A return to church tradition on women deacons

Apr 18, 2018 by Phyllis Zagano NCRonline.org 


By Edited by Serena Noceti
312 pages; Published by Queriniana

Two new books in Italian join the expanding conversation about women in the diaconate, one a collection of academic essays, the other a more accessible, general book.

Both Donne Diacono? and Diacone are in response to Pope Francis’ May 2016 announcement and August 2016 appointment of the Papal Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women. The books’ titles belie their views. Women Deacons? and Deacons seem innocuous enough in English, but their matching linguistic subtexts present the view that women deacons are just that. Some argue that women ordained as deacons belonged to a separate order of “diaconesse,” but each title employs a feminine form of deacon.

Modern discussion about female deacons has met with predictable ends ever since French Oratorian Fr. Jean Morin (1591-1659) argued in the 17th century that liturgies for women deacons met Council of Trent criteria for sacramental ordination. Since then, some writers agree, some do not.

A renewed interest in discussing women deacons followed the close of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI’s restoration of the diaconate as a permanent grade of order. Paul VI asked a liturgical scholar and member of the International Theological Commission, Camaldolese Benedictine Fr. Cipriano Vagaggini, about women ordained as deacons. In a detailed essay, Vagaggini said yes, women were sacramentally ordained. His essay (in Italian) never saw the light of day as an official Vatican document, but it appeared in a small academic journal.

In 1972, Belgian Msgr. Roger Gryson, a patristics scholar at the Catholic University of Louvain, presented Le ministère des femmes dans l’Eglise ancienne (The Ministry of Women in the Early Church), to which French Bishop Aimé-Georges Martimort, a liturgist who participated in Vatican II, responded negatively. In  1982, Martimort published Les Diaconesses: Essai historique (Deaconesses: An Historical Study).

Other scholars weighed in, typically in one or another direction: If women were sacramentally ordained, then they can be so ordained again, or women were never sacramentally ordained and besides, women cannot sacramentally image Christ. There the lines remain drawn. Francis has renewed the discussion.

In Diacone, Serena Noceti, vice president of the Italian Theological Association and professor of theology in Florence, presents collected papers from a conference of the Coordinamento Theologhe Italiane — roughly, the Congress of Female Italian Theologians — held in Venice in October 2016.

The book’s complete title, Diacone: Quale minister per quale Chiesa?, asks about women deacons: “Which ministry for which Church?” The conference papers are organized according to four areas of discussion: Vatican II’s restoration of the diaconate (Gilles Routhier, Serena Noceti, Andrea Grillo, Cettina Militello); biblical sources of women serving as deacons (Marinella Perroni and Pius-Ramon Tragan); women deacons in the tradition of the church (Christina Simonelli, Giuseppe Laiti, Moira Scimmi); and a contemporary ecumenical example of the diaconate of women (Angela Berlis).

The result of the discussion is a clearer understanding of the problem. The question of restoring women to the diaconate is one of ecclesiology. The early church quite obviously included women deacons, and they were ordained to that office. The combined essays suggest a functional ecclesiology. As Routhier, a professor at Laval University in Quebec, writes: “In the final analysis, the necessary question is: ‘What ministry does the Church need today to ensure adequate and culturally significant pastoral care in some regions of the world?’

That said, the problem, or non-problem of the medieval cursus honorum (the “course of honor”) needs be addressed. Does diaconal ordination automatically imply eligibility for priesthood? In her essay, Militello, who teaches in Rome at the Pontificia Facoltà Teologica “Marianum,” answers the question simply: The diaconate is not the priesthood. As Berlis, a historian on the theology faculty of the University of Bern, Switzerland, points out, the diaconate is not a makeshift office for women who feel called to priesthood.

Each of the conference papers comes from deep thought about the place of women in the church and in society. While the papers may never be translated to English, it is important to know that this conference occurred and its published papers are being read wherever Italian is known.

