VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has followed through on a promise he made earlier this year to institute an official commission to study the question of the diaconate of women, with a special emphasis on the early Church. But it remains unclear what the scope and ultimate purpose of the new body will be.
The Vatican announced Aug. 2 that, “after intense prayer and mature reflection,” the Holy Father decided to “establish an official commission that could study the question” of the diaconate of women, “especially with regard to the first ages of the Church.”
The Holy See also unveiled the names of 13 specialists in theology and Church history — seven men and six women — who will make up the commission. The new body will be headed by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria, secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Cardinal Walter Kasper and the late Cardinal Carlo Martini are among contemporary theologians who have pushed the idea of creating women deacons, which some believe to be a clear attempt to open the door to women priests at a later stage (although the Pope, following Pope St. John Paul II’s position, has categorically stated that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood).
Theologians and Church historians themselves remain divided over whether the early Church actually had women deacons similar to today's permanent male diaconate, which was reintroduced after the Second Vatican Council as a part of the sacrament of holy orders. Male deacons cannot celebrate the Eucharist, but can preach at Mass, preside at weddings and funerals and perform baptisms.
Deaconesses did exist in the early Church, but many scholars contend that, although they were servants or ministers in the Church, they did not exercise ordained ministry. Instead, they carried out three non-sacramental duties in assisting the bishop, which the Pope explained on the papal plane back from Armenia on June 26: They helped the bishop with “baptizing women because baptism was by immersion,” the Pope said, as well as with “the pre- and post-baptismal anointing of women.” They also helped, Francis said, “when wives would complain to the bishop that their husbands beat them. The bishop would call one of these deaconesses to examine the body for bruises that could serve as evidence.”
Pope Francis has yet to explain exactly what he wants the commission to produce, in particular if it is to make recommendations. If it does, the Pope would then be left to decide either in favor or against a women’s diaconate, or rule that substantive theological issues still need to be clarified.
The Holy Father first announced his intention to create such a commission during a meeting in May in Rome with the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superiors General of women religious. Asked if he would establish such a commission, the Pope reportedly replied: “I accept. It would be useful for the Church to clarify this question. I agree,” although the Pope himself later stressed it was only a suggestion.
But his response caused some bewilderment, as less than 15 years ago the subject was exhaustively covered by two subcommissions of the International Theological Commission, an advisory body run by the CDF. The first subcommission, which examined the issue from 1992 to 1997, included then-Archbishop Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, but it was unable to produce a text.
A further subcommittee then took over, whose members included then-Bishop Gerhard Müller, now cardinal prefect of the CDF, and Msgr. Luis Tagle, now cardinal-archbishop of Manila. That commission produced the document “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles,” in 2002. Although not a work of the magisterium, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then CDF prefect, ratified it, and so it represents orthodox Catholic thought on the topic.
Mainly for this reason, Cardinal Müller played down expectations about the commission in June, saying that he felt this new study would not result in anything new, and telling reporters that the “major study” conducted over a decade ago was “thorough.” He said it found that female deacons of the early Church were unlike the ordained male diaconate of today and concluded that women could not be ordained to the diaconate, although the matter was left to the future discernment of the magisterium to speak authoritatively on the subject.
The 2002 document stated in its final passages that the deaconesses “mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church — as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised — were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.”
It also affirmed that the “unity of the sacrament of holy orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the magisterium.”
Range of Perspectives
Some close to the Pope believe he is actually not that enthusiastic on the subject of women deacons, but felt obliged to see through his expressed desire to have the subject studied. He downplayed the importance of the commission, joking with reporters on the papal plane back from Armenia that “when you want something to remain unresolved, set up a commission.” He also made it clear that he had not opened a door to women deacons, but that he values hearing what women think and believed “much attention was given to the issue back in the ’80s, and it will not be difficult to shed light on the matter.”
Some members of the new commission, however, would like to see women deacons fulfill the same role as the permanent male diaconate. For example, Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate in residence at Hofstra University in New York and a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, told Vatican Radio Aug. 2 that her work has been “on the fact that women were ordained to the diaconate and served as deacons” and so she believes “women should be included in the diaconate, as restored post-Vatican II.”
Others on the commission thought to have similar views include professor Francesca Cocchini of Rome’s La Sapienza University and a member of the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum” in Rome.
Yet other members, such as Augustinian Father Robert Dodaro, president of the “Augustinianum,” and Salesian Father Aimable Musoni, professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome, are believed to firmly hold the view that the Church has never universally approved of ordaining women as deacons with the same role as today’s permanent male diaconate, even if there might have been individual, extreme cases.
As for Archbishop Ladaria, he is said to be a careful and prudent patristics scholar who will lead the commission with wisdom and sensitivity. Pope Benedict XVI appointed the Spanish Jesuit as second in command of the CDF in 2008.
One aspect that appears to have been overlooked is any representation from the Oriental Churches on the commission. If the body were to recommend what Zagano has called a possible “world-changing decision,” mandatory only to the Latin rite, it would probably be seen as an affront to the Eastern Churches, especially as they still have the office of subdeacon.
Any introduction of women deacons to the universal Church would therefore have serious implications for the Eastern Churches. It would also affect ecumenical dialogue, especially with Orthodox Churches, and so consultation with them would also be necessary.
Unlike the 2002 document on this issue, which was the fruit of an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Francis is not bound to have the CDF scrutinize any recommendations this commission might produce. Some of the commission’s members are, in any case, consulters to the congregation.
List of Commission Members
Below is the full list of commission members:
Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Sister Nuria Calduch‑Benages, Missionary Daughters of the Holy Family and member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission
Francesca Cocchini, professor, La Sapienza University and Augustinianum Patristic Institute, Rome
Msgr. Piero Coda, professor of systematic theology and president of the Sophia University Institute, Loppiano, Italy, and member of the International Theological Commission
Augustinian Father Robert Dodaro, professor of patrology and president of the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum,” Rome
Jesuit Father Santiago Madrigal Terrazas, professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Comillas University, Madrid
Angeline Franciscan Sister Mary Melone, rector of the Pontifical Antonianum University, Rome
Father Karl‑Heinz Menke, professor emeritus of dogmatic theology at the University of Bonn, Germany, and member of the International Theological Commission
Salesian Father Aimable Musoni, professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Salesian University, Rome
Jesuit Father Bernard Pottier, professor at the Institute of Theological Studies, Brussels, and member of the International Theological Commission
Marianne Schlosser, professor of spiritual theology at the University of Vienna and member of the International Theological Commission
Michelina Tenace, professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome
Phyllis Zagano, professor at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.