The Italian newspapers led today with Pope Francis’s remarks about women deacons – which have also been covered in Time (“Pope Francis… signalling the possibility of letting women serve in ordained ministry”); the Daily Mail (“the Vatican stressed decision to allow women deacons would not lead to the ordination of female priests”); and the Washington Post (“a dramatic statement which left unclear what tangible changes Francis is open to making”), and in a host of international news sources.
As Ed Condon noted in the Catholic Herald, the question is confused by the distinct issue of women’s ordination, which Pope Francis, like John Paul II, has said is impossible. But the Washington Post quoted one theologian as saying: “If women can be ordained as deacons, then this is going to weaken – not destroy – but weaken significantly the argument that women absolutely are incapable of being ordained as priests.”
By contrast, Phyllis Zagano, a prominent advocate of women deacons, told the National Catholic Reporter: “The fact of the matter is, the diaconate is not the priesthood. It is a separate and complete ministry. If the Church can understand the separation and the distinction, that’s a long way to restoring the women to the diaconate.” Zagano believes this would be a suitable way “to include women in governance and ministry”.
In drawing the distinction between priesthood and diaconate, and between deacon and deaconess, two priest bloggers examined the historical evidence. Fr Dwight Longenecker observed that according to one important collection of 3rd-century regulations, The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, “the role of deacon and deaconess were not interchangeable”. The Constitutions say: “A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons”. Fr Longenecker suggested that a distinct order of deaconesses could indeed be re-established – but that it was more important at the moment “to de-clericalise the Church and empower the laity”. Moreover, the change would confuse the – separate – issue of women priests.
Fr John Zuhlsdorf made a similar point, quoting a historian who told him: “Deaconesses could not possibly have been considered ‘ordained’ as the part of the seven grades of order, since they did not follow the cursus honorum: there were no ostiariae, lectrices, exorcist-esses, acolyte-esses, subdeaconesses (though there is a mention of these among the Copts). If anything, ‘diakonissa’ was a honorary title.” Fr Zuhlsdorf drew attention to the 2001 study commissioned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The leader of the commission said it tended “to support the exclusion of this possibility”.
Cardinal Walter Kasper was reported as saying that there would be a “fierce debate” and that the Church was “split down the middle”. He said history suggested the change was impossible, but added: “I personally don’t have a clear position, but I am always open to and ready for innovation.”