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Women Deacons: Why Now?

Recently we have been asked if, by adding women deacons to our petition to the International Synod on the Eucharist, we aren’t retreating from calling for open discussion of women’s ordination to the priesthood. To the contrary, we believe putting female deacons on the table will stimulate a long overdue discussion about women’s roles in a Church presently fearful putting “woman” and “ministry” in the same sentence.

Women’ full ministerial inclusion is a process. The first step is to educate about Jesus’ inclusive practice. The second step is to bring to visibility the women ministers already serving the church. Our Women in Church Leadership and Celebrating Women Witnesses projects,developed by FutureChurch and partnered with Call To Action, have already done much to advance this important work.

It is a little known fact that women/lay ministers are the “glue” helping to hold the Church together. Worldwide, there are 783,000 women religious serving the church’s 1.07 billion Catholicscompared to 405,000 priests. Add the nuns to at least 1.5 million female lay ministers (catechists, missionaries and members ofsecular institutes) and it becomes clear that Catholicism’s ministerial crisis cannot be solved without expanding women’s roles.

The next step in the process is to ordain women deacons. This would legitimate women’s sacramental ministry in the Church. Most Catholic women ministers in the U.S. (conservatively, an estimated 82% of 65,000 lay pastoral ministers and chaplains) already have qualifications (and more) to be ordained deacons immediately. As deacons they can preach, baptize and witness marriages. This constitutes a huge new pool of ministers who could be readily available to help meet the sacramental needs of a growing church.

In the Anglican Church, women first became deaconesses, then deacons and then they were ordained to the priesthood. According to two experts on the subject, John Wijngaard and Phyllis Zagano, the Church had deacons before we had priests (as we understand priests today). Paul describes Phoebe as diakonos, the same word he applied to himself. The ordination rites for women deacons were the same as those for men deacons and they were regarded as sacramental. The reluctance of the institutional Church to seriously consider ordaining women deacons is probably linked to this fact. However the Vatican has not closed the door on this discussion. Indeed it cannot, without seriously damaging its credibility.

To petition for women deacons does not mean that FutureChurch has stopped
advocating open discussion of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Along with the Catholic Theological Society of America we believe this discussion is very important. We haveconflicting teachings in the Church. The Church says women are equal. But women can’t exercise this equality since canon law says only the ordained can govern—and of course, only men can be ordained. The discussion of governance is an urgent one and needs to be considered in its own right since the laity should also have voice in Church governance.

It is an unpleasant fact that ordaining women priests in the Catholic Church will require lengthy internal processing, a change of canon law, and revision of some recent rather prominent proclamations. Opening the diaconate to women on the other hand, does not require such a complicated process, nor is it ruled out by canon law (according to the Canon Law Society of America) but seems to be doable, reasonable next step.
Petitioning for women deacons does not mean we have stopped calling for open discussion of women’s ordination to the priesthood. To the contrary, it could be one key to reopening the discussion in the worldwide church.


Winter 2005



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