Deacon Mark: Please share your journey as a Permanent Deacon.
Deacon Bill: I’ve always felt called to some kind of ministry in the Catholic Church. I spent eight years (high school/college) in the seminary, and although I left the seminary at that point, I remained very active in lay ministry. I had discerned that the priesthood was not the vocation to which I was called. When the diaconate emerged as a possibility, I entered formation and was ordained. I was ordained and remain incardinated in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. I have served in a number of parishes both within that Archdiocese and others, as well as serving in jail ministry, RCIA, religious education, and in diocesan and national administration. Professionally, at the time I was ordained, I was a career Naval officer, serving 22 years on active duty as a linguist and cryptologic officer. After retiring from the Navy, I began serving in various church functions full time: associate principal of a Catholic high school, diocesan staffs, the USCCB senior staff, and as a professor of Theology.
Deacon Mark: How have you integrated your diaconal and scholastic lives?
Deacon Bill: I try to balance them carefully. In the classroom, especially at the graduate level, we want our students not only to know and understand church teaching, but also how that teaching is to be applied in contemporary terms. The Second Vatican Council directed that the Church must always “read the signs of the times in light of the Gospel” and to teach in language understandable in every generation. So, in the graduate classroom we encourage students to explore these teachings and the language in which they’re expressed. In more pastoral settings (although the classroom can be a pastoral setting as well!), there is more need simply to be present to the other person, and help them where they are. While that may sometimes be a question of explaining or teaching, it is far more common that the person is suffering from a loss, or some other kind of crisis. I guess you could say that in the classroom, I try to have a diaconal intellect, and outside the classroom, a diaconal heart!
Deacon Mark: "In 2012 you collaborated with Gary Macy and Phyllis Zagano in writing Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future reporting on the historical roots of women’s participation in the diaconate. What were your findings?
Deacon Bill: Dr. Macy focused on the historical data and found that there were in fact, women serving in diaconal roles in both the Eastern and Western traditions of the Church. Perhaps more importantly, he asked the question of how the people of the time understood these women: were they considered to be ordained in the same way their male counterparts were? In Dr. Macy’s findings, they were. Dr. Zagano focused more on the future possibilities of women serving in the diaconate, and I focused on current church teaching regarding the ordination of women in general and how that teach may, or may not, include the question of the ordination of women to the diaconate. The point here is that, while there are three orders of ordained ministry, they tend to function in unique ways: deacons, of course, may never preside at the Eucharist or Confirm, or anoint the sick, for example. Priests may not ordain. There are sacramental differences between the orders, even though they constitute a single sacrament. The question here is whether there is sufficient difference between the orders to admit women to the diaconate. We accepted as a given that the Church had spoken definitively on the question of women and the priesthood. The question remained, however, that no such definitive statement has yet been made about the diaconate. It was for this reason that then-Cardinal Ratzinger twice gave the question to his International Theological Commission. They found what I just said, that the church has not yet spoken definitively on the subject. Now with the papal Commission on the issue, Pope Francis has continued that study. Our conclusion was that we should have such a conversation and resolve the matter one way or another.
Deacon Mark: In August 2016, Pope Francis established the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate. They’ve now completed their work and their report is now on Pope Francis’ desk. Are its conclusions in line with yours?
Deacon Bill: Obviously, I haven’t read the text of their report, so I don’t know. I know that Dr. Zagano and Dr. Pottier have begun to speak publicly about the matter again, but I’d prefer to wait until the text itself becomes available (which I hope it will)! From what I’ve heard informally, it would seem that the historical findings of the most recent Commission are consistent with ours.
But there is another important point to be stressed, and I do this in our book. Namely, history alone is not dispositive. Just because something was – or was not – done in our history does not mandate that something be done – or not done – today. We are not confined to history, we learn from it. So, for example, even if it is found that historically women were ordained to the diaconate, that does not mean that we necessarily must do that today. The question becomes: is there something in our history that would suggest we could NOT ordain women to the diaconate? If there are not, then what are the conditions today that would indicate we should do so again? Or, are there conditions today that indicate we should not? In short, the historical questions are quite distinct from the theological and pastoral ones. Finally, the question remains about WHERE such ordinations might take place. Just as with the male diaconate, there are some parts of the world which have embraced the diaconate, and other parts of the world that have not.
Deacon Mark: Professor Zagano, in a panel discussion at Fordham University January 16th, warned that “to delay a positive answer” on whether women can serve as deacons “is a negative answer.” Do share that opinion?
Deacon Bill: It’s a clever turn of phrase, and there is some truth to it. Unless and until an authentic response is given by appropriate authority, no one can move on the matter. There’s a parallel with the way in which the (male) diaconate was renewed by Vatican II and St. Paul VI. The Council in 1964 directed that “in the future” the diaconate could be renewed as a permanent order, and that this could be open to married men, no bishop and no episcopal conference could move forward on that matter until Paul VI implemented it in 1967. There will need to be something similar now. While the Pope could certainly decide this on his own and implement it, I hope he does not. Pope Francis has been stressing the importance of synodality, and I would hope that the question will be taken to a Synod of Bishops, for example. He could then implement their decision. It would be a true worldwide synodal process. St. John XXIII once said that there were many actions he could take as pope, but that the better way was to have the world’s bishops work on things collegially.
Deacon Mark: The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate [CARA] released the results of a survey conducted in 2018 that asked bishops and deacon directors for their views on ordaining women to the diaconate. The bishop’s response was disheartening; by a 3-to-2 margin, bishops thought it was not "theoretically possible" to sacramentally ordain women as deacons, and by a 2-to-1 margin, they did not believe the church should authorize it. What’s your reaction to these results?
Deacon Bill: They're not surprising, in my opinion. After all, most bishops don’t spend their days thinking about such questions. Most have not had the time to read the current research. So, asking them cold, I’m sure they presumed like so many people that the contemporary decisions reserving PRIESTLY ordination to men applies equally to the diaconate. That’s most people’s starting point. However, this is why I think a Synod of Bishops would be helpful and necessary. This would give them the time to discuss, debate, and then decide.
Deacon Mark: If women’s ordination were to come to pass, what is your sense of how they’d be received by the current [male] permanent deacons?
Deacon Bill: I’m sure the reactions would be mixed, at least at first. However, I do believe that overall, the reaction will be positive. And, of course, this will be even more certain when the same procedures are used for vocational discernment and the formation process.