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Draft document on diaconate leaves tiny opening for considering women


A draft document under consideration by the Vatican’s chief body of theological advisers stops short of saying that women cannot be ordained as deacons, but offers two “indications” for future discernment that lean in that direction.

The document, a nearly 100-page treatise on the diaconate, is before the International Theological Commission, a 30-member advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, chairs it.

While changes are still possible, sources told NCR that the language on women seems likely to survive. The chief sticking point inside the commission is instead a debate over to what extent, and how, the diaconate can be considered part of the sacrament of holy orders in the early church.

The next-to-the-last paragraph of the draft on the diaconate, which is divided into seven chapters plus a conclusion, contains the crucial language on women, offering two points for reflection.

First, the document says that deaconesses in the ancient Christian church “cannot purely and simply be compared to the sacramental diaconate” that exists today, since there is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions they exercised.

Second, the document asserts that “the unity of the sacrament of orders” is “strongly imprinted by ecclesiastical tradition, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the post-councilor magisterium,” despite clear differences between the episcopacy and priesthood on the one hand and the diaconate on the other.

Both points would seem to support a ban on women deacons. The document, however, does not draw this conclusion. Instead it says that “in light of present historical-theological research,” there is a need for “discernment about what the Lord has established for the church.”

In general, the document confirms the post-Vatican II development of the diaconate, establishing that it is part of holy orders, and is a legitimate office unto itself rather than merely being a steppingstone to eventual priestly ordination.

In addition to the document on the diaconate, sources allowed NCR Sept. 30 to examine two other documents on the commission’s agenda, one on inculturation and the third on technical progress and ethical responsibilities.

“Accepting God’s Gift: Revelation and Inculturation,” is said to be nearing competion. It concerns how far Christians may go in adapting church teachings and rites to local cultures.

The working title of the third document is “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.” It is said to be a more preliminary stage and, unlike the other two texts, is labeled an instrumentum laboris or “working paper.”

The International Theological Commission’s last publication, “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,” came in 2000.

Two Americans are among the 30 Catholic theologians on the International Theological Commission: Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, now the undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Fr. Christopher Begg, a biblical scholar at The Catholic University of America.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002