First, the proposition regarding women deacons received a higher number of votes than the proposition regarding married priests. Second, it has been confirmed that nine of the twelve language groups requested women deacons. Third, no woman, not one of the general superiors of women’s institutes and orders, had a vote. This last point is actually helpful, in the sense that the majority vote in favor of women deacons was from an all-male constituency. The Final Document combined with the Apostolic Exhortation make for exciting discussion and each provides nourishment for deep prayer about our suffering planet and its population.

There are many things for the pope to consider but, as I said earlier, the question will be forced into an unending loop if the Church is forced to wait for historical certitude about women deacons. We know women were ordained and performed the tasks and duties of the diaconate throughout history, at least up to the 12th century in the West. We know that Churches of Eastern Orthodoxy have begun to restore the practice. We also know that there are no tasks or duties of deacons, no part of the ministries of the Word, the liturgy, and charity, that cannot be performed by women today.

The first task of evangelization is to preach that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Unless the Church escapes the trap of misogyny that infects so many parts of the world, unless the Church makes a formal and full statement regarding the dignity and humanity of women, it will not be able to preach this message of Christ.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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