(t)he study of women in the diaconate is not an entirely new project. The International Theological Commission (ITC), an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed the topic in Le Diaconat: Evolution et Perspectives, a formal study conducted over ten years, completed in 2002, and published early in 2003. (An unofficial English translation is available on the Vatican website or from Hillenbrand Books.) In fact, scholars and various Church commissions have studied this topic over and over again since the seventeenth century! What is new is that women in the diaconate will be the explicit focus of a commission set up by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that half of the theologians named by the Pope to serve on it are women, and that a leading advocate for women’s admission to the diaconate, Professor Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, is one of the members.
The ITC study provides a much-needed foundation for the commission’s work. Compared to the new commission, the ITC study had a wider scope. It took up the history and sacramentality of the diaconate itself, identified several theological questions that have been raised since the restoration of the diaconate as “a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” by Vatican II (Lumen gentium §29 and Orientalium Ecclesiarum §17), and reported on its contemporary implementation. Within this larger context, the ITC report deals with the “ministry of deaconesses” and “the disappearance of deaconesses.” It identifies two important “indications” touching on the diaconate of women that emerge from its research:
- the deaconesses in the early Church, from the evidence related to their rites of institution and their functions, “were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons”; and
- “the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of Bishops and Priests on the one hand and the Diaconal ministry on the other,” is strongly underlined by ecclesial Tradition, especially in the teaching of Vatican II and the post-conciliar Magisterium.
The first finding appears to exclude women on the grounds that deaconesses were not admitted to the same office as deacons, and the second finding names the problem the ordination of women as deacons would pose for understanding the unity of the sacrament. Since the diaconate is a grade or degree of Holy Orders (The Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], §1554), the unity of the sacrament seems to require that its subject, who is the sacramental sign, be a baptized male.
The properly theological question, treated in the ITC document, is the sacramentality of the diaconate itself. Deacons are ordained to the “ministry” as distinct from the “priesthood” (CCC §1569), but their office, exercised without interruption since apostolic times, has been recognized as belonging to “major orders” since the twelfth century. And the Church has always taught that the sacrament of Holy Orders is reserved to men (CCC §1577)."
—excerpt from The Burden of Proof Concerning Women Deacons in First Things.