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Member of Pope’s female deacons commission: Men and women had ‘identical…ordination ceremonies’

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January 25, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Phyllis Zagano (New York) and Fr. Bernard Pottier (Brussels), both members of the Pope's Commission on the Female Diaconate, have recently made statements in favor of female deacons in the Catholic Church.

Additionally, Zagano now claims that female deacons served in the history in ministerial and sacramental roles. “There was ordination,” she claims, adding that the “ordination ceremonies for women deacons were identical to the ordination ceremonies for men.”

Professor Manfred Hauke, a theologian expert in this field, contradicts Zagano in a statement written for LifeSiteNews. He says that historical records show that the "ancient Church was unacquainted with a female diaconate equivalent to the male diaconate."

"The history of the institution of deaconesses offers no solid basis, therefore, for the introduction of a sacramental female diaconate," he said. 

On January 15, the Jesuit magazine America published an interview with both Phyllis Zagano and Fr. Pottier. Both are members of the Study Commission on the Women's Diaconate that had been convoked, in 2016, by Pope Francis. They also participated on January 15 at a panel discussion at the Jesuit-run Fordham University on the topic of “The Future of Women Deacons, with Father Thomas Rosica as its moderator. Both experts are in favor of establishing female deacons in the Catholic Church. “I hope that the church will not be denied what it needs,” Zagano says.

In the America interview, Zagano claims that in her research for this papal commission, she found that female deacons had a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles in the Church: “They anointed ill women; they brought communion to ill women,” participated in baptisms, served as treasurers and, in one particular case, in an annulment. The female deacon, in that particular case, gave testimony to the bishop of some bruises the wife had received from her husband. “Well, to me, that's an annulment,” Zagano explains.

“There was ordination” for female deacons, is another of Zagano's claims. “The most interesting evidence is the fact that the ordination ceremonies [we discovered] for women deacons were identical to the ordination ceremonies for men.” With this claim, the expert seems to indicate that both men and women received sacramental ordination. 

For Fr. Pottier, the picture of female deacons is variegated, with female deacons being active in the Eastern church until the 10th century, and in the Western church from the 5th until the 11th century. As both experts say, the task of the Vatican commission has been to research the “historical reality” of women deacons. 

At the January 15 panel discussion at Fordham University, Zagano said, according to one report, that the liturgical ceremony used by bishops to create women deacons included all the elements of sacramental ordination according to the criteria established by the Council of Trent.

“If a bishop is laying hands on a woman, invoking the Holy Spirit, putting a stole on her, giving the chalice for her to self-communicate and calling her a deacon, I don't know what else to say,” Zagano said. “As I say to many people, 'If she wasn't a deacon, he would call her something else.'” But the responsibilities would have been the same, she then explained, according to another report. She also insisted that it is important for people in the Church now to “make noise,” especially since Pope Francis will meet with the superiors general of women religious again in May of 2019, three years after he had promised them to establish a commission on the topic. The commission has now sent to the Pope the report of their findings. 

Zagano has some hope for female deacons, according to a Crux report on the Fordham event, due to recent Church statements about women’s leadership, including both the final document from the 2018 Synod on Young People and the working document for the 2019 Synod on the Amazon region.

Fr. Pottier explained at the Fordham event that the spirituality of the sacrament has purportedly changed in the course of the history, reducing the deacon to being a step toward the priesthood, thus reserving it for men. He said, however, that this need not remain that way.

“Our faith has roots in the Bible, in the New Testament, in the person of Jesus Christ, and in what the church has done. We do not have to be afraid of history. In history, we do not have a source of rigidity and immobility,” but, rather, an example that change is possible, he stated

Another panelist, Donna Ciangio, O.P., made it very clear that she is convinced that the Church needs female deacons.

Sacramental ordination not for women

In light of these comments that try to steer the discussion toward an opening up of the diaconate to women, there are two other voices who have a different standpoint. 

