Sunday, July 8, 2012

Women and the Diaconate: Part II

After my last posting on women and the diaconate, the conversation on Deacon Greg Kandra's Facebook page continued, and I received several interesting e-mails.

1) One deacon observed that "We've had this discussion for a few years now, although Phoebe is mentioned by name, I would like to draw attention to the following; many have stated that Rome hasn't spoken clearly on this subject, yet it seems to me, that they have clearly spoken "men" for ordination. . . ."  He then recounts the facts surrounding Vatican II's renewal of the diaconate.  And yet, for all of the quotations he offers, none really applies to the specific question of the admission of women to the diaconate.  All of the citations could just as easily and appropriately apply to women as well as men.  The fact that the current renewal has not yet included women is not alone dispositive.  After all, prior to 1967, there hadn't been a married deacon in centuries as well in the Latin Church!  I would also point out that the Canon Law Society of America, in 1985, examined this question and determined that there were no major canonical issues that couldn't be rather easily revised if the Church were to decide to ordain women as deacons.  In other words, just because we're not doing something right now doesn't necessarily mean that we might not do something in the future.

As I have said many times elsewhere, we MUST keep the question of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons quite distinct from the question of ordaining women as presbyters.  WHY?  Well, one major reason is that the Holy Father, both now and in his previous ministry as Prefect of the CDF, has done precisely that!  So, it's not helpful for people to get all excited about this question by somehow equating all three orders.  Prior to the renewal of the diaconate as a permanent order, a neo-Scholastic understanding of the Sacrament of Order might have seen things that way, but the renewal of the diaconate has signaled a paradigm shift in understanding.  And the church has been refining this new understanding over the last twenty or so years and this is evident in changes made to the catechism and subsequent documents (detailed in our book on women deacons).

 2) Deacon Jim, the original "commenter" I referenced in my last blog post, offered a number of further observations.  He clarified that he had not been using the term "definitively" in the technical sense used by theologians.  He also wrote that "it seems arbitrary to make the claim that, of all the uses of 'diakonos' by Paul or others in the NT, that in Phoebe's particular case (but not in any other), it has to mean 'ordained deacon'."  Another friend also wrote in an e-mail, concerning Phoebe, that "When it comes to Romans 16:1 it became clear that whether or not the particular scholar saw it as evidence for the female diaconate, it was not clear what the term "deacon" in this context referred to holding an ecclesial office. Most noted that it was likely too early to attribute to her an established office in the Church, let alone one received by ordination."  I couldn't agree more with both comments!  Let me explain.

St. Paul refers to "our sister Phoebe" as deacon of the Church of Cenchraeae.  Period.  We have absolutely no clue what being "deacon of the Church of Cenchraeae" meant in her day.  What's more, we have no clue HOW she received that designation; was it simply something bestowed on her in Paul's letter?  Some kind of ritual acknowledgment?  We have no idea.  Nada.  Zilch.  I get that, and I accept it fully.  I know of no one who would seriously suggest otherwise.  On the other hand, however, there is something going on with Paul's use of the word.  I can't believe that Paul, whose first language was Greek, somehow screwed up the grammar with the sentence; therefore, his attribution of a "title" of "diakonos" must have meant SOMETHING, and the fact is, whatever it meant, it went beyond some generic kind of "service", since that ought to have been rendered more accurately with a more generic attribution, such as "diakonissa."  So, while we don't know any specifics, we can tell that it was something special, using a "title" that had acquired some kind of technical meaning in Paul's usage (as found in other correspondence).

Deacon Jim also points out the various other ministers who are apparently referred to as "deacons".  The problem, as he correctly points out, is with the language of translation.  In the case of Phoebe, we have a masculine form of the "title" being used with a woman; it is a rather glaring use of the language.  With the men being referred to has "deacon" the challenge is greater, since it could be that the word is being used as a title of ministry, but it could be used in the more generic sense of "assistant" or "servant" without any reference to ecclesial ministry.  This is because it is a masculine form of the word being used to describe males, so we have to let the context help us a bit.  Perhaps some of these men were "deacons"; then again, they might simply be assisting in some other capacity.

3)  Deacon Jim also writes that "any claim that the Seven are somehow separate from Deacons seems, in my view, to be as weak as claims against the 'Trinity' as being Scriptural since the word 'Trinity' isn't used, say, at the Annunciation, or the Baptism of the Lord. If the 'Seven' aren't deacons, what are they? If Philip isn't a Deacon, what is he?"

Again, my earlier concern is that people be quite clear on what sources we're relying on for our information.  Many people honestly don't realize that scripture itself does not allude to Stephen and the rest of the Seven as deacons.  As I've said before, we Catholics do not hold a sola scriptura understanding of Divine Revelation, seeing the Revelation of God coming to us both through Scripture and from Tradition.  So, while scripture itself is silent on the whole Seven-as-Deacons idea, Tradition since the time of Irenaeus HAS seen the Seven as coming to represent the diaconal order.  I have no problem with that; we simply need to be careful in how we make our assertions.  In other words, SCRIPTURE doesn't make the claim here; Tradition does.  That's an important distinction for scholars and anyone else interested in the matter.

Now, as to Jim's questions, "If the Seven aren't deacons, what are they?  If Philip isn't a Deacon, what is he?" let's consider.  FROM SCRIPTURE, we can tell nothing about "what" they are.  For example, I have done some research into Second Temple Judaism, and there are some talmudic sources that suggest that each synagogue had a "board" of persons who were responsible for the charitable outreach of the synagogue, and quite often this "board" consisted of seven persons.  Could Peter have been asking those Greek-speaking Christians of Jerusalem simply to use the existing Jewish model for service?  We don't know, but what we DO know is that Luke -- who would have been familiar with the term "diakonos" and "diakonoi" in the technical sense -- chose NOT to use that term vis-a-vis the Seven.  It's also interesting, of course, that while Peter says that he wants the Seven to take care of the "daily distribution" so that the Twelve can take care of preaching the Good News, the only actual ministry we see two of the Seven doing (Stephen and Philip) is preaching and catechizing!  (I often remind deacon candidates that they should remember that Stephen was martyred precisely because of his powerful preaching, and they should expect no less!)  What we do know about the Seven FROM SCRIPTURE is this: they were picked from among their own community, were of good repute and filled with the Holy Spirit, and they were ordained (hands were laid upon them by the Apostles) into ministry.  As I wrote above, later Tradition will describe that ordination as diaconal.

Why do I persist in making this distinction?  I have encountered some people over the years who would like to say that contemporary deacons should only do what we see the "deacons" in scripture doing.  The problem is that we don't really know WHAT the deacons of scripture were doing, and trying to limit ministry to such scant evidence would not be helpful.  Imagine if we tried to suggest that limitation on presbyters or bishops!  But that's something for a different post.

I have delayed putting this post up, because I have reviewed so many previous posts on this subject and it seems like so much of the material -- both the objections to the question, and my responses -- is simply repetitive.  Many things have changed over the last couple of decades with regard to church teaching as well as historical and theological research on the matter, so I strongly recommend that this later material (starting with church teaching itself!) be studied carefully.