Recently I was exploring some coastal wilderness near my mother’s home. Pausing at some tasty-looking wild beans, my deceased father’s words from many years ago rang in my head. “Is this plant poisonous?” I had asked. Dad’s typically wise response was: “Investigate yourself. Try it and see.” So I did, just a little bit, and didn’t die from the experiment. By the way, my Dad was a botany-loving farmer and my Mum a scientist. My point is that my parents instilled in us the value of research, and warned us not to trust anyone just because they say so.
Today, there are voices who say that the diaconate is limited in various ways, because of Church Tradition. But just what is that tradition, and has it always remained the same? Have things been tried before? I would advise you not to trust my opinion, but to find out for yourself. Eminent among the many good authorities who have researched the history of women in the diaconate is Phyllis Zagano. She is an American scholar, lecturer and writer, based at Hofstra University, New York. Phyllis has written or edited six books about women deacons, and was part of the 2016-2018 Papal Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate.
Her latest book on this theme is Women: Icons of Christ. When I first heard about it, I paused at the title, wondering whether it was about women and the priesthood or how we are all called to be icons of Christ in one way or another. Reading a few pages in, however, I found that it was neither of these. The book is about women and the diaconate, and their specific way of being icons of Christ the servant, or acting in persona Christi servi. Phyllis is very well-researched and convincing, examining the topic from many different angles, both in historical and present real-life situations.
Phyllis structures her text around five aspects of diaconal ministry: baptism, catechesis, altar service, spiritual direction/confession and anointing of the sick. She explains how women have historically performed these ministries, how women already perform them in various ways today, and the value of having women perform these as sacramentally ordained deacons.
In the first part, Phyllis makes the deceptively simple statement: “All baptized persons image Christ.” (pg 2) She goes on to show just how women have imaged Christ, in both ordained and non-ordained pathways. We rightly imagine that women did “administer the sacrament of baptism of women” (pg 7, quoting the Liber Patrum), when it was by full immersion in early Christian times. However, this section is less about the sacrament and more about women deacons/deaconesses and the historical development of the diaconate from the bible onwards. Phyllis reminds us that the ministry did not come from Jesus, but “The apostles essentially ‘invented’ the diaconate.” (pg 18) It existed to fulfil a need for official service and charity, which later was taken up also by Religious women. In terms of women deacons, Phyllis gathers many sources to prove their existence, a number of which have only been published in recent decades. As religious practices changed (for example, baptism), habits formed and other needs arose, so ministries grew and subsided, including the entire permanent diaconate – not just that of women. It has only been restored for men since Vatican II.
Preaching in church and teaching religion outside of the liturgy have become two very different specialties. Women have taught the faith in various ways through history, though often it was confined to informal situations. Today, Catholic women teach religion at schools, universities and seminaries (Phyllis mentions that the Pontifical Gregorian University awarded its first theology doctorates to women in 1975). They are commentators, cantors and lectors (officially since 2021) at Mass. However, they are unable to give homilies and the catechisms that they teach are written and approved by men. On Holy Orders, Phyllis claims that the current Catechism of the Catholic Church is “purposefully misleading” (pg 37) by relating the diaconate to Jesus’ choice of apostles. Yet the catechism can be changed, as Pope Benedict XVI did in 2009 to more clearly distinguish between the order of the episcopate or presbyterate and the order of the diaconate. Phyllis also identifies situations where lay people are officially allowed to preach for reasons of pastoral necessity, although not as an ordinary faculty (pgs 45-51).
Published in 2020, Phyllis’s work does not contain Pope Francis’s 2021 modification to canon law allowing for women acolytes. However, she documents women performing such altar service in the past and explains why it has become so much of a problem. The answer is as simple as it may be surprising for some: women “were considered unclean” (pg 58). Following early inclusion, restrictions on women mounted that kept them further and further away from the sacred. Phyllis links this to a general fear of women expressed in compulsory clerical celibacy and misogyny. Despite all her evidence of this fear, using official Church statements, the times are a-changing. Menstruation does not prevent service at the altar. Female bodies may approach the sacred.
In the fourth section, Phyllis examines spiritual direction and confession. While deacons today are not permitted to hear confession and offer absolution, both men and women are entering the practice of spiritual direction in a more and more professional way. There are thousands of spiritual directors who are properly trained and accredited through a professional organisation. They are akin to the holy women and men giving spiritual advice before the sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation/Penance was conceived or standardised. Separately, Phyllis questions whether pastoral necessity calls for women to be able to confess to other women, and wonders who is addressing ministry to women. As she says, “women’s stories are important” and are to be treated with sensitivity (pg 95).
Finally, Phyllis addresses another liturgical ministry not entrusted to deacons, but certainly an example of service and charity: the anointing of the sick. Although lay people did anoint the sick at least until the eighth century (pg 116), now only priests may perform the sacrament. As with spiritual direction, thousands of women and men today are professionally trained and accredited as hospital chaplains. However, the sacramental grace at times of sickness or dying, in hospital, is often administered by someone without a pastoral relationship with the patient. It is not even allowed in an emergency, as is the case for baptism. A non-sacramental anointing might be possible (I was once at a large Catholic youth ministry gathering where we were given blessed oil to distribute as we wished). However, “a certified Catholic chaplain (or spiritual director) would never want to appear to be simulating a sacrament.” (pg 115) So the pastoral moment is missed.
In this book, Phyllis clearly shows that women can be icons of Christ, as all humans are made in the image of God. More than that, there is a pastoral need for the diaconal ministry of women as well as men. Yes, there are plenty of precedents in Church history, but that is not her main argument. Understandings of ministries change, and our era provides a new moment. Women are needed, women serve and women are not unclean. But I wouldn’t want you to trust my word only. Investigate yourself. Read Women: Icons of Christ, and other scholarship on the topic. Better yet, Try it and see. Will women deacons kill us or give us life?