By By Christina Simonelli and Moira Scimmi
104 pages; Published by Edizioni Messaggero Padova

Two of the Venice conference participants, Simonelli and Scimmi, prepared an instant response to the creation of the papal commission. The book’s title is telling: Donne Diacono?: La posta in gioco (Women Deacons?: What is at stake). Simonelli teaches patristics in Verona and is on the Milan seminary faculty. Scimmi’s lifelong diaconal service has been in various Milanese parishes and, more recently, in Casa della Carità di Milano. Her 2004 doctoral thesis is perhaps the most significant contemporary academic writing in Italian about women in the diaconate. Both authors know full well what is at stake.

Their book’s logic starts with the conclusions of the 2002 International Theological Commission document, a result of 10 years’ work overseen and managed by then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “It pertains to the ministry of discernment, which the Lord has established in his Church, to pronounce authoritatively on the question” of women deacons. That is: the topic is open for discussion.

In her opening essay, Simonelli recalls the proposal of German Cardinal Walter Kasper, retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who once suggested creation of a non-ordained “office” of deaconess, able to minister liturgically and through charity, but who would not be sacramentally ordained. The proposal’s undercurrent: While women can minister, only men can officially have “leadership,” and only men can image Christ. Simonelli asks, how do we think about what is masculine and feminine? The distinctions and questions regarding priesthood and ministry, and the fact of ordained persons acting and being in persona Christi, make discussing the topic a common task of all who belong to the church.

In the second part of Donne Diacono? Scimmi writes about the history of women deacons, which varies apparently always in response to local church needs. She presents the history of women in the diaconate from the first through the seventh centuries, using historical sources to enlighten the past, and review the current debate. She closes with the ordination rite for a woman deacon recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions, which instructs the bishop, in the presence of the presbyters, male and female deacons, to lay hands on the candidate and invoke the Holy Spirit’s blessing, “so that she may worthily complete the work entrusted to her.”

The basic question: How will the church bring the word, the liturgy and charity to the people of God? If the answer is ordaining women as deacons, these works together present an understanding that the church could return to its tradition without troubling any teaching about priesthood.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Read her column Just Catholic at NCRonline.org/columns/just-catholic.]

Excerpt from Robert Mickens in La Croix, May 2018

The ordination Mass is taking place on the 55th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations. And in earlier-released message for the occasion, Francis said:

“Each one of us is called – whether to the lay life in marriage, to the priestly life in the ordained ministry, or to a life of special consecration – in order to become a witness of the Lord, here and now.”

“In the diversity and the uniqueness of each and every vocation, personal and ecclesial, there is a need to listendiscern and live this word (of God) that calls to us from on high and, while enabling us to develop our talents, makes us instruments of salvation in the world and guides us to full happiness,” he said.

In short, the pope focused on all the various types of Christian callings. But he did not say anything about what almost everyone recognizes today as a very real “vocations crisis” in the Church – especially regarding the priesthood.

There are various aspects to what might be better called a priesthood crisis. La Croix International recently published two articles that looked at one of those aspects – the clericalist mentality that seems to be a disease (or at least a temptation) inherent in the very ethos of the ordained.

If you missed those articles the first time, please take a look at Joe Holland’s “Get rid of the clergy – But keep Holy Orders” and Andrew Hamilton’s “Clerical culture produces poor fruit.”

Admittedly, these essays are dealing with a subjective element of the priesthood and how it likely relates to the current vocations crisis.

People will debate whether clericalism is turning young men away from exploring a call to priesthood or whether, on the other hand, it is attracting questionable candidates who actually revel in it.

There are other subjective issues relating to the vocations/priesthood crisis that need to be urgently looked at, as well. And, at least on paper, the Congregation for the Clergy has issued guidelines to help bishops and people involved in formation programs to do just that.

While the quality of seminaries and the priests they produce are largely subjective categories, quantity is not.

Objectively, the figures do not lie. It is a fact that the numbers of young men joining the seminary and being ordained presbyters are not keeping pace with the overall increase in the numbers of baptized Catholics. Nowhere.

Not even in Africa, where some people would have us believe the situation is not so dire. And where they believe that the “vocations-rich” African Church will become the protagonist of some new, “reverse evangelization” of the now greatly secularized, established Churches of Europe and the developed world.

