Phyllis Zagano, Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches – Part 1

One of the books I am reading this summer is the Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches (Liturgical Press, 2013) edited by Phyllis Zagano. I thought that the introduction and first essay would be of interest to Pray Tell’s readers. This week I am posting Zagano’s introduction. Next week I will post Vagaggini’s Synod intervention. I also highly recommend Vagaggini’s Orientalia article, which can be found in Zagano’s book. It is in that article that Vagaggini provides the scholarly evidence for his intervention at the 1987 Synod of Bishops.



The question of restoring women to the ordained diaconate surfaced during the Second Vatican Council and continued to resound in academic and pastoral circles well after Pope Paul VI restored the diaconate as a permanent state for the church in the West in 1967. The diaconate has continued uninterrupted in Eastern churches since apostolic times.

In 1974, Cipriano Vagaggini, OSB. Cam. (1909–1999), published “L’ordinazione delle diaconesse nella tradizione greca e bizantina,” in Orientalia christiana periodica, a publication of the Pontifical Oriental Institute under the editorial direction of Robert F. Taft, SJ. Vagaggini, at the time a member of the International Theological Commission (ITC), reportedly wrote the 15,000-word work at the request of Pope Paul VI, who had asked about the possibility of admitting women to the ordained diaconate.[1] Vagaggini responded in the affirmative.

Vagaggini’s research into the historical details of women ordained as deacons in the Greek and Byzantine traditions demonstrates that women were actually ordained to the major order of deacon over the course of many centuries in many parts of the Greek and Byzantine East. In his Orientalia article, Vagaggini carefully reviews the liturgies used to ordain women, which are substantially the same as those used to ordain men, and assays the commentaries contemporaneous to women’s ordinations to and exercise of the diaconate.

Vagaggini introduces the conclusions to his study by noting that “in Christian antiquity there were different beliefs and tendencies distinguishing between ministry and ministry, ordination and ordination, with regard to the nature and significance of the respective orders or ranks.” These conditions noted, he presents seven points:

1. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c. 210) does not mention “deaconesses” but clearly includes those who serve as deacons in the group comprising bishops, priests, and deacons, who receive the laying on of hands, as opposed to lectors and subdeacons, who did not. Hippolytus adds as a general principal: “cheirotonia is given only to the cleric (χλῆρος) in view of the λειτουργία” (the service focused on the altar). The Western tradition after Hippolytus distinguishes the two groups based on the laying on of hands and later including the traditio instrumentorum or the anointing.

2. On the other hand, the Eastern tradition had many ordinations. Therefore, the distinction between the “orders” is not made on the basis of the laying on of hands. Byzantine euchologies distinguish between cheirotonia and cheirothesia in the eighth century and following; after about the middle of the twelfth century apparently only the presbyter and deacon are ordained by cheirotonia, whereas lower ministers would be ordained by cheirothesia, a simple blessing. Nonetheless, the ancient Greek tradition established a distinction among groups of ministers: bishop, presbyter, deacon, deaconess, lector, subdeacon.

3. Epiphanius of Salamis distinguished the ministers who belong to the ἱερωσύνη—bishops, presbyters, deacons, subdeacons—from those who do not belong to and only come after the ἱερωσύνη: lectors, deaconesses, exorcists, interpreters, undertakers, and doorkeepers. But it is uncertain what Epiphanius meant by ἱερωσύνη, or why, for example, the subdeacon belongs to it but the deaconess and the lector do not.

4. Theodore of Mopsuestia witnesses an ecclesiastical law disallowing ordinations of lectors at the foot of the altar inside the sanctuary because “they were established subsequently,” “they do not minister the same mystery,” and, therefore, “they are instead outside of the ranks of Church ministry.” Theodore is a witness to the theological belief of distinction between the bishop, presbyter, deacon group and the lector, subdeacon group. Theodore understands deaconesses to be an apostolic institution, and, since the Apostolic Constitutions attest to the ordinations of deaconesses in the presence of the presbytery, it appears these ordinations occur in public in front of the altar inthe sanctuary.

