By Frank Wessling
In the Catholic Church we change things when the time is “ripe.” A persuasive case has been made that the time is ripe for ordaining women as deacons. This can be done without violating the tradition that only men can be ordained to holy orders — with its three levels of deacon, priest, and bishop — because diaconate is confined to the function of “service.”
Both Emeritus Pope Benedict and his successor as head of the Vatican doctrinal office, Archbishop Ludwig Muller, have helped in recent years to indicate how a renewal of diaconate for women is both justified in the tradition and required by justice at this point in history. The biblical scholar Father Gerald O’Collins, SJ, laid out the case in The Tablet of London’s May 25 issue.
In October 2009, Pope Benedict made an addition to canon law sharpening the distinction between priesthood and diaconate: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the people of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word, and charity.”
In another place, canon law still limits ordination to men, but the distinction made by Benedict shows why that restriction need not continue.
This opening of the door to change began earlier in a 2002 report on the diaconate by a Vatican theological commission. Among the members was Archbishop Muller, who was then bishop of Regensburg, Germany. That report said the deaconesses known to exist in the early Church “were not purely and simply equivalent to deacons.” Not “purely and simply,” but some equivalence is implied.
The report also found a “clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other.” The Second Vatican Council had drawn this line decades earlier when the Constitution on the Church declared that deacons are ordained “not for priesthood but for service.” When he became pope, Benedict moved this thinking into the Church’s legal system, further “ripening” the time for change.
Two further points are made by Fr. O’Collins in his Tablet article. First, Christianity in the East, the churches we call Orthodox, had a long and well-documented tradition of ordaining women deacons. Second, the services carried out today by women in the Catholic Church are practically the same as male deacons. Women are parish administrators and chaplains in hospitals and prisons. They manage social service programs, sit with the sick and dying, lead liturgical services, prepare people for sacraments and teach at all levels.
Vatican II taught that “discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social condition, language and religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” Fr. O’Collins asks, “Are we witnessing such discrimination on the grounds of sex between male and female pastoral administrators?”
In 1957 Pope Pius XII said the time was not ripe for restoring the permanent diaconate for men. However, less than a decade later the bishops at Vatican II saw contemporary pastoral and missionary needs as a call for restoration of the diaconate. That decision was made easier as the bishops at the council realized how lay men were already carrying out the service of deacons in many countries.
In other words, it was the proper time to acknowledge the diaconal service of men by ordaining them as deacons. If women today are performing the same service, and all of us in the Church can see that, the time must also be ripe for them to be ordained deacons. Reasons for further discrimination are very hard to see.