First, Professor Karl-Heinz Menke – another member of the Vatican commission on Women Deacons – stated in 2016 that the discussion is “not about the admission of women to the Sacrament of Holy Orders.” Since the deacon also receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders, Menke added, “the admission of women to the sacramental diaconate (established through ordination) would mean their admission also to the priestly and episcopal ordination.” 

Furthermore, Professor Menke said that the history of female deacons is “clear”: “A female diaconate has nowhere and never participated in the office transmitted by ordination.” A female deacon, he added, never participated in liturgical services or in the public proclamation of the Faith and baptisms. They, rather, were active “in charitable and at times administrative works” which have later been picked up by “charitable female orders” who then replaced the work of female deacons. Thus, with the emergence of women religious, female deacons stopped to exist.

The German Professor Manfred Hauke – a priest, theologian, and an expert in the female diaconate who teaches in Switzerland – in his direct response to the claims of Phyllis Zagano, argues along the lines of Professor Menke. Hauke states that “some disinformation is present, alas, in the affirmations of Phyllis Zagano, author of some publications which demand a diaconate of women as part of the sacrament of Holy Orders.” Hauke explicitly mentions here Zagano's claim that female deacons had been ordained. Professor Hauke states that in a later development, there was a kind of ordination, but not sacramental.

“But we cannot identify the consecration of deaconesses with the ordination of deacons. It was not sacramental ordination that can be identified with the Sacrament of Orders (for bishops, priests, and deacons).”

The theologian quotes the current rite for female deacons in the Byzantine rite (8th century) which has similarities to the rite in the Western church, and he shows how the Byzantine rite also made clear distinctions between a male and a female deacon who does not participate “in the ministry of the altar.”

Discussing Zagano's claim that female deacons anointed the sick, Professor Hauke responds: “There was a use of holy oil which was applied even by lay people in a similar way to holy water today or the benediction of the throat at the feast of St. Blaise.” But he rejects the idea that female deacons ever administered the Sacraments of Extreme Unction which was not even permitted for a male deacon. 

In conclusion, Professor Hauke refutes any claim that female deacons in the past had received a sacramental ordination. He states: “The history of the institution of deaconesses offers no solid basis, therefore, for the introduction of a sacramental female diaconate. The ancient Church was unacquainted with a female diaconate equivalent to the male diaconate.”

Only the near future will see what Pope Francis will decide in this matter. One of his apologists, Austen Ivereigh, however, points already to a change. He recently posted on Twitter: “It looks as if Francis’s commission of experts looking into the history of the female diaconate has found that, yes, the early Church had women deacons. What will he do with the report? Will we soon have women preaching in St Peter’s?”

***

See below the full statement of Professor Manfred Hauke on Phyllis Zagano's claims made in the America interview on 15 January: 

Rev. Prof. Dr. Manfred Hauke, Theological Faculty of Lugano (Switzerland)

Some days ago, the Jesuit magazine America published an interview with two members of the Pontifical Commission which had researched recently the “historical reality” of deaconesses and transmitted its unpublished report to the Holy Father in June 2018 (so it was noted at www.katholisch.de by one of its members, Prof. Karl-Heinz Menke, December 17, 2018). Whereas the information given by Fr. Bernard Pottier SJ (Brussels) is historically correct (it shows some differences between deacons and deaconesses), some disinformation is present, alas, in the affirmations of  Phyllis Zagano, author of some publications which demand a diaconate of women as part of the sacrament of Holy Orders. This is especially true for the surprising phrase: “There was ordination … The most interesting evidence is the fact that the ordination ceremonies [we discovered] for women deacons were identical to the ordination ceremonies for men”.

“There was ordination”? In a later development, there was ordination, but we cannot identify the consecration of deaconesses with the ordination of deacons. It was not sacramental ordination that can be identified with the Sacrament of Orders (for bishops, priests, and deacons). Male deacons were always ordained by the bishop with imposition of the hands, following the example of Acts 6:6. This was not the case for the institution of deaconesses. The first ordination prayers for deaconesses can be found in the so-called “Apostolic Constitutions” in the 4th century. Also, subdeacons and lectors were ordained who do not belong to the sacramental hierarchy. The Council of Nicea (325) still refers to deaconesses as laywomen and rejects the idea of their being ordained by the imposition of hands. Later the Council of Chalzedon (451) includes the deaconesses among the ecclesiastical offices and envisages an ordination involving the imposition of hands and prayer. A great similarity between the ordination prayers can be found in the Byzantine Rite (8th century). But these similarities do not mean equality of the liturgical rite.

