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Phyllis Zagano: No women, no Catholic Church

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In August 2016, Pope Francis named a commission of 12 scholars to study the history of women deacons. The commission — the first in the history of the Church to have an equal number of men and women — provided a report some months ago. Will the pope restore the tradition of ordained women deacons? No one knows what’s next.

But Christianity depends on women. It was the women followers of Jesus, not his apostles, who went to the tomb that first Easter Sunday morning. It was Mary Magdalene who announced the Resurrection.

Today, most Catholic employees and volunteers are women, and churches are filled with them. But Catholicism retains an all-male clergy.

It wasn’t always like that.

Historically, both women and men were ordained as deacons to serve the Word, the liturgy and charity. Their tasks and duties varied from time to time and place to place, but they were ordained to service.

In the ancient Church, where immersion baptism was typical, women deacons anointed and assisted unclothed women in stone baptismal fonts, curtained off for privacy. At the appropriate time, the bishop would put his hand through an opening in the curtain to impart the blessing, but the woman deacons taught the faith to the new Christians.

In May 2016, when he agreed to appoint his commission, Pope Francis recalled something else. He said women deacons examined the bruises of women who claimed their husbands beat them, reporting the facts to the bishop. At various times in various places, women deacons also served as heads of monasteries or abbeys, diocesan treasurers and managers of the church’s charity.

There is evidence that women deacons served during Mass. Pope Gelasius I complained about them in the 5th century, and successive popes and bishops repeated the ban even after the church abandoned the stand-alone diaconate.

In the Latin or Western Church, the Gregorian Reform of the 11th century effectively ended the diaconate, male and female. Only persons destined for priesthood could be ordained as deacons, following the “cursus honorum,” the required steps along the way: tonsure, porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon and, finally, priest. Women never participated in the cursus honorum, so by the 12th century women deacons disappeared in the West.

Many Eastern churches maintained the tradition, and the Armenian Church never fully abandoned it. The Orthodox Church of Alexandria (Egypt and all Africa) recently ordained five women deacons. The Orthodox Church of Greece voted to restore the tradition in 2004. But ever since Pope Francis called his commission, Catholic objections to women deacons spring up.

What objections?

Well, the main one is the “iconic argument” — women cannot “image” the risen Christ. That not only argues against women deacons, it supports all disrespect for women. Christianity teaches Christ lives in all believers. Saying women cannot image the risen Christ argues women are somehow less human than men.

The world is peppered with examples of women considered second-class or dangerous, from dowry-fire murders in India, to African female genital mutilation, to deaths from smoke or cold in menstruation huts in Nepal. Then there are rapes and beatings, snide remarks and cat calls, leering looks and subtle gropings.

Disrespect for women underlies the notion that ordained women in history were never “really” ordained, that they only received a simple blessing because a female body cannot receive the sacrament.

That dangerous notion surrounds women like a choking fog, disguising the fact that they are made in the image and likeness of God.

Women announce the Resurrection every day.

Easter is the time to recognize that.

Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of “Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.” She was appointed to the Papal Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women in August 2016.

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