5. In the Byzantine tradition of euchologies from the seventh to the fourteenth centuries, deaconesses always seem to have been ordained at the foot of the altar inside the sanctuary in contrast to the ritual for the ordination of lectors, subdeacons, or other “offices.” Other details for the Byzantine ordination of deaconesses go along the same lines. It seems certain to Vagaggini that, in the history of the undivided church, the Byzantine tradition maintained that deaconesses belonged to the group of bishops, presbyters, and deacons.

6. Given the above, Vagaggini concludes that theologically, by virtue of the use of the Byzantine Church, it appears that women can receive diaconal ordination, which by nature and dignity is equated to the ordination of the deacons.

7. Vagaggini affirms that the liturgical work of the deaconesses was more restricted than that of the male deacons, a now obsolete fact regarding distribution of Communion and many other tasks since by indult women do almost everything the clergy can except say Mass, hear confessions, and anoint the sick. It is also true that the ancient tradition of the church unanimously denied women the possibility of entering the priesthood.

Vagaggini’s article and especially his conclusions gained notoriety in scholarly circles. In the ensuing years, two liturgy scholars, Roger Gryson and Aimé-Georges Martimort (1911–2000), wrote competing works about women in the diaconate. Gryson’s The Ministry of Women in the Early Church finds that women were ordained to and ministered within the order of deacons. In Deaconesses: An Historical Study, Martimort profoundly disagrees with both Gryson and Vagaggini[2] and calls Vagaggini’s Orientalia article a “seductive presentation of the case” (for ordaining women as deacons).[3]

Discussion and academic debate about women in the diaconate continued, in many quarters overshadowed or conjoined with discussion and debate about ordaining women as priests. Such led (and still leads) to confusion about the topic at hand. Clearly, there is no prohibition against discussing the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate, a tradition followed in the Eastern and Western churches for many centuries.

In 1987, Vagaggini was asked to make an intervention before the Synod of Bishops on the Laity, which had gathered 231 bishops and 60 lay auditors. The interventions ranged over a number of topics concerning the four major areas listed by the Synod’s relator: (1) lay involvement in the secular world; (2) tensions between new lay ecclesial movements and their local churches; (3) lay ministries; (4) women in the church.[4] Among those speaking on this final area of interest were Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who asked that women be included in all non-sacerdotal ministries, and Vagaggini.

Vagaggini’s intervention, translated here, is strong both in response to Martimort and in explication of Vagaggini’s own research. While Vagaggini’s Orientalia article demonstrates the genuine nature of the ordinations of women to the diaconate in the Byzantine East and points to the possibility of women being included in the contemporary ordained diaconate, the long article is filled with technicalities and terms worthy of a formal Vatican document. Vagaggini’s Synod intervention as published in Il Regno can serve as an informal summary of his entire discussion. As it happened, there was no mention of women as deacons in the final Synod document, Christifideles laici (1988), which states that John Paul II’s prior apostolic letter, Mulieris dignitatem (1988), ought to “enlighten and guide the Christian response to the most frequently asked questions, oftimes so crucial, on the ‘place’ that women can have and ought to have in the Church and in society.”[5]

A few years after the closing of the Synod on the Laity that resulted in Christifideles laici, the ITC formally took up the question of women as deacons. While a brief paper—fewer than twenty pages—was produced in 1997, it was not signed by its then-prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and not published. The ensuing quinquinnaria of the ITC, under a new working subgroup chaired by the single continuing member of the first subgroup (a former student of Ratzinger’s), eventually produced a study document of nearly eighty pages, four times the size of the original document that apparently focused mainly on women in the diaconate.

The newer ITC document under consideration and eventually published expanded the discussion. The document strongly implies that the “iconic argument” (Christ was male) and gendered diaconates in history mitigate against returning women to the order of deacons. Even so, this later 2002 ITC study document notes that the question of including women in the restored diaconate is something that the church’s “ministry of discernment” should decide given that male and female deacons of history are not identical to deacons today and that the bishop and priest are clearly distinguished from the deacon.[6]

The ITC’s 2002 study document, which remains the most recent direct Vatican discussion of women in the ordained diaconate, depends in part on Martimort. The study also depends heavily on prior published work by Gerhard L. Müller, who at the time was a member of the sub-committee preparing the ITC study.[7] Müller was nearly immediately named bishop of Regensburg following publication of the ITC study document, which position he held until being named prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012. He was reappointed by Francis.

