U.S. Catholic spent the last two days interviewing three scholars on the topic of women deacons at the book launch of Women Deacons: Past, Present, and Future (Paulist, 2011) at Loyola University's Gannon Center for Women in Leadership. The interviews with Gary Macy (on the history of women office holders in the medieval church), William Ditewig (on the restoration of the permanent diaconate at Vatican II), and Phyllis Zagano ("the" expert on the topic of restoring women to the diaconate) will appear in later issues of U.S. Catholic (Zagano in our Jan 2012 Women's Issue). But our mini-seminar leaves me convinced that there is not a single good reason for not ordaining women as deacons–and a lot of reasons to do it.
1. History: The church in the West ordained women as deacons, with ordination rituals that included the laying on of hands and the conferral of a stole, for 700 years, and the East for much longer. Those women clearly read the gospel, preached, and ministered to women. What the church has done, it can do again.
2. Vatican II restored the permanent diaconate as an order of ministry distinct from priesthood, recognizing it as a unique vocation to the gospel, to the liturgy, and to charity as an icon of Christ the servant (as opposed to Christ the head of the church). There is no "slippery slope" from women's diaconate to women as priests because being a deacon is no longer understood as a "lower step" on the ladder of holy orders.
3. The official teaching against the ordination of women as priests–that the church does not have the authority to ordain women because Christ chose only men for the close circle of the Twelve–does not apply because the church itself (in Acts) chose the seven to serve as deacons (though a bit of an anachronism). Nevertheless, the diaconate as an office in the church is not of dominical institution (Jesus didn't found it, so the argument goes), so the teaching about women priests does not apply.
4. Finally, there is a need for women among the Roman Catholic clergy (deacons are clergy after all), to preach, exercise canonical authority, and serve in those places where the official public ministry of women as deacons is especially needed–women in prison, women in situations of domestic violence, women who are ill or infirm. That's why the ancient church ordained women as deacons.
But even more, the whole church, men and women, lay and ordained, would benefit from the preaching, liturgical service, and pastoral care of women who minister in the name of the bishop, as priests and deacons do now.
Why not? And why not now?