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book review

Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future

By Gary Macy, William T. Ditewig, Phyllis Zagano, Foreward by Susan A. Ross
(Paulist Press, 2011, Mahwah, NJ)
Reviewed by Joan Brausch

The authors of Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future have done a great service to Catholics everywhere by offering a treasure trove of information on the history, theology and implications of women deacons for the modern church in an approachable and understandable format. The book is divided into three major sections, each written by a different author, an expert in that area. Gary Macy, professor of theology at Santa Clara University, gives us a history of women deacons in the church – both East and West. William Ditewig, director of lay and deacon formation for the Diocese of Monterey gives a masterful overview of the modern diaconate, including a short lesson on the development of the church's understanding of the diaconate during and since Vatican II. Phyllis Zagano, adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University, wrote the third section on the future of women deacons, taking a look at the implications for the church if women are ordained deacons.

Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future by Gary Macy, William T. Ditewig, and Phyllis Zagano.

The most important point that Macy raises in his section is that women were gradually marginalized from ministry and from the Sacrament of Orders. Prohibition crept into Church practice in the late Middle Ages and gradually became solidified and codified. The diaconate was denied to women later in the Middle Ages because of the changes in understanding of the Sacrament of Orders. Before the 12th century, ordination was the process by which one was chosen for a job/ministry that needed to be done in a particular community by that community. After the 12th century, ordination was considered to be a mandate given to an individual by higher authority to exercise power in any community. This is where "indelible character" of ordination begins to solidify as a teaching.

In the section on the "Present," Ditewig's most important contribution is to help us understand the church's current teachings on the diaconate. Permanent deacons after the Second Vatican Council were "ordained into service." This was no longer a transitional step to the priesthood but a clerical order all its own. At the end of his section, Ditewig notes that we now have one sacrament of orders with two distinct modes of participation: priesthood and diaconate. He asserts that the church needs to be flexible and adjust to the signs of the times. He then closes with a comment from Cardinal Döpfner who spoke up for a renewed diaconate at the Second Vatican Council and who might ask the same about women who serve the Church today: "Why should these people be denied the grace of the sacrament?"

Phyllis Zagano, in her closing section reviews some of the inconsistencies in church documents of the past twenty years regarding women and the diaconate. She reminds us that both the ordinary magisterium and the extraordinary magisterium have already made favorable determinations about the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate.

She believes that one of the biggest obstacles to women being ordained deacons is having women becoming part of the clerical caste of the church. This is a problem not of function but of identity – can women take on the diaconal role now clearly defined as "in persona Christi servi" (in the image of Christ the servant) ? And she comes to the conclusion that there are no persuasive arguments against a women serving in persona Christi servi"! The Church needs women to serve other women. The church needs women to attend the sick and the dying. The church needs women who will assist the poor and the needy. As deacons.

Who would then become a woman deacon? Zagano proceeds to discuss the various groups of women who might seek ordination as deacons and what the implications might be. She contemplates the implications of religious orders who may not wish to include clerics as members of the community.

She refutes a statement by Cardinal Walter Kasper: "Women are already doing what they'd be doing if they were ordained as deacons," by noting what women are not permitted to do that male deacons are permitted to do. They cannot preach. They cannot serve as a single judge on a tribunal. They cannot serve as the ordinary minister of Baptism. They cannot be the ordinary minister of Marriage. They cannot obtain certain offices in the Church. They cannot proclaim the Gospel at Mass or give the final blessing. Does the Church need women deacons?


Joan Brausch is active in her parish and a member of FutureChurch's Women in Church Leadership Advisory Committee

Focus on FutureChurch

Summer 2012


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