At this time, the 2007 disciplinary document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding sacred ordination of a woman remains in effect.[8] However, the discussion about the place of women in the church, and especially within ordained ministry, retains its vigor. Interestingly, the identical word for the “place” of women, spazio, has twice been used by popes since it appeared in Christifideles laici. In 2006, Benedict XVI asked if women could be offered more spazio;[9] in his August 2013 interview Francis said it was necessary to give women more space, more room, in the church.[10]

Below are translations of Vagaggini’s Synod intervention as published in the Italian journal, Il Regno, and of Vagaggini’s article from Orientalia christiana periodica. Each has been reviewed many times, but the inevitable errors are simply that and are not intended to misrepresent either Vagaggini or the discussion.

Phyllis Zagano


[1] Cipriano Vagaggini, “L’ordinazione delle diaconesse nella tradizione greca e bizantina,” Orientalia christiana periodica 40 (1974): 146–89. See Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI: The First Modern Pope (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993), 640, regarding the possibility that Vagaggini’s article is actually a suppressed study of the International Theological Commission.

[2] Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. Jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1976); original: Le ministère des femmes dans L’Église ancienne. Recherches et synthèses, Section d’histoire 4 (Gembloux: J. Duculot, 1972); Aimé-George Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, trans K. D. Whitehead (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986); original: Les Diaconesses: Essai Historique (Rome: Edizioni Liturgiche, 1982).

[3] Martimort, Deaconesses, 75.

[4] Seàn O’Riordan, “The Synod on the Laity,” The Furrow 39, no. 1 (January 1988): 3–12.

[5] John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici, no. 50.

[6] Benedict XVI’s apostolic letter Omnium et mentem (2009) modified Canons 1008 and 1009, codifying what was already noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

[7] Original in French: Le Diaconat: Évolution et Perspectives, published in English as From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles (London: The Catholic Truth Society, 2003; Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004) and recently added to the Vatican’s website in German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish; (accessed November 12, 2013). Compare Gerhard Müller, Priesthood and Diaconate: The Recipient of the Sacrament of Holy Orders from the Perspective of Creation Theology and Christology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), trans. Michael J. Miller from Priestertum und Diakonat: Der Empfänger des Weihesakramentes in schöpfungstheologischer und christologischer Perspective (Freiburg: Johannes Verlag, 2000).

[8] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, General Decree regarding the delict of attempted sacred ordination of a woman (December 19, 2007); (accessed November13, 2013).

[9] Phyllis Zagano, “The Question of Governance and Ministry for Women,” Theological Studies 68 (2007): 348–67.

[10] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America Magazine 209, no. 8 (September 30, 2013): 15–38; see (accessed October 15, 2013) for the sentences about women that do not appear in the printed journal.







17 responses to “Phyllis Zagano, Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches – Part 1”

  1. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    I pray fervently that Pope Francis will act prophetically and, after due consultation with his brother bishops, declare that women may be admitted to the deaconate. Women proclaim God’s word, they serve at the altar, they assist in the distribution of HC, they provide many forms of loving service….what is gained from withholding the office of deacon? I’ll tell you what….fear that in Holy Orders they will no longer be prevented from exercising jurisdiction.

    1. Julie Boerio-Goates Avatar
      Julie Boerio-Goates

      @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #1:
      Father Jack (#1) – You point out that women are already doing much of what deacons do. You ask what is to be gained by withholding ordination. I’d like to flip the question around and ask folks to consider what is lost by withholding ordination. If we truly believe that sacraments, including Holy Orders, are the most effective way of receiving the grace we need to cooperate more fully with the Holy Spirit, then what is lost is the opportunity for those women to be the recipients of such graces.

      Phyllis Zagano is, right now, leading a month-long on-line course on the Diaconate for Women. A lot of history and theology regarding the post-Vatican II permanent diaconate is part of the course (including its distinct role from that of priest). A lecture posted this week by Deacon William Ditewig, one of the book’s co-authors, gives two quotes that make my point: From St. John Paul II: “Service of the deacon is the Church’s service sacramentalized” and from Thomas Merton: “The first thing about the diaconate is that it is big…. You are supposed to be the strength of the Church. You receive the Holy Spirit ad robur, not only for yourself, but to support the whole church.”