Let’s just give a hint from the Byzantine ordination. The ordination of deaconesses has some morphological similarity to the ordination of higher clergy and is similarly incorporated into the rite of Mass. As with the deacons, the ordination of deaconesses takes place in the sanctuary after the Eucharistic prayer, whereas the subdeacon is ordained at an earlier point in the liturgy and outside the sanctuary. As in the case of the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons, the bishop uses the proclamatory formula “The grace of God”. In addition the deaconess, like the deacon, is handed a stole and a chalice.

Do these similarities (which do not go so far in other liturgical traditions) show that deacon and deaconess are two branches of the same office? Against this interpretation we should note the profound differences even in the Byzantine Rite: the stole given to the deaconess in the rite of ordination is not worn in the manner of the deacon but in that of the subdeacon, who was not authorized to distribute Holy Communion. Moreover the stole is put on under the veil. Whereas the deacon, having been handed the chalice, may distribute the sacred Blood, the deaconess immediately puts the chalice back to the altar. In contrast to the deacon, she does not assume a ministry at the altar. At the ordination the priest kneels and the deacon genuflects; in doing so both of them touch the altar with their heads, which indicates a difference of power with reference to Eucharist; the deaconess, however, remains standing at her ordination. 

The ordination prayer itself is different: the deaconess’ ordination prayer speaks of the example of the Mother of God, the descent of the Holy Spirit on women as well as men, and the case of Phoebe, who received grace for service. The ordination prayer for deacons has a different content and refers to the possibility to receive “a higher grade”, i.e. to become a bishop. Also the tasks are different. The deaconess is “forbidden” to “preach in the ecclesial assembly, to baptize and carry out other priestly duties.” The deaconess’ area of responsibility is not the liturgical ministry but, apart from helping in baptism (for adult women), primary caring for the sick and needy and looking after Christian women. 

Zagano affirms: deaconesses “anointed ill women”. This hint can also create misunderstandings. Deaconesses did not administer the sacramental Unction of the sick which, according to the Epistle of James (5:14-15), was administered by “presbyters” (i.e. priests, in modern terminology), and not even by deacons, and which is linked to a possible forgiving of sins by the holy unction. There was a use of holy oil which was applied even by lay people in a similar way than holy water today or the benediction of the throat at the feast of St. Blaise. 

The best study of the historical question of deaconesses is still the work of A.G. Martimort, Deaconesses. A Historical Study, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1986 (first in French 1982). I myself have published recently in Italian an “update” of this study until the present date: M. Hauke – H. Hoping (edd.), Il profile specific del diaconato, Cantagalli – EuPress FTL, Siena – Lugano 2018, 325-376 (forthcoming in German and Portuguese in 2019; an earlier version appeared in German in 2002). For a shorter exposition see M. Hauke, “Observations on the ordination of women to the diaconate”: H. Moll (ed.), The Church and Women, Ignatius Press, Francisco 1988, 117-139.

We should note also the study of the International Theological Commission in 2002 which has already closely investigated the topic, and it does not seem that the recent commission has contributed anything more to the essence of the historical evidence. This 2002 Vatican document states at the end:

With regard to the ordination of women to the diaconate, it should be noted that two important indications emerge from what has been said up to this point:

1. 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;

2. 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.

It is true that, in its explicit form, the distinction between the sacramental and the sacrament only emerges in scholasticism, but if we consider the “embryonic stage” of the historic development objectively, the ordination of deaconesses does not point in the direction of a Sacrament. The history of the institution of deaconesses offers no solid basis, therefore, for the introduction of a sacramental female diaconate. The ancient Church was unacquainted with a female diaconate equivalent to the male diaconate.

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.