The Via di Santa Prassede is a back lane close to the imposing Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Pope Francis’ favourite church in Rome. But there is a very significant historical building just nearby: the basilica of Santa Prassede in the laneway that takes its name from the church. It was built by a much hated pope, Paschal I (817-824). It would be good for Francis, in light of his decision to create a commission to study the possibility of women deacons, to pop into Santa Prassede next time he’s in the area. He’d find it very enlightening.
Santa Prassede is famous for its stunning mosaics over the high altar and in the small, extraordinary Chapel of Zeno. In the north lunette of the chapel there are four women who, in the Byzantine way gaze directly at you. The slightly taller one is Mary with her blue veil. She is surrounded by the sisters Praxedes (after whom the church is named) and Prudentiana. But it’s the first woman who stands out. She has an unusual rectangular nimbus (halo) around her head which means she was still alive when the mosaic was created. An inscription in gold lettering identifies her as ‘Theodo[ra] Episcopa’, ‘Theodora the bishop’. She was Paschal I’s mother, but that isn’t why she was called episcopa.
Episcopa means woman ‘bishop’, ‘presbyter’, or ‘elder’. This suggests that she exercised authority in the church equivalent to men who had the same title. The problem is tying down exactly what these titles meant at the time and what function Theodora fulfilled.
This brings us to women deacons, a much humbler status than episcopa. Pope Francis recently engaged in an off-the-cuff Q&A with 900 leaders of women’s religious congregations during which he committed to establishing a commission to study female deacons. He conceded that the role of deaconesses in the early church ‘was a bit obscure’, and asked himself ‘did they have ordination or not?’ Vatican apparatchiks will be furious, or trembling, or both with this latest papal indiscretion!
Female deacons go back to the New Testament church. Paul calls Phoebe ‘a deacon of the church of Cenchreae’ (Romans 16:1), and the evidence for women deacons in the early church is overwhelming. The Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research in the UK has done an enormous amount of work on this issue (www.wijngaardsinstitute.com/can-women-be-priests) and founder, John Wijngaards has several books on the topic. Cipriano Vagaggini and Phyllis Zagano have also done much research in this area.
It is clear from recent historical work that the meaning of ordination has changed. For instance, the evidence is overwhelming that as late as the tenth century women acted in roles that would now be confined to male priests. Gary Macy has shown conclusively that female abbesses were ordained into their role and exercised priestly functions. Macy says that according to the understanding of the time abbesses ‘were just as truly ordained as any bishop, priest or deacon.’
The implication of this is that the meaning of ordination has changed. If so, then it can change again. So John Paul II’s Apostolic 1994 Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis (OS) that the church doesn’t have authority to ordain women to the priesthood can’t be said to be ‘infallible’, despite this being re-enforced by then-Cardinal Ratzinger that this teaching had been ‘set forth infallibly by the ordinary magisterium.’
There is no reference in OS to women deacons, which leads Phyllis Zagano to argue that ‘the restoration of women to the ordained deaconate becomes less complicated’ because it is ‘a regulation, not a doctrine.’ I don’t quite follow that. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says unequivocally: ‘Today the word “ordination” is reserved for the sacramental act which integrates a man into the order of bishops, presbyters, or deacons’ (1538). So ordination to the deaconate is, in the contemporary understanding, a sacramental ordination. But Zagano is right that there is no reference to women deacons whatsoever in OS. Why?
The International Theological Commission (ITC) set up by Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith CDF) tried to answer that question and, after six years deliberation, in 2002 ‘approved a…inconclusive document’ which, Zagano says argued that ‘male and female deacons had different roles in the early church’ and that ‘priesthood and deaconate are separate and distinct ministries.’ The ITC was confronted with irrefutable evidence of women deacons in the early church which they couldn’t square with the Catechism’s teaching on ordination. So they said that women deacons were not ordained in the contemporary sense. But the problem is that male deacons (as well as priests and bishops) in the early church were not ordained in the contemporary sense either. This was why the ninth century Roman church could happily call Theodora an episcopa.
For today’s Vatican reactionaries this is a dreadful can of worms which, if opened might lead anywhere, even to questioning OS’s exclusion of women from the priesthood. For Gerhard Müller, present Secretary of the CDF, women deacons are the ‘slippery slope’ that might eventually lead to women bishops.
What people like Müller can’t get their head around is the notion of theological development. The understanding of ordination today is different to that of the early church, or that of the tenth century, or even the middle ages. So there’s no reason whatsoever why that development in theological understanding cannot continue today and all of the ordained ministries be opened to women.
Paul Collins is a church historian and writer and author of The Birth of the West (2013).