      Perhaps, Aaron (#2), it’s not about a desire to be clericalized, if by that you mean seeking official permission to dress up in cassocks and to hold positions of power. Perhaps it’s a recognition that sacramental ordination would confer grace to do more effectively what women may already be doing.
      If Merton is right, that in ordination to the diaconate, one receives the Holy Spirit not only for oneself, but to support the whole church, then what’s the conclusion to be drawn by withholding the permanent diaconate from women? That women are good enough on their own they don’t need it to get the job done?

  2. Aaron Sanders Avatar
    Aaron Sanders

    Pope Francis has at the very least *spoken* prophetically on this subject: ‘Le donne nella Chiesa devono essere valorizzate, non “clericalizzate”.’ – Women in the Church must be valued, not clericalized.

  3. Cathy Wattebot Avatar
    Cathy Wattebot

    Fr. Jack Feehily : I pray fervently that Pope Francis will act prophetically and, after due consultation with his brother bishops, declare that women may be admitted to the deaconate.

    I share your hope and prayer on this Fr Jack. I now know that there are many women who have a call to the diaconate in our church. Because of that, I added a bidding prayer along these lines this week in the presence of two of our bishops at the annual meeting of the National Board of Catholic Women, the UK’s church liaison group, and the response was very strong.

    Aaron you perhaps need to see the difference between the many excellent people (including women in the past if I understand right) who have been designated as clerical through their positions in the church, and, on the other hand, the concept of “clericalism” which I believe describes an ideology of separateness and superiority at odds with Gospel teaching.

  4. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    I wonder whether, if the Church 1) opened the diaconate to women and 2) opened the priesthood to married men, we wouldn’t end up with the rather odd phenomenon of an all-female permanent diaconate and and all-male priesthood.

  5. Jane Coll Avatar
    Jane Coll

    to Cathy #3 above, you, and the National Board of Catholic Women, may be interested to know that I have had a book on the subject of women deacons published by Gracewing – with an Imprimatur from my bishop Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen. I argue that, while women cannot be ordained as priests, they could be ordained as deacons. The imprimatur is official recognition that this argument does not contradict Church teaching on faith or morals. I quote from a magazine article on women deacons in the Eastern Church by phyllis Zagano and am please to see that she has expanded this into a book.

    1. Cathy Wattebot Avatar
      Cathy Wattebot

      @Jane Coll – comment #6:
      Thank you Jane. But I find “cannot” a strange verb in relation to the ordination of women to the order of the presbyterate. We see women priests in the Church of England and Old Catholic churches for instance who share apostolic succession, so clearly it is in general possible. It appears to be more a case of “will not” on the part of the Roman Catholic governance for the present.

      1. Jane Coll Avatar
        Jane Coll

        @Cathy Wattebot – comment #7:
        “Cannot” is the word used by the various Vatican documents on the subject. Yes, other churches have women priests but their understanding of the sacramental nature of ordination may differ from ours. Their understanding of the phrase “apostolic succession” certainly does. While the Church of England claims apostolic succession, the Roman Catholic Church does not accept this claim.

        I go into all the arguments in some detail in my book “Handmaids of the Lord”. If you want a more authorotative, though less wide-ranging, source, Sara Butler’s “The Catholic Priesthood and Women” is the best that I came across.

      2. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
        Jordan Zarembo

        @Cathy Wattebot – comment #7:

        We see women priests in the Church of England and Old Catholic churches for instance who share apostolic succession, so clearly it is in general possible. It appears to be more a case of “will not” on the part of the Roman Catholic governance for the present.

        Ordination or episcopal consecration in a church of the ‘apostolic succession’ (per the doctrine defined by the Roman Church), requires two key aspects. The first is that the ordaining bishop or consecrating bishops are indeed successors of the apostles. The second is the requirement that the Holy See assents to the sacramental act (for “What not to do …”, c.f. Econe consecrations.) Old Catholic clergy and Anglican clergy (by virtue of the ‘Dutch touch’ of Old Catholic bishops) might participate in apostolic succession in a genealogical sense, but not validly in the eyes of Rome since it did not and does not give assent to the ordinations and consecrations of Old Catholics or Anglicans.

