Your Holiness, It Is Time for a Theologian Who Is Not Clamoring for Women Deacons to Write an Open Letter to You

Your Holiness:

Forgive me for taking so long to write this letter. As you well know from your many years of service in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, since the late 1960s it has been fashionable for theologians to write open letters critical of the doctrine and discipline of the Catholic Church. Lest you be tempted to despair regarding the state of the theological guild in North America, I write to assure you that not all self-professed Catholic educators agree with these highly publicized diatribes against the perennial teaching and practice of the Church.

The immediate example that has spurred this missive is an open letter in which Phyllis Zagano urges you to reconsider the ordination of women to the diaconate.

In a convoluted argument citing ambiguous and anecdotal evidence, Zagano suggests that Your Holiness and members of the Roman curia know that “women can be ordained as deacons” and are paving the way to “the recovery of the tradition of women deacons.” Being an avid fan of documents produced by the Magisterium, I have noticed no such trends or signals in them. If you are urging us in that direction, please be clear about it. Moreover, I have read all 16 documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, and found therein no advocacy of women deacons.

Zagano further claims that the International Theological Commission produced a report concluding that “the Magisterium must decide” whether women can be ordained to the diaconate. I have read the ITC’s report, published under the title From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles, and found no such conclusion that the Magisterium can arbitrarily admit women to the diaconate.

The fact that women in various ancient Christian communities were called “deaconesses” is indisputable. Yet this does not mean that deaconesses held holy orders in the Church. In the earliest centuries of Christianity, the words “deacon” and “deaconess” were used as imprecisely as “minister” is used today. Some called deaconesses were simply the wives of deacons; others were female monastics or abbesses.

The specific roles assigned to deaconesses in ancient documents such as the Didascalia Apostolorum comprise charitable services for women, the instruction of female catechumens, and the anointing of women at baptism. In other words, deaconesses ministered strictly to women, fulfilling functions that are best performed by women rather than by men, if scandal is to be avoided. Another early Christian document, the Apostolic Constitutions, prescribes: “A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons.” Deaconesses manifestly did not have a role at the altar during Eucharistic celebrations. As the ITC states in the study mentioned above, “This ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate.” Those advocating a “restoration” of women deacons must be clear about what they wish to restore, since their arguments are based on historical models.

Yet not all of us are advocating or agitating for such a “restoration.” Some of us are mistrustful of archaeological exercises that thinly veil radical agendas under ostensible calls to restore ancient Christian practices. Many things that took place among early Christians disappeared for good reasons, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and need not be resuscitated today. Please be sure that the Vatican bureaucracy continues to stymie the desires of those calling for change by invoking early Christianity!

Be assured, Your Holiness, that I am not the only Catholic with no interest in women deacons. Millions of women have lived their Catholic faith and have made inestimable contributions to the Church without any desire to prance about the sanctuary in clerical garb. For the most part, they are too busy with service to their families and with works of charity to organize petitions, attend rallies, and write open letters expressing their lack of desire for female ordination.

Having taught at undergraduate institutions, I can attest that the average young woman has no more interest in being a permanent deacon than the average young man. Not, that is, until the young woman in question has been radicalized by professors such as Zagano and her like-minded colleagues, who dominate theology and religious studies programs in colleges and universities across the country. Our enlightened professors have far more to do with the disaffection of educated young women from the Catholic faith than the fact that the Church does not ordain women.

My family and I continue to pray for you, Your Holiness; please remember us in prayer as well.


Daniel G. Van Slyke, S.T.L., Ph.D., is associate professor at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St Louis, MO. He teaches liturgy and Church history to seminarians, candidates for the permanent diaconate, and lay adults seeking ongoing formation. Dr Van Slyke's research articles have appeared in journals such as Antiphon, Ephemerides Liturgicae, New Blackfriars, and Usus Antiquior. His latest book is "Liturgy 101: The Sacraments and Sacramentals" (Ligouri, 2010).

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