Women deacons? Phyllis Zagano responds to her online critics

One of the first things a teacher learns is the students with the most to say usually do not know much about the topic. Such makes classroom control difficult, because these students do not know what they do not know, and they take up the time of students who have actually read and thought about the assignment.

Now, time wasters have taken on a whole new project—blog responses. They spread rumors, put out incorrect information, and generally disrupt the blogosphere conversations with irrelevancies. So, what to do? Does one attempt to track down and answer every single error? Or, does one simply advise the reader to beware?

These thoughts come to mind as I read through the 132 (and counting) online comments about my interview with the editors of US Catholic, which appeared in the January issue and remains online. Does one attempt to correct errors, or does one simply ignore them? I did make one post, but one or more of the self-proclaimed “experts” of blogland countered my facts. Why, I ask, are they given the right to do so?

Here is what I posted:

“The many and often fascinating posts here evidence the deep interest in the topic–the restoration of the Tradition of women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church, mirroring the ongoing Tradition in its close cousins in Orthodoxy. There seems a persistent error of fact, however: ‘The church has definitively taught that ordination is not open to women’ appears in one of the many posts.

As it happens, the church teaches that ordination to priesthood is not open to women–there are arguments as to the level of this teaching–but has left the matter of restoring women to the order of deacon up to the discernment of the whole church. Because of this fact, John Cardinal O’Connor asked me many years ago to do the research that eventually was published as Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad), and my subsequent research (mainly in refereed academic journals) supports my conclusions and recommendations. It is good for the church to respectfully discuss the topic.”

My own presentation of incontrovertible facts was nearly immediately countered. There are three pertinent documents regarding the ordination of women, two of which address the question of women priests and expressly leave the question of women as deacons aside (Inter Insigniores, 1976 and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994) and one which leaves the matter of restoring the Tradition of women deacons up to the “ministry of discernment” of the church. Several church figures—from Cardinal Walter Kasper to Rev. Shawn McKnight (head of the USCCB office of clergy)—have publicly stated that the question of women as deacons is open and unresolved. When in New York several years ago, Pope Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) said the same thing to me.

So, my research, undertaken in 1983 at the request of John Cardinal O’Connor, has focused on the restoration of this ancient (and not-so-ancient) Tradition of the church. But some blog responders angrily and with abandon speak derisively of my work, apparently without reading it. Like the student in class who always has something to say, but has no content to his words, these blog responders tear off in whatever direction strikes their fancy never addressing the issue (or, even, what I have said), but rather pressing their own skewed view of history, theology and law to meet their prefabricated conclusions. Nothing of what they write addresses the issue; nothing of what they write contributes to the discussion.

It becomes meaningless to respond, especially in the blog space they have invaded, because what they write is in and of itself meaningless. What they write is not based on fact, or research, or even on serious consideration of the topic. My recent column in the National Catholic Reporter addresses some of my concerns in general, but not specifically regarding the essentially anonymous blog responders here and elsewhere with names like “Father John” and “Mary C.”

May I make a simple suggestion to John and Mary and to their blog editors? Would it be possible to apply to blogs the rules that apply to printed letters to the editor? Can the blog responders not register with real names and e-mail addresses, to be verified (by telephone if necessary) by the keepers of the blogs? Can the veracity of their “factual” assertions be checked before they pop up online? Perhaps the blog responders be limited to folks who actually take subscriptions to the printed journal. Perhaps the blog responders be edited even more severely than they are already—or banned entirely if their commentary is just plain off base and nasty.

This publication already does a very good job of policing its blogs, although some invented or twisted “facts” that meet the blog responders’ agenda do seep through the cracks. Can more be done, here and elsewhere? I understand such would take up a lot of time and energy, but I truly believe it would raise the bar a bit and perhaps weed out those who have many words but no facts and not much to say. I am always interested to learn from whatever new facts and considered opinions I can, but there is so much chatter out there it becomes impossible to do so. The conundrum becomes one in which the very things that keep websites and publications alive—readers responses and queries—may be the things that drop discussion of issues to the lowest common denominator.

What to do? The International Theological Commission called for the “ministry of discernment” in the church regarding the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate. But discernment implies serious discussion supported by facts, not hysterical blather. Is there a way to restore this discussion? Sometimes I wonder if there will ever be a resolution regarding women as deacons, not so much because Rome does not know or understand the issue, but because the good people of God are so very often misled by their fellows.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

About the author

Phyllis Zagano

Phyllis Zagano is a senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. She is the author of Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future (Paulist, 2011).