They are very wrong.

The latest Vatican-published Statistical Yearbook of the Church shows that in Africa there are currently just over 5,000 Catholics for every priest. It’s even worse throughout Latin America where the ratio is upwards of 7,000 to one.

Compare that to the Churches in Europe, North America and Oceania where the figure hovers around 2,000 Catholics for every priest.

There are a number of possible steps that could be taken to shorten this widening gap.

But the most likely to be accepted at this time, also for historical and practical reasons, would be to change the criteria for admission to Holy Orders by expanding the pool of candidates to include married men of proven virtue – the so-called viri probati.

Unfortunately, most of the world’s episcopal conferences have been reluctant or stubbornly opposed to exploring this option even despite gentle encouragement to do so by both Paul VI and Pope Francis.

Instead, the bishops have opted for an easier and safer way forward – import priests from countries where, continuing the myth, they believe there is an abundance of vocations.

Let us leave aside for a moment the subjective, but very grave reasons why doing so can be quite hazardous – such as the difficulty foreign priests often face in adapting to a new culture, its language and different societal norms (and the effect that it has on the people to whom they minister) or the understandable tendency for priests from impoverished and destabilized countries to want to move to a safer, more prosperous land.

There is, again, a more objective reason why it is not a bonafide solution for a long established Church in the West to import foreign priests – especially from the younger churches of Africa where, despite rapid growth, they are still living in largely un-evangelized mission territory.

“(Such a diocese) can of course accept temporary help in difficulties or crises but must never deprive young Churches of these priests who are often those with the best training. It is a matter of fairness and of ecclesial sense.”

That was the warning issued nearly 20 years ago by Cardinal Jozef Tomko, who at the time was prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propaganda Fide).

In the summer of 2001 his Vatican office issued an “instruction on the sending abroad and sojourn of diocesan priests from mission territories.”

It was intended to “counteract the prevalent trend of a certain number of diocesan priests” from mission territories who “want to leave their own country and reside in Europe or North America, often with the intention of further studies or for other reasons that are not actually missionary.”

The instruction noted that one of the non-missionary motives for these migrating priests was the allure of “higher living conditions,” justified by “the need for young priests in some of the established Churches.”

The document lamented that “these priests are then convinced by such reasoning not to return to their own country, sometimes with the tacit permission of their own bishop, or at other times in opposition to his request that they return home.”

It’s quite a different and legitimate reason, the congregation continued, for bishops to send priests abroad in order to provide pastoral care to people from “their own country who have emigrated overseas.”

At the press conference to present the document the now-94-year-old Tomko said it’s actually desirable for priests to accompany their fellow countrymen abroad so as to minister to their spiritual needs.

In fact, in countries that have a long history of accepting immigrants – such as Canada, the United States and Australia – there has always been a steady stream of foreign-born priests to spiritually care for the new arrivals.

And, more recently, a similar trend is occurring in the Arab States where there are large numbers of Catholic migrant workers from places like the Philippines or India.

But Cardinal Tomko reiterated the alarm sounded in the Vatican instruction.

He said bishops from the more developed Western countries that “gladly have recourse to the easy solution of staffing their parishes with African, Asian or Latin American priests” were not paying heed to “the possible harm this can cause” the priests’ dioceses of origin – that is, stripping them of needed ministerial resources.

“Some dioceses in Africa and Asia have a third or even half of their diocesan clergy in other countries, for financial reasons. I know of one that has 83 priests abroad, while within the country evangelization is stagnating,” he lamented.

The cardinal’s bottom line, however, got to the theological and ecclesiological heart of the matter:

“A community that fails to find the ministers it needs among its own people must reflect on the causes of this situation and the proper remedies, such as the pastoral care of families and vocations, and appreciation of lay ministry,” he said.

There are even more possible remedies than the ones the cardinal suggested, of course. And they should be carefully discerned – with the aim of assuring that the Church’s ministers should found among its already established communities.

It doesn’t take a lot of “pastoral creativity” – to use a phrase dear to Pope Francis – to figure this one out. In fact, the pope has already suggested a way…

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