        Apostolic succession in a purely genealogical sense does not grant a particular communion which ordains women doctrinal or dogmatic parity with Rome. For women to be ordained deacons in the Roman church, fundamental changes in the form and matter would need to be made to accommodate women. These changes are not able to be made by any one bishop unilaterally, even the Pope.

      3. Bill deHaas Avatar
        Bill deHaas

        @Jordan Zarembo – comment #12:
        Jordan – just curious…..from your perspective, what is the *form and matter* and what would the *fundamental* changes be in your estimation?

        A couple of observations:
        – VII, per comments and post above, did state that the episcopal rank is the fullness of priesthood; that presbyters minister with episcopal delegation and that deacons are in a different category.
        – form/matter……well, that is a structure from neo-Thomism but wonder if the council fathers and today folks aren’t looking at priesthood and diaconate as explained via different models or structures? This might help get around some of the rigidity of neo-Thomism and move the Church toward a more servant/minister model and understanding.

        Just some thoughts.

      4. Jane Coll Avatar
        Jane Coll

        @Bill deHaas – comment #13:
        Actually, all that is needed for the valid ordination of women to the permanent diaconate is the agreement of the pope and bishops, a minor change in the wording of Canon Law and some grammatical changes in the relevant order of service of ordination e.g. changing “he” to “he or she”. Simple!

      5. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
        Jordan Zarembo

        @Bill deHaas – comment #13:

        Bill, I agree with your point that the Church will have to recast the way we understand clerical roles in order to get past neo-Thomism. According to the latter school of philosophy, “form” is the words of a sacrament (such as the ordination rite), and matter is in the case of ordination a man. I do not like these terms and distinctions and I find that they demean and objectify persons. The terminology will have to change to remove this objectification.

        I am actually not averse to the possibility of women deacons, and in the least the ability for women to preach at Mass. However, the question of women deacons strikes me as a puzzle with many layers. How would the Church decide in favor of women deacons and not contradict previous councils? As I wrote earlier, it’s also difficult to discern authority because authority is a construct with multiple perspectives, each with a separate motive. Many concepts must change in order to possibly accommodate women deacons, and not just Thomistic concepts.

  6. Patrick Logsdon Avatar
    Patrick Logsdon

    I think it if fair to still wait and see where the diaconate is heading,
    for most of the church’s history it has been a liturgical/cultic role, and no one knows if it will return to that? I do not say this to open up the whole debate on deacons, just that the awareness of service is so essential to our baptismal call ( most current is the “Joy of the Gospel” by Pope Francis) that the jury may still be out on what form the diaconate will take in the church?

    1. Jim McKay Avatar
      Jim McKay

      @Patrick Logsdon – comment #8:

      That is very much the issue, and probably why the continuation of a discussion of ordaining women as deacons issued a report on the diaconate. If you look at its summary of the argument against ordaining women as deacons, this is very clear:

      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.

      Should this unity of the sacrament be so underlined? Or is the diaconate very different from the other ministries so that it should not be bound by their limits?

      1. Jane Coll Avatar
        Jane Coll

        @Jim McKay – comment #9:
        I argue in my book that ordaining women to the diaconate does not threaten the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Vatican II confirmed in Lumen Gentium that only the bishop receives the fullness of the sacrament. He then delegates some of his duties/powers to priests and some to deacons. Deacons do not receive any juridicial/ruling powers, so it does not contradict the writings of St Paul to ordain women as deacons, who are ordained to assist the bishop in his duties as a servant of the people.

  7. Jim McKay Avatar
    Jim McKay

    The matter of this sacrament is in no way “a man”. It is the laying on of hands, though earlier thomists argued for the handing over of the chalice or gospel. I am surprised you don’t know this.

    I agree that many things must change to accommodate women deacons, but most of those things have to change to accommodate men deacons. That’s why the International Theological Commission started with a discussion of women in the diaconate, and finished with a document on the diaconate that had only a few paragraphs on women. They recognized a situation where deacon, priest, and bishop have been closely identified has been changing to accommodate the differences of the diaconate.

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      @Jim McKay – comment #16:

      Thank you Jim for your very important correction.

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