Catholic Church Ordained Women Before, Can Do it Again

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Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches
Essays by Cipriano Vagaggini
Edited by Phyllis Zagano
Liturgical Press, 2013

What inspired you to produce Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches?


For many years, my academic research has centered on the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate in the Catholic Churches. One of the best-known scholarly essays regarding the historical reality of women ordained as deacons is by Cipriano Vagaggini, published in Orentialia Christiana Periodica.

Reportedly Pope Paul VI asked Vagaggini, in the early 1970s, about women deacons. The Catholic Church was restoring the diaconate as a permanent vocation for men, and the pope asked the logical question: could women be ordained to this sacred order as well? Vagaggini gave the long form—15,000 words—of the short answer: “yes.” But, he gave it in very difficult Italian. So while scholars knew about the essay, Vatican officialdom could basically ignore it.

I often mentioned it when I spoke, and a few years ago a woman wrote a diocesan bishop and included the essay in Italian. He wrote back to say that he read Italian and the essay did not support the ordination of women as deacons.

As I said, it is a very difficult essay. Many of its references are in Greek. But the essay says what it says: women were ordained with nearly identical liturgical formulae as men, and served in a recognized diaconate in the early churches. So I fielded a team of scholars to work with me on the translation. An historical theologian, Amanda Quantz at St. Mary’s in Kansas did the first draft. Carmela Leonforte-Plimack, whose Ph.D. is from the University of Rome assisted me in refining the translation. Archimandrite Robert F. Taft, SJ, who as editor of Orientalia Christiana Periodica first published the article, went over the completed work.

As we were working on the manuscript, we located Vagaggini’s 1500-word requested intervention before the 1987 Synod on the Laity in Rome, also in Italian, which actually served as a précis of the longer essay. So we translated that, too.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Women were ordained as deacons and can be so ordained again.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Actually, no. We worked very hard on the translation and our publishers were very generous with their plans for it. The shorter essay appeared in Worship, the journal for scholars of liturgy published at St. John’s in Collegeville, MN, along with the notice that the entire work would be available in paper, and also as an e-book in both formats.

I was able to write an essay to introduce the two Vagaggini essays, to put them in context with the modern discussion about women in the diaconate.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Quite a few people—most of them higher clerics—have written off the notion of ordaining women as deacons, perhaps because they fear women in the priesthood, which the Church has pretty definitively ruled out. Canon Law very clearly separates the diaconate from priesthood and episcopacy. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI changed Canon Law and codified what the Catechism of the Catholic Church already stated: bishops and priests are not deacons. The two canons—1008 and 1009—make it very clear that, while all three “grades” are sacramentally ordained, the deacon is ordained to the ministry and not to the priesthood.

The mistake made by those who argue against the restoration of women to the order of deacon is that they think if a woman can be ordained as deacon, then she can be ordained as priest. But that demonstrates a misunderstanding of the diaconate as a permanent vocation and does not make the clear distinction that is well-known in church teaching: the priest serves in persona Christi capitas ecclesiae; the deacon serves in persona Christi servi.

Take this example: just a short while ago an Australian bishop wrote and said: “isn’t your real goal ordination to priesthood.” I had to answer, no. There is a deep history of women in the diaconate—he was responding to this book—and until the whole Church recognizes its mistakes there will continue to be the same fears and misconceptions.

Honestly, the trajectory of deacon-priest-bishop is relatively recent—only about 700 or 800 years in the long history of the Church. In fact, the earlier understanding is that the deacon would become a bishop! I sometimes wonder if the naysayers are more afraid of women bishops than of women priests.

But, in modern times, we have reestablished the tradition of a diaconate lived permanently. All priests are also ordained deacons, and in the most formal of liturgical ceremonies the bishop of a diocese wears his priestly chasuble over the dalmatic of his diaconate.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I wanted the essays to appear in English, in part because Vagaggini’s Italian is so difficult, to move the conversation forward. I had foundation funding to send a copy to each diocesan bishop in the United States, and every bishop in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the United Kingdom and South Africa has received the offer of a download. Each member of the Council of Cardinals, its secretary, and Pope Francis has received a copy, along with the original Italian-languages essays. If the hierarchy  will consider what history really says, perhaps they will think about whether they need to restore the tradition of women as deacons in their own dioceses.

Even so, I think the main audience for this book is comprised of serious scholars who might be inclined to take up the topic. The International Theological Commission wrote a document in 2002 that said, basically, 1) in history, men and women deacons were not the same; 2) the diaconate is distinct from priesthood; 3) women deacons is something for the Church’s Magisterium to decide. Well, that was over a decade ago, and the “decision” has been to delay the requests that many bishops from all over the world have brought to their ad limina meetings with the pope in Rome. Having said that, I know that things move very slowly, and Pope Francis can only do so much—and there are perhaps other problems in the Church that appear to be more urgent.

But I still hope that this book’s audience will think about the topic and its implications very carefully.

Are you hoping to inform readers? Annoy them?

This is a genuinely informative work, meant to challenge those perspectives by presenting a view that is fact-based and rigorously defended through primary and secondary sources.

Without a doubt, some people will be annoyed at the mere mention of the ordination of women. But, think of the consequences if the Church did restore its ancient traditional practice of ordaining women. Then the Church would be giving the greatest support possible to what it says all the time: all people are made in the image and likeness of God; all people are destined to image Christ.

What alternative title would you give the book?

How about: Women Deacons are a Thing of the Past?

How do you feel about the cover?

I think it is just lovely. I especially like the way the scroll design has a heart at its center. That is what the diaconate is about—spreading the love of God and neighbor.

What’s your next book?

I am planning a book about the works of the women in history who ministered as deacons. But, before that, I will be running a four-week Massive Online Open Seminar (MOOS) on the past, present and future considerations of Catholic women deacons. The seminar will be online and free, and will include video presentations by myself, by William T. Ditewig, Ph.D. and by Gary Macy, Ph.D. This book and an earlier book featured on RD, Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future (Paulist Press) will be the seminar texts. Registration for the June 9-July 8 MOOS closes first week of June.