Historical facts rock solid on female deacons? RNS story makes it seem that they are

As he promised, Pope Francis has set up a commission to study whether or not the Church of Rome should ordain women as permanent deacons.

A previous Vatican study of the issue but a spotlight on a key question. Yes, there were female deacons, or deaconesses, in the New Testament. However, did they serve as ordained clergy at the altar -- in a clearly liturgical role -- or did their duties center elsewhere, especially in work with the poor and other women?

Let's flashback for a second to an earlier post -- "Deaconesses or female deacons? Journalists do you know the history of these terms?" -- before taking a look at a new Religion News Service report.

Everyone involved in this debate knows that the word used in Romans 16:1 to describe the woman named Phoebe is diakonos. However, some translations render this as "servant," while others use "deacon. The New International Version, beloved by Protestants, says: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae."

In an earlier news report, the Crux team noted that the earlier Vatican study of women deacons offered "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.

Let me note, speaking as an Eastern Orthodox layman, that this is pretty much what I have heard in similar discussions of this issue in the churches of the East.

However, look for that side of this debate in the new RNS piece on this topic.

In the crucial material in the story -- the history on this issue -- the piece focuses on American Phyllis Zagano, described as "an acclaimed Catholic scholar who teaches at Hofstra University on Long Island and has championed the cause of women’s ordination as deacons." Let me stress that it's clear that she is a crucial voice. But is she the only voice readers need to hear from, when discussing the historical facts?

Let's walk through the crucial background material in this story:

Francis first remarked in May that he was willing to consider a commission to study whether women should be deacons. The new panel will also examine the historical role of women in the early years of Christianity.
“There were women ordained as deacons in the early church. That is a historical fact,” Zagano wrote in a column for National Catholic Reporter in May. “What they did, where they did it, and how they became deacons are all well-studied. The facts of history cannot be changed.”

Note that one of the crucial questions being discussed -- whether the "ordination" of early deaconesses was the same kind of rite as the ordination of modern permanent, sacramental, deacons -- is settled outright. The "What they did" question? Settled.

Now, the "Where they did it?" question is is rather vague. Does this reference which early churches had deaconesses, or is this a reference to whether these women served at the altar? That's a crucial point to leave vague, because the story then states:

Deacons are ordained ministers who can preach or preside over weddings and funerals but cannot celebrate Mass.
As recounted in the New Testament, the role of the deacon was created by the Apostles so that they could deploy ministers specifically dedicated to doing charitable works and thus free themselves to focus on preaching.

Deacons "are" ordained ministers. That is certainly true today. But were the early male deacons and the deaconesses "ordained" in the modern sense to serve in a sacramental role? Let's read on:

In the Catholic tradition, the role of deacon was eventually subsumed into the priesthood and hierarchy, until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s revived the diaconate as an ordained order open to “mature” men over 35, who can be married.
But many say that order should include women -- who have never been ordained at any level in the Catholic Church -- because women deacons are mentioned in early church sources. They also say ordaining women as deacons would not necessarily lead to overturning the ban on women priests.

The Vatican revived the diaconate as an "ordained" order. Check. And women should be included because there were women deacons in the early church. But, once again, were the early deacons serving in an ordained, sacramental role?

Well, that question was at the heart of the earlier Vatican study and, once again, that's the key question now. But note this statement of fact by RNS:

The question has been the subject of previous study by Rome: a theological commission that advises the Vatican in 2002 published a report on women deacons but it drew no firm conclusions on whether they could be ordained or not.

The "no firm conclusion" language is interesting, especially in light of that earlier Crux quote using attributed information drawn from the earlier Vatican study. Let's read that again:

... 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.

That's rather different than the quote from Zagano that, "The facts of history cannot be changed.”

So where are the attributed, on-the-record quotes from authoritative voices arguing for the other side of this debate? Also, what facts have been learned about the duties performed by the early deaconesses? Does everyone agree on those facts?

One more thing. This is another case in which it helps to read the transcript of what Pope Francis said, in the May 12th remarks to 800 women general superiors gathered at the Vatican from around the world. Read carefully:

Someone might say that the “permanent deaconesses” in the life of the Church are the mothers-in-law [he laughs; they laugh]. In fact, this existed in ancient times: there was a beginning … I remember it was a topic that interested me somewhat when I would come to Rome for meetings and stay at the Domus Paulus VI; there was a Syrian theologian there, a good man, who did the critical edition and translation of the hymns of St. Ephrem, the Syrian. And one day I asked him about this, and he explained to me that in the early days of the Church there were some “deaconesses.”
But what are these deaconesses? Were they ordained or not? The Council of Chalcedon (451) speaks about it, but it is somewhat obscure. What was the role of deaconesses at that time? It seems -- that man told me, who is dead; he was a good professor, wise, erudite -- it seems that the role of the deaconesses was to help with the baptisms of women, the immersion, they were baptizing them, for the sake of decorum; also to anoint the bodies of women in baptism. And also something curious: when there was a marriage trial, because the husband was beating his wife, and she went to the bishop to complain, the deaconesses were charged with looking at the bruises left on the body of the woman from her husband’s beatings and informing the bishop.
This, I remember. There are a number of publications on the diaconate in the Church, but it is unclear what it was like.

Ah, maybe it would have been good to have quoted the pope?

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