Contra Fr. Regis Scanlon on Women Deacons

Over at Crisis Magazine, Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap writes on Women Deacons? A Matter of Authority. His post proposes that women cannot be ordained as deacons, and he presents this conclusion as if it were dogma. Yet there are several problems with his argument, and his conclusion is easily refuted.

He begins by stating that the role of the ordained deacon is “a role which, throughout the history of the Church, has been expressly forbidden” to women. I agree that women have not previously been ordained deacons. But this does not imply that the Church lacks the authority to ordain women deacons. For hundreds of years, the Church forbid the Mass to be said in the vernacular, preferring the Latin language for Mass (just as the Council of Trent says). But at Vatican II, the Church decided to permit Mass in the vernacular. So the fact that women have not previously been ordained does not decide the question.

The question of whether or not the Church possesses the authority to ordain women as deacons has not yet been decided by the Magisterium. There is no magisterial document deciding the question. The document on women’s ordination, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, by Pope Saint John Paul II, definitively teaches that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Priestly ordination is not possible because Jesus did not give His Church that authority. But ordination to the diaconate is left open by that teaching.

In the absence of a magisterial teaching on the question, the faithful are free to opine either way: that the Church possesses or does not possess the authority from Christ to ordain women as deacons. But like so many conservatives and traditionalists today, Fr. Scanlon takes his own opinion, his own understanding of Scripture and Tradition, and presents it as if it were infallible. He leaves no room for the possibility that he himself may have misunderstood, and that the Magisterium might decide to the contrary of his own understanding and conclusion.

The crux of Fr. Scanlon’s argument is as follows:

“First, deacons occupy “the lower level of the hierarchy” and as administers of the word, the sacraments, and parishes, they have official Church authority over men, women, and children as they serve in this capacity. But, St. Paul says to Timothy: “For I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men; but she is to keep quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and was in sin” (1 Tim. 2:12-14).”

He argues that ordained deacons have authority over men, and that women are not permitted to have authority over men. Therefore, he concludes that women cannot be ordained deacons. However, in my view, that conclusion does not follow from the premises.

The word Deacon is from a Greek word meaning service. In Acts of the Apostles, where the diaconate is established, this primary purpose of service is plainly taught: “It is not fair for us to leave behind the Word of God to serve at tables also.” [Acts 6:2]. The role of deacon is primarily a role of service, and therefore that role does not violate the teaching of Scripture on women and authority.

Fr. Scanlon distorts the role of deacons when he says that they “have official Church authority over men, women, and children”. Sometimes some male deacons have a role of authority. But the essential nature of the diaconate is service, not authority. That is why the role of the ordained deacon was established, to serve the faithful.

Must ordained women deacons have authority over men? Not necessarily. Both men and women receive the Sacrament of Marriage, and yet the husband is the head of the family, while the wife is the heart of the family. So the fact that ordained male deacons sometimes have roles of authority does not imply that ordained female deacons would also have those roles. A woman deacon could (and I argue should) be restricted from roles of authority over men. She would still fulfill the primary role of the ordained deacon: service.

Fr. Scanlon says that ordained deacons have roles of authority over men in that they are “administers of the word, the sacraments, and parishes”.

First, the primary role over the Word of God is given to Bishops and priests, just as Acts 6:2 says. However, a woman can be a lector today at Mass. She can teach a religious education class on Scripture and other topics. She can lead a Bible study. She can write a book or article on Scripture or other theological topics. So having a woman deacon read the Gospel is not a violation of Scripture or Tradition. As Fr. Scanlon points out, Saint Paul permitted women to “prophesy during public worship with head covered (1 Cor. 11:5).”

Should women deacons be permitted to give sermons? If we adhere to the teaching of Scripture strictly, I would have to say “No.” However, a woman giving a sermon at Mass is not so different from the Pauline approved practice of women prophesying during public worship. In any case, many parishes have deacons who do not regularly give sermons. Giving a sermon is not essential to the role of deacon.

I attended a parish years ago where the deacon regularly gave sermons — annoying sermons devoid of a scholarly (or accurate) understanding of Church teaching. Deacons are usually much less well-educated in the faith than priests. I attend a parish at the present time where the deacon rarely, if ever, gives a sermon. I think I prefer sermons to come from bishops and priests.

So the “administers of the word” argument fails. Women deacons do not necessarily have to give sermons. And there is no conflict between the Pauline teaching on roles and a woman reading the Gospel.

Are women excluded from the ordained diaconate because deacons are “administers of … the sacraments”? No. Deacons only administer two Sacraments: marriage and baptism. And it is already the case that laypersons, including men and women, can administer those Sacraments in extraordinary cases. A layperson can officiate at a wedding. A layperson can baptize, if no ordained person is available, in cases of necessity.

Are women excluded from the ordained diaconate because deacons are “administers of … parishes”? Not at all. Parishes are meant to be administered by a priest, under the authority of a Bishop. Having a deacon acts as parish administrator is an unfortunate result of the shortage of priests. And in some cases laypersons have been given that role as well. Such a role is in no way essential or necessary to the role of deacons. If women are ordained as deacons, they need not have such a role.

So the role of the ordained deacon is primarily a role of service. And any tasks or other roles that male deacons might fulfill, with some degree or type of authority, need not be given to women deacons. So the argument fails. It does not follow, from the Pauline prohibition on women having authority over men, that women cannot be ordained deacons.

Fr. Scanlon admits that “women can have ministries in the Church — even administering the sacraments in some cases and conducting administrative rules as [non-ordained] deaconesses.” And he thereby undermines his own argument. Women deacons could be prohibited from any official authority over men, and still fulfill various ministries in the Church as deacons, including administering the Sacraments of marriage and baptism, reading the Gospel at Mass, and fulfilling roles of service, such as teaching women and children, reaching out to the sick or imprisoned, and fulfilling various other roles under the spiritual and corporeal works of mercy.

Fr. Scanlon’s argument fails. But what is most troubling about his post is the pretended authority of his conclusion:

“Therefore, to doubt the authenticity of any part of 1 Timothy is to doubt the authority behind the Canon of Scriptures. To base an argument in favor of women deacons one would have to call into question the authenticity of Church teachings, which is to attack the entirety of Scripture and Tradition, i.e., the deposit of the Catholic Faith itself, including the Second Vatican Council. One cannot disbelieve the message of the apostles and the Church and be saved (Matt. 10:14-15).”

Material dogma is everything taught by Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Divine Revelation cannot err. Formal dogma is any truth taught by Tradition or Scripture, explicitly or implicitly, and also infallibly taught by the Magisterium, under Papal Infallibility, or Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Fr. Scanlon presents his own understanding of the teachings of Tradition and Scripture on this topic as if it were already formal dogma. If you doubt Fr. Scanlon’s understanding of what Scripture and Tradition say on women deacons, then you are supposedly disbelieving “the message of the apostles and the Church”. And, he adds, you cannot be saved. Father Scanlon has usurped the authority of the Magisterium, to interpret authoritatively Tradition and Scripture. He presents his own understanding of Tradition and Scripture as if he himself could not err. And he has the gall to tell his readers that if they disagree, they cannot be saved by Jesus Christ and His Church.

Truly, the Church is in serious trouble today. A great conservative schism is imminent.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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