Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Debate Continues: Women and Diaconate

Let me start with one preliminary observation: There are numerous unresolved issues related to a contemporary theology of the renewed order of deacons in the Church today; the ordination of women as deacons is simply one of those issues.  In my own research, writing and teaching on the diaconate, I have not focused exclusively on this issue, feeling that other fundamental matters needed to be attended to first.  However, the question of ordaining women as deacons can help us address issues related to the nature of diaconal ministry today.  And, for full disclosure, I have had the pleasure of looking into this issue with more intensity as one of the authors of Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future with Gary Macy and Phyllis Zagano.

The new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), now-Archbishop (soon-to-be Cardinal) Gerhard Ludwig Mueller has written on the diaconate and priesthood, as well as participating as a theologian on the International Theological Commission (ITC), which developed a paper on the diaconate.  Ten years ago, he was interviewed on this question as part of that effort, and that is available here. I would observe, and will detail below, that much has happened SINCE that interview which would lead me to question whether he would still hold some of the same views today. 

I bring all this up because the mention of Mueller's decade-old interview sparked quite a debate over on Deacon Greg Kandra's Facebook page, and some points were made there that I think need to be addressed.  One of the comments made was the following:
"The all-male diaconate definitively and historically emerges from the ministry of the apostles in Acts. Just as Jesus did with the Twelve, the Apostles do with the "Seven"--both excluding women. I would suggest reading our new Prefect's book "Priesthood and Diaconate" as well as Martimort's "Deaconesses" for the historical context that makes clear that, while the Church ordained "deaconesses" as a separate "order" in the Church, the order of deaconesses was never viewed as a participation in the Sacrament of Holy Orders any more than other orders were (porter, lector, acolyte, etc). While there has been no contemporary clarification that women cannot be deacons (though they obviously *can* be deaconesses if that "order" is ever restored), the history/practice on this point is explicit both in Scripture and Tradition."
1) The claim is made that an all male diaconate "definitively and historically" is grounded in Acts 6-8 and the selection of the Seven.  The commenter later admits that a separate group known as "deaconesses" existed later, although not on a sacramental par with male deacons (more about that later).  However, on this first point I'm concerned about the terms "definitively" and "historically," especially based on a reading of Acts.  Scripture alone cannot sustain this claim, since the passage does not explicitly refer to the Seven as "deacons."  Certainly scripture knows of deacons (one need only turn to the letters of Paul and the pastoral epistles to find that evidence), but Luke does not refer to the Seven as deacons.  It is later Tradition (at least 200 years later) that begins to refer to Stephen and his "classmates" as the first deacons.  (In fact, the only deacon referred to by name in the New Testament is actually Phoebe, who is referred to as deacon -- not by the feminine form diakonissa, but by the masculine form diakonos, leading some scholars to suggest that "deacon" has already emerged as the title of a particular office in the ancient Church.)  So, I would be very hesitant to attach a "males only" argument simply to the passage from Acts, especially using terms such as "definitively" and "historically."

2) The fact is, the Church has never spoken "definitively" on the subject of the ordination of women as deacons.  The term "definitive" was applied to the question of ordaining women to the PRESBYTERATE by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, but that is a question distinct from the diaconate.  I would also point out that the working document released by the ITC (with Mueller as a member) also agreed that the Church has not yet spoken definitively on the subject, and that "it pertains to the Church's ministry of discernment" to address the matter.

3) The commenter suggests that people read Mueller's text on Priesthood and Diaconate as well as Martimort's work Deaconesses.  That's good advice, but incomplete.  First, Martimort was not writing in a vacuum.  He was engaged in an extended scholarly debate with Roger Gryson, who took an opposing view of the same historical evidence; so, I would encourage people to read BOTH men and analyze their arguments.  Second, this debate took place in the 1970's, and the historical record has been greatly augmented by more recent research, both in Eastern and Western sources.  Simply put, we have more historical data to consider today than those two scholars did.

4) Mueller and Martimort would agree that women were commissioned/installed/ordained as "deaconesses" but that this role was not sacramentally equal to that of male deacons, nor was their ministry on a par with male deacons.  The argument was that such women were installed to provide ministry to other women.  However, the historical record reveals that there is considerable variety in the roles "deaconesses" and "women deacons" (sometimes these terms are used equivalently, sometimes not) actually played in various cultures and places.  Furthermore, recent study of ordination rituals indicates that some women were ordained WITHIN the sanctuary (as contrasted with blessings and installations which took place OUTSIDE the sanctuary), with the laying on of hands by the bishop, and even -- in some cases -- the use of the exact same prayer of consecration used for both male and female deacons.  I am not suggesting that this practice was universally followed; but I am saying that it did take place alongside the historical practice alluded to by Martimort and Mueller.  Any attempt to justify one practice or another is methodologically and historically incomplete, since all of these practices were done, and there was great diversity of understanding and practice.

5) Mueller and others often argue for the "unicity" of the Sacrament of Order, so that what applies to one order applies to the others.  Certainly we all agree that there is but one Sacrament of Order (now described as the orders of deacon, presbyter and bishop, although until 1972 the sacrament included subdeacon (a major order), and the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte), the way these orders relate to one another has received considerable official attention over the last 20 years or so.  The result of this work, led largely by then-Cardinal Ratzinger while he was Prefect of the CDF, has been to develop the notion of two modes of participation within the one Sacrament of Order.  Namely, there is the diaconal mode of participation and the priestly mode of participation which is shared by presbyters and bishops.  "Priests" (presbyters and bishops), we are told, "receive sacred power to act in the person of Christ the Head," while deacons "receive a special strength [vigor specialis] to serve the People of God" in a ministry of Word, Sacrament and Charity.  Such distinctions within the one Sacrament of Order are quite helpful in overcoming the sense that the diaconate is simply an abridged, or lesser, form of the priesthood itself.   The image I often use in teaching on this subject is that of a teeter-totter: one the one hand, there is the unicity of Order; on the other is the diversity within the Order.  In my own theological opinion, one must keep the teeter-totter balanced.  If we go too far to the side of unicity, we lose the inherent communio of the Order; if we go too far to the side of diversity, we risk creating two or three separate sacraments.  According to other members of the ITC, then-Father Mueller and his colleagues engaged in quite interesting debates during their sessions!

6) Finally, I would simply caution against "elevating" Archbishop Mueller's theological judgments now that he is Prefect of the CDF.  Just as the pope himself continues to publish his own personal theological research under the name "Joseph Ratzinger" -- realizing that his function as theologian is quite distinct from his role as the Pope -- so, too, must we continue to distinguish what "Gerhard Mueller's" own theological research might support contrasted to positions he may take as Prefect of the CDF.

In conclusion, I would simply affirm the official position of the Church: that the question of ordaining women as deacons remains -- according to papal and curial pronouncements -- an unresolved question, and the call to continue "the Church's ministry of discernment" on the question is ongoing.