The Association of United States Catholic Priests (AUSCP) will likely entertain at its June meeting in
a proposal supporting the ordination of women as deacons.
Obstacles to ordaining women as deacons include Canon Law 1024: "Sacram ordinationem valide recipit solus vir baptizatus," which is usually translated, "A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly."
Catholic doctrine maintains that the diaconate is conferred by a sacramental act called "ordination," i.e., the sacrament of Holy Orders (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1554). Canon 1024, therefore, precludes the ordination of women.
This current legislation is not irreformable. It can change, and likely will change when Church leaders accept the ordination of women as deacons as an idea and exigency whose time has come.
Misunderstanding may be an another obstacle. Many think that legislation allowing the ordination of women to the diaconate necessarily opens the door to ordination of women as priests.
Pope John Paul II effectively closed the door on ordination of women as priests when he declared in 1994 that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests. His perception seems to be based on the New Testament evidence that Jesus did not choose women to be among the Twelve.
Accepting this papal clarification, however, does not rule out ordination of women as deacons.
In 2009 Pope Benedict the XVI added a paragraph to Canon 1009: "Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity" (cf. Motu proprio "Omnium in Mentem," October 20, 2009).
Thus ordination to the diaconate does not, according to Church law, imply eligibility to ordination to the presbyterate. Phyllis Zagano, the preeminent scholar on the history of deaconesses in the early Church, notes that ordination of a man as a permanent deacon is a separate vocation and by no means implies he is a candidate for priestly ordination. Pope Benedict's decision to clarify Canon 1009 further supports the ontological differences between the orders of diaconate and presbyterate.
Perhaps a bigger obstacle to ordaining women as deacons is fear. The fear may stem from concern about control of ordained women (who oversees women deacons and their ministries) or simply apprehension about something "new" in the Church's structure (though in fact deaconesses are not new).
Both the New Testament (cf. Romans 16:1 where Paul sends greetings to "Phoebe our sister who is a minister, i.e., diakonos, of the church at Cenchreae") and early Church writings give evidence that women deacons were present in the first centuries of the Church's history (cf. Constitution of the Holy Apostles, 8, 19-20, with its ritual for ordaining women as deacons).
When the proposal for restoring the permanent diaconate surfaced at the Second Vatican Council, two of the reasons for its restoration are applicable to the ordination of women as deacons: 1) to counter the priest shortage, and 2) to strengthen with sacramental grace those already performing diaconal service. Karl Rahner reflects that same argumentation in his Theological Investigations, 10.11.
Resourcement (a return to the sources) was a guiding principle for the aggiornamento of Vatican II. The biblical movement, the liturgical movement, and the patristic movement which influenced the Fathers of the Council and the formation of the Council's sixteen documents also support the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.
The door to women deacons is not closed. It is, at the very least, slightly ajar. It would take only a nod from the pope to allow entry to the many women of the Church, religious and lay, who already shoulder the burdens of service and serve as liturgical ministers.
Rahner noted that Vatican II did not insist on any one set of tasks for the restored diaconate, and further suggested that it is not essential that today's form should have existed in the past.
Having studied the issue for years, Zagano concluded, "The ordained ministry of service by women is necessary to the Church, that is, to both the People of God and the Hierarchy."
There is a certain irony for those oppose women deacons: the only person in the New Testament who is specifically described as "diakonos" is "Phoebe our sister."