VATICAN CITY — After learning that courses preparing women to be ordained as deacons are being planned in several countries, three Vatican congregations have demanded they stop.

The brief notification from the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the Clergy, and for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was approved by Pope John Paul II. It restates the Church's position on women's ordinations and expresses concern that deacon training courses would generate “pastoral disorientation,” creating false hopes lacking a solid doctrinal foundation.

Since the Church does not foresee such ordinations, the notification says, “It is not licit to enact initiatives which, in some way, aim to prepare candidates for diaconal ordination.” Other ample opportunities for service and collaboration are open to women in the Church, the statement continues.

According to the Catechism (No. 1570), deacons “share in Christ's mission and grace in a special way,” assisting the bishop and priests in celebrating the Eucharist, distributing Communion, assisting at and blessing marriages, proclaiming the Gospel, preaching, presiding over funerals, and participating in various ministries of charity.

The International Theological Commission has been studying the question of women and the diaconate in light of the use of the term “deaconess” in the early Church.

However, Father Giles Dimock, dean and professor of sacraments and liturgy at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., said that although there were deaconesses in the early Church who assisted at the immersion baptism of other women to insure their modesty, these were not ordained.

“If we were to revive deaconesses, the first question is what would they do?” he asked. “We don't have a large number of adults being baptized and we don't baptize without clothing.”

Furthermore, he said, if women were allowed to be deaconesses today, the Holy See is concerned that they might erroneously think they were deacons who could then be ordained priests or bishops.

Father Dimock said although there is some evidence that there were female deacons in the Eastern Church, these were not considered exactly the same as men deacons. “And it certainly was never understood that they could be ordained to the priesthood,” he added.

The diaconal programs referred to in the Vatican notification are believed to be in Austria and Germany. Phyllis Zagano, author of Holy Saturday, a recent book that presents a case for the ordination of women deacons, said there has been a stronger call in German-speaking countries for admitting women to the diaconate than in the United States.

Ordination Question

Erin Hanley, communications director for the Fairfax, Va.-based Women's Ordination Conference, said the conference is in the process of developing a statement on ordination to the diaconate.

“The judgment that women cannot be ordained priests does not apply to the question of whether women can be ordained deacons,” she said. “They are two separate ministries. The priesthood is not the diaconate and the diaconate is not the priesthood.”

Zagano said the priest acts “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ, while the deacon works “in nomine Christi,” in the name of Christ. The priest's ministry, she said, is a ministry of Christ, whereas the deacon's is a ministry of the Church.

She claims the two roles have been confused because the priest in modern times has taken on some of the functions of the diaconate.

In his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis(Priestly Ordination) Pope John Paul II used strong language in reiterating the Church's authority to ordain only men to the priesthood. He wrote:

“Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful” (No. 4).

The apostolic letter does not mention the diaconate. The Sept. 14 Notification on the Diaconal Ordination of Women clarifies the point: “Our offices have received from several countries signs of courses that are being planned or under way, directly or indirectly aimed at the diaconal ordination of women. … Since ecclesial ordination does not foresee such an ordination, it is not licit to enact initiatives which, in some way, aim to prepare candidates for diaconal ordination” (Nos. 1-2).

Beautiful Differences

Jennifer Ferrara of Reading, Pa., a former Lutheran pastor who converted to the Catholic faith in 1998, sees great wisdom in reserving the diaconate to men.

“I'm sure that many of the people who are interested in this are looking at it as a steppingstone. Once women are doing that, then there will be even more pressure for them to become ordained as priests. You already see that with female parish assistants.”

Ferrara, who was a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 10 years before converting, said that when she first considered becoming Catholic, she was still in favor of women's ordination. Now, she is adamantly opposed to it.

She said she now believes the God-ordained differences between men and women make ordination of women as Catholic priests impossible.

“At the heart of that diversity between men and women lies the differences between motherhood and fatherhood and that priests are in fact fathers, spiritual fathers,” she said. “Just as women cannot be biological fathers, they cannot be spiritual fathers.”

The blurring of lines between male and female, Ferrara said, is primarily what is behind the call for women priests. “If the Church were to give in to that, it would give in to the chaos in our culture surrounding this issue,” she contended.

She said those who insist upon ordaining women to elevate their status are in reality denigrating the status of women, especially motherhood.

“You don't raise the status of women by saying they should be men,” she said. “By doing so, you reject all that is noble and holy about being wives and mothers; thereby denying the importance of the feminine in the divine economy of salvation, that is, women as symbols of the church.”

Father Dimock agreed. “The tendency is to seek equality by having women do the same as men,” he said. “Of course, men and women are beautifully different.”

As a spokeswoman for the Women's Ordination Conference, Hanley said she sees the latest notification from the Vatican on women deacons as “just another example of the barriers the Church hierarchy is creating for women, which is sad, in our opinion.”

Father Dimock said different roles in the Church for men and women need to be seen in the broader perspective of complementarity, an idea the Second Vatican Council attempted to restore, based on St. Paul's notion of different gifts in the body of Christ.

Women who say that the only way to have “power” in the Church is to be ordained, he said, are missing the point of priesthood, which is service.

But Father Dimock added that they're also forgetting about the great women Doctors of the Church and the strong women saints.

“Years ago, many a bishop would quake before an abbess general,” he said. “To say women didn't have power is ludicrous.”

Judy Roberts is based in Millbury, Ohio.