On Thursday, at Loyola University in Chicago, Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future was officially launched. Three of us wrote the book: Dr. Gary Macy focused on the most recent historical research into the question, I analyze contemporary Church teaching and theology of the question, and Dr. Phyllis Zagano offers some insights into the possible future of women in the diaconate.
First, some personal reflections about the event at Loyola. I arrived in Chicago after a great visit with our oldest son and our grandson. We had gone to visit my mother and had a great visit with her! Then it was back to Chicago for me to meet with my colleagues. Gary Macy and I had gone to high school seminary together many years ago and, until a couple of months ago, had not seen each other in person since 1967! We met and went to the Five Guys across the street from where we were staying and waiting for Phyllis to arrive. We had a nice visit and coordinated our plans for the next day.
Before the event itself, several news agencies were interested in talking with us about the nature of the diaconate itself in the Church, and to summarize the points we raise in the book. Of all the books I've written and/or contributed to, this one is (obviously) getting the most attention, and we want to be as clear as possible about what we're saying and what we're NOT saying in the book. More about this a bit later. About 200-300 people gathered for the launch, and it was quite a diverse group! There were a few undergraduates, but most of the folks were grad students and folks from the community, including more than a few priests, one of whom brought a whole group of parishioners. We enjoyed the presence of Sr. (Dr.) Sara Butler, who is on the pope's International Theological Commission, and Sr. (Dr.) Mary Collins, OSB, now retired, who was one of my professors at the Catholic University of America when I was working on my Ph.D.
We began with prayer, and shortly thereafter, Dr. Susan Ross, Chair of the Theology Department at Loyola, welcomed everyone and began the panel presentations. Proceeding in turn, each of us gave a 15 minute presentation on our particular focus in the book. We then took a short break which gave the attendees the chance to write out some questions for us. After the break, Dr. Ross invited us to respond to the questions, which was a lot of fun and gave us a chance to expound even more on points we hadn't had time for in our initial presentations. It was a great conversation! After that we signed a LOT of books, and responded to more questions. It was an absolutely wonderful, engaging and stimulating evening, with a lot of humor and wit along with the more scholarly stuff.
Second, a word about the process we used in writing the book. After deciding to write this book, Dr. Macy drafted his essay/chapter and e-mailed it to me. I commented on it, and then wrote my own and forwarded both Dr. Zagano. She commented on both of ours, and wrote HERS, and then forwarded the whole thing back to Gary, and the cycle was repeated several times until we were satisfied with it. This kind of "self-refereeing" was very helpful to each of us, and we think, for the end result. We then collaborated on the Introduction, and invited Dr. Ross to write a Forward, which she did.
Third, I ask my readers to keep a number of things in mind before you comment on this posting. I know just how incensed some people can get when this topic is broached, and the recent thread on Deacon Greg's blog is a good example of that! So, here are some things to know before blood pressures are raised:
1) No one, not the pope, nor any part of the Roman Curia, has EVER ruled out the possibility of ordaining women AS DEACONS. It is, according to the pope himself, an "OPEN THEOLOGICAL QUESTION." All we are doing is exploring that question with the latest research we can find on the subject. Many people think that "we can't talk about ordaining women"; that's not true, and that's not what church authority says! You will see what I mean when you read my chapter of the book: I analyze much of the official teaching documentation to see precisely what is being said. One thing comes through crystal clear: the Holy See very clearly and very significantly DISTINGUISHES the diaconate from the sacerdotal ("priestly") orders of presbyter and bishop (I use the word "presbyter" here because in technical language, "priest" can apply to both presbyters and bishops). So, no matter what has been said about the ordination of women to the presbyterate, the Church authority itself says that this does NOT apply to the diaconate.
2) The history of women in the diaconate has benefitted from considerable new historiography and analysis over the last 20-25 years. Therefore, Gary's work is not simply a different interpretation of the same material, but an up-to-date analysis of the more complete data we have now. He builds on some of the venerable work done a generation or more ago. For example, there are several groups of women associated with diaconate in the early history of the Church: there are "women deacons" in one group, "deaconesses" in another, and some women given those titles because they were married to male deacons. Each group is distinct and we have the rituals used to ordain them to help determine how their local communities perceived these women in ministry. I know you'll find this section quite interesting.
3) My section deals with two major themes: first, as I said before, I study the official documentation on the topic to demonstrate the distinctiveness of this question from other questions, and to stress that we are only interested in this book with the question of the possible ordination of women as deacons, not to any other question at all. I also review the teaching of Vatican II on the subject of the diaconate itself to make sure we see what the "vision" of the diaconate at the time of its renewal. Just as women and men in religious life often talk about rediscovering the vision of their founders, I think that for deacons, the bishops at Vatican II were our "founders", and it's good to have a sense of what they were thinking and doing about the diaconate and the renewal of the Church.
4) We often hear that this is just an attempt to get women into the priesthood "through a back door"; that, if we ordain women to the diaconate, "the next thing you know, they'll want to be priests!" Well, that's just a lot of nonsense. As I said: the diaconate is not the priesthood, nor is it a part of the ministerial priesthood in which presbyters and bishops participate. Furthermore, we have more than four decades of experience with the (permanent) diaconate now, in which the vast majority of deacons are serving as married men. There's been no run on any diocesan chanceries by these married deacons to demand ordination as presbyters! The vast majority of deacons, when asked if they would be interested in serving as presbyters if the church's discipline on celibacy were changed, respond that they would not. After nearly 22 years as a deacon myself, but also as someone who had earlier spent eight years in the seminary, I can attest that the vocation of deacon is significantly different from the vocation of the priest! So, the evidence is pretty clear that the diaconate is not now, nor would it ever be, a "back door" to becoming a priest.
These are just some reflections on what has been a most interesting process for me and my colleagues. All I ask is this: BEFORE you jump to any rash conclusions, BEFORE you assume you know our motivations, our lineage, our "agendas" and all the rest of it, just read the book. None of the three of us are rabid "liberals" or "conservatives"; we are not "radical feminists" or "feminazis". In fact, two of us (Dr. Zagano and myself) are both retired Navy Commanders -- not exactly a "liberal" professional background. Besides, if you start to find yourself pre-judging based on what you think you already know about this question, I would hope you would try to set those pre-judgments aside and first gather the facts.
Bottom line: the Church considers this an open question to be studied and discussed so that the church's "ministry of discernment" (the phrase used by the International Theological Commission, which works for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) can be exercised on this matter. All we have done here is attempt to contribute to that discussion.