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.



Send to Kindle