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Women Deacons
Why Are They Hiding the History?

“Phyllis, if you write a book about female deacons, and it’s a good book, I promise you, I’ll get it to the Pope.”
“You don’t know the Pope... Bishop O’Connor,” replied his friend and aspiring theologian, Phyllis Zagano.

Zagano credits the man who would become Cardinal Archbishop of New York for pushing her to write Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad).

Their lifelong friendship began while both served in the U.S. Navy. Zagano eventually completed her doctoral studies and went on to work as one of O’Connor’s theological advisors. He, with other diocesan theologians and academics, helped her develop the outline of a book which makes an impressive case for why the church must formally recognize the diaconal ministry already being performed by women.

Zagano spoke in Cleveland on July 20 for the Cleveland FutureChurch 6th annual celebration of St. Mary of Magdala.

Her argument begins by citing the long history of female deacons in the Church dating from the first century and, surprisingly, even to the present day.

In Romans 16 Paul names Phoebe “deacon (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrae,” not “deaconess” as it is often incorrectly rendered in English. The original Greek, diakonos, has a masculine ending which many scholars believe was gender inclusive. In his letters to the Corinthians for example, St. Paul used the word diakonos to describe himself (1 Cor 3:5, 2 Cor 6:4).

Zagano also finds widespread epigraphical evidence from first century tombstones with diakonos inscribed as a title for women church leaders. Early ordination rites were identical to those used to ordain male deacons to major orders. The women received an imposition of hands by the Bishop inside the sanctuary. They received communion and chalice from the hands of the Bishop. Finally, they received a stole as sign of their diaconal office.

The mistaken “deaconess” translation is most likely an anachronistic reading assigning a formal ministerial title of the fourth century (and its corresponding duties) to the more fluid situation of the first century in which deacons were both male and female. The ministry of fourth century “deaconesses” was more tightly circumscribed by church leaders concerned about keeping women’s ministry distinct and subordinate, to that of men.

Alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Over 1600 years later, the concerns of at least some male church leaders seem to not have changed very much.
Zagano finds the October 4, 2002 International Theological Commission (ITC) document on the Diaconate. “fundamentally flawed.” Its unstated point, she contends, “is that women never were ordained and never can be ordained.” The study ignored or omitted a large body of historical and theological evidence that women were in fact, sacramentally ordained. It also ignored the original study on women deacons commissioned but never proclaimed by Pope Paul VI which concluded that the ordination of women deacons in the early church was sacramental. This study was reported in the Italian journal Orientalia Christian Periodica, in 1974. Lastly the October document ignores the present practice of the Armenian Church which has at least three women deacons. Both Pope Paul VI and John Paul II signed documents recognizing the apostolic succession and validity of Armenian Catholic sacraments.

Perhaps most damaging is what appears a disingenuous attempt to mislead. The first point of the ITC document states: “The deaconesses mentioned in the ancient tradition of the Church, as suggested by their rite of institution and the functions they exercise are not purely and simply the same as deacons.” It is true that fourth century “deaconesses” cannot be equated to first century “deacons.” What goes unsaid is that there were both male and female deacons in the first century Church. Average Catholics will read the document and erroneously conclude that there were no women deacons in the early church.

This led Zagano to ask: “Why are they hiding the history?”

Why indeed.


Summer 2003



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