Phyllis ZAGANO. Women Deacons? Essays with Answers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. 252 $24.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8312-5. Reviewed by Ella JOHNSON, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Rochester, NY 14618.
Since the Second Vatican Council’s restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order, Church documents have specified that the order include male candidates only, with an allowance for them to be married at the time of ordination. A little known fact is that some of the assembled bishops at Vatican II asked about restoring women to the diaconate as well. Moreover, scholarly conversation about the history and function of women ordained as deacons has ensued since the Council and continues today. That such work has been relegated as unimportant and remained unexamined in the English-speaking world, according to the editor of this book Phyllis Zagano, is due to two reasons: first, much of this work is in Italian and French and has only been translated recently into English; second, many of these works were dismissed after the publication of the 2002 International Theological Committee (ITC) document, “Le Diaconate: Evolution et Perspectives,” which argues that one must be eligible to be ordained a priest in order to be ordained a deacon (xi, xiv). Although this document is the Vatican’s most recent commentary on women deacons, it is simply a “study document.” As such, in Zagano’s word, it carries “no legislative weight” (xii), yet “there is the common misperception by many in the church that women are barred from the diaconate by more than a merely ecclesiastical law” (xv).
With this collection of essays, Zagano seeks to present the “entire story” (xvi). The collection includes twelve significant essays in favor of ordaining women to the diaconate, which range from the close of the Council to this day. From the first decade after the Council, for example, the book presents one essay each from Yves Congar, Phillippe Delhaye (then ITC secretary), and Cipriano Vagaggini (then ITC member). Peter Hünermann’s 1975 work is an important inclusion in this collection as it presents a summary of conclusion from German works at the time. About the study, Zagano remarks, “It is interesting that at this point in time, there are no scholars writing against the inclusion of women in the renewed diaconate” (xvi).
Reflecting the increase of scholarly work on women deacons in the late 1980s and 1990s, this collection includes two important linguistic studies, one by Ugo Zanetti and another by Anglican deacon J.H. Stiefel, as well two studies on the liturgical function of early Christian women’s diaconal ministries, one each by Pietro Sorci and Corrado Marucci. Also included is Vagaggini’s significant 1987 intervention before the Synod of Bishops on the Laity, “La diaconessa nella tradizione bizantina.”
Interestingly enough, as Zagano points out, similar studies by an ITC subcommittee during this time (specifically 1992-1997) also concluded in favor of the ordination of women. But, when the ITC’s French study document was presented to the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the question was sent back to a reconfigured committee, and was not published (xiv). The result of the new committee’s work was, of course, the 2002 ITC document mentioned above.
Recent scholarship since the 2002 ITC document is also included in this collection. In particular, there is a study by Greek Orthodox scholar, Valerie Karras, as well as the editor’s own article “Remembering Tradition: Women’s Monastic Rituals and the Diaconate”; both illustrate how the function of the female diaconate was transferred to monasteries. Finally, another study by Marucci discusses the named deacon Phoebe from Rom. 16:1-2, to provide more evidence for female deacons from the earliest times in the church.
This collection is intentionally limited in its focus, offering only significant studies opining for the female diaconate. This is because the editor aims to provide a full view of the history on scholarship of women deacons, a view which is often skewed, according to her, by scholarship of which, “the majority… the ITC may have accepted between 1992 and 1997 but which it eventually eviscerated in 2002” (xvi). Not only the essays selected for this volume but also those included in the volume’s annotated bibliography provide a clearer view of this scholarship’s checkered history since the Second Vatican’ Council’s restoration of the permanent diaconate. The publication of this book could not be more timely or relevant, given Pope Francis’ institution of the "Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate” of which Phyllis Zagano, this book’s editor, is a member.