Whenever I travel, I find people asking me about the latest Vatican commission on women deacons. One of the members of that commission, Deacon Dom Cerrato, offers his perspective this week in the pages of the National Catholic Register — and responds to recent comments by Cardinal Robert McElroy:

Among other things, Deacon Cerrato concludes:

Unlike the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order by the Second Vatican Council, which was a change of ecclesial discipline, the admission of women to the diaconate is a doctrinal matter. It is not simply a question of restoring that which was, but instead bringing into being something new.

As cogently argued by such scholars as Father Aimé George MartimortFather Manfred Haukeprofessor Catherine Brown Tkacz, and Sister Sara Butler of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, deaconesses of the early Church were not the same as deacons. Their primary purpose was to assist the bishop in baptizing women for modesty’s sake and catechizing women. In this respect, it emerges in the West out of pastoral necessityWhen this practice of baptism was revised, deaconesses were no longer needed, and the order declined.

In the 2002 final report of the International Theological Commission, writing on deaconesses, they observe, “It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate. At the very least it was an ecclesial function, exercised by women.” Some scholars suggest that deaconesses were eventually absorbed into religious orders or became abbesses, which continued, in some respects, their ancient ministry.

Any argument for the admission of women to the diaconate, because it represents a significant change in doctrine, must be cogent and compelling. It must correspond to the sources of Revelation and integrated within the larger theology of holy orders in a systematic and organic manner. Here, as with all potential theological developments, the burden of proof lies with its proponents.

Consequently, the question, properly framed, is not: “Why not women deacons?” but “Why?” In addressing this question, it is insufficient to selectively choose historic aspects of the Church under the banner of “inclusivity” and artificially string them together, calling it the basis for the development of doctrine. Rather, the arguments must convincingly demonstrate an integral development contextualized within the broader theological tradition.

You’ll want to read it all. 

UPDATE: For another view, check out the essay below. Phyllis Zagano, who was a member of the previous commission studying the diaconate, published some thoughts on the question of women deacons last month in L’Osservatore Romano.

An excerpt: 

While historical records and liturgical manuscripts demonstrate that both Eastern and Western bishops ordained women as deacons, controversy lingers over the exact nature of those ordinations. Even so, history affirms that bishops in different eras and in various territories ordained women as deacons within the sanctuary, during Mass and in the presence of other clergy, through the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. The new women deacons self- communicated from the chalice and the bishop placed a stole around their necks. Most importantly, the bishop called these women deacons, like Saint Phoebe before them (Rom 16:1-2).

Contemporary discussion revolves around two questions: 1) can a woman represent Christ, the Risen Lord? 2) does the ban on women priests apply to women deacons? Despite some scholarly obfuscation, the answers are clear: yes, women can image Christ; no, the priesthood is not the diaconate.

Can a woman represent Christ?

The so-called “iconic argument,” that a woman cannot represent Christ, appeared in the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration Inter Insigniores: On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (October 15, 1976). The declaration cites Saint Thomas Aquinas’s statement that “Sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance,” further arguing that the necessary “natural resemblance” is to the maleness of Jesus, “for Christ himself was and remains a man.” Such emphasizes the accident of gender over the substance of the Incarnation: God became human. The human male Jesus is not the Risen Lord, the Christ whom all Christians can represent.

The second major point in Inter Insigniores is that Jesus chose only male apostles, thereby affirming the document’s early statement: “The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women.” But in supporting its “iconic argument,” Inter Insigniores does not mention the diaconate. Eighteen years after Inter Insigniores, John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone (1994), dropped the “iconic argument.” Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not mention the diaconate.

Does the ban on women priests apply to women deacons?

While neither Ordinatio Sacerdotalis nor Inter Insigniores addresses the question of women deacons, some commentators present what they term the “unicity of orders” to connect the diaconate and the priesthood. Their argument assumes that diaconal ordination implies eligibility for priestly ordination and because women cannot be ordained priests, neither can they be ordained as deacons.

The false reasoning of the “unicity of orders” argument is rooted in the medieval cursus honorum (course of honor), the clerical steps from tonsure through the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte and the major orders of subdeacon, deacon, and priest. The cursus honorum required that anyone to be ordained deacon had to be eligible for priestly ordination, effectively ending the diaconate as a permanent vocation.

Although diaconal ordination had become only a step toward priestly ordination, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) discussed the minor orders and the diaconate. During its Twenty-third session, as the Council was nearing its end, it approved a canon allowing married clerics to exercise the four minor orders. The Council also apparently affirmed the sacramentality of diaconal ordination, despite continued academic discussion on the question. Any discussion then about the historical ordinations of women, known to the 12th century in the West, is unknown.

Read it all.