The Holy Father, following up on a promise he made in a Q&A to some nuns or some such, established a commission to study the question of deaconesses or women deacons, particularly the role of deaconesses in the early Church. Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, S.J., the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the president of the commission, and its members are frankly a mixed bag. For example, American Professor Phyllis Zagano has been appointed to the commission, and she has been a longtime advocate for ordination of women as deacons. However, other members are allegedly somewhat more traditional in their mindset.
The argument—which can be seen at some length in the 2002 International Theological Commission study of the diaconate—is that there were deaconesses in the early (i.e., patristic-era) Church, though there remains some question about the nature of their ordination and their duties. Thus, the argument goes, notwithstanding Ordinatio sacerdotalis, the Church can return to the practice of the early Church by blessing or ordaining women to serve as deacons. Of course, in Mediator Dei, Pius XII warned us about the archaizing mindset—an “exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism”—so often adopted by progressives in the Church:
The same reasoning holds in the case of some persons who are bent on the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately. The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world. They are equally the resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of man.
Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.
Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas. No more can any Catholic in his right senses repudiate existing legislation of the Church to revert to prescriptions based on the earliest sources of canon law. Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation.
(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) Of course, Good Pope Pius’s argument, despite its evident authority, has not uniformly carried the day in the Church, especially since dear Archbishop Bugnini and his industrious Consilium relied on its understanding (or, occasionally, as in the case of Eucharistic Prayer 2, what it claimed as its understanding) of the antiquities of the Church to justify so many of its most egregious quote-unquote reforms. Indeed, since 1947 there has hardly been an enormity or outrage propounded by the progressives in the Church, many of whom so obviously yearn to make of the Church an ecclesial community as vibrant as the Anglicans and liberal Lutherans, that is not justified by some or other practice of the early Church.
All that having been said, we wish to contribute in a small way to the discussion by rescuing the meat of a lengthy post we had written once commenting and expanding upon a series of fascinating posts by Fr. John Hunwicke about the true nature of the diaconate. The thrust of the post was that Amalarius of Metz (Liber officialis 2.12), citing a letter of St. Jerome to Evangelus (No. 146, PL 22:1192), points out that the Levites of the Old Testament were the forerunners of the deacons of the New Testament. Amalarius then goes through the Book of Numbers at some length to outline what the duties of the Levites were, coming finally to the point that the deacons of the Church of the New Testament are responsible first for guarding, bringing, and arranging the vessels to be used on the altar during the Mass. Amalarius even views the evidence of Acts 6 as evidence that the diaconate was constituted primarily for service at the altar. Of course, there are other roles of the deacon, such as the reading of the Gospels and service as a servant in the Church, but Amalarius, citing the earlier evidence of Jerome, focuses on the deacon as a liturgical assistant to the bishop and the presbyter. St. Jerome, of course, lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, and Amalarius in the eighth and ninth. Thus, if we are being exaggerated, senseless antiquarians, we ought to be consistently so and consider their evidence, too. If we wanted to be especially polemical we would ask whether there were female Levites and whether tradition is also a means of revelation, leading you inexorably to a certain conclusion.
Once upon a time, if we wanted to be especially polemical, we would have remarked about the unity of the orders of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, but, as we learned to no small chagrin and even mild horror today, among the canon law changes implemented by Benedict XVI’s Omnium in mentem was a change to canon 1008 severing, to a greater or lesser extent, the diaconate from the episcopate and presbyterate, implying strongly that deacons do not act in the person of Christ the Head. (What precisely the deacon does when he proclaims the Gospel, thus, is somewhat mysterious to us.) Therefore, we will refrain from discoursing upon that subject, though with perhaps a haunted look over our shoulder to the older tradition of the Church.
And we have no wish to be hugely polemical on this subject—in part because others will play that part better than we could, in part because every time questions have been asked under the Holy Father, the discussion always seems to tend, as if by magic, to a particular conclusion—only to point out some interesting resources that might inform you, dear reader, as you grapple with these changes. Also, we did not want to lose forever our work with the resources of Jerome and Amalarius on the question of deacons. We are not without our vanity, it seems.