Chuck Berman, Mct
Lynne Mapes-Riordan, left, wants the opportunity to enter the Catholic Church's deacon formation program, which does not allow women.

CHICAGO — Lynne Mapes-Riordan of Evanston, Ill., hopes women will one day serve as Roman Catholic deacons. After 800 years, she could be one of the first.

Growing up, she never gave ordination a second thought. But then she learned that, unlike the church's verdict barring women priests, the question of women deacons has never been resolved.

That open question has led Mapes-Riordan, 49, and her fellow parishioners at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston to seek an answer. If the church finds in favor of female deacons, she could become one of the first women ordained since the 12th century. After meeting last winter with members of the parish, including Mapes-Riordan, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George reportedly promised to raise the question in Rome during his visit earlier this year.

Scholars say women deacons wouldn't be a novel or new idea, but the restoration of a tradition abandoned centuries ago.

The idea of female deacons "is being talked about very slowly," George said earlier this year during a forum at the Union League Club in response to a question about the future likelihood of women priests. "The diaconate is a more open question. At this place, at this time, it is not a possibility."

Mapes-Riordan, a lawyer, wife, mother of two and longtime parishioner at St. Nicholas, does not take a position on whether women should become priests. The church has made it clear that's not permitted. Ordaining women as deacons is not the same, she said.

"In a strange way, I don't see this being about women," Mapes-Riordan said during a recent interview inside St. Nicholas. "I see it as being about church and mission. We have this part of a puzzle, this piece, that I'm not going to say is missing, but we could have a fuller picture if this (letting women become deacons) was added. I don't see it as a women's issue. I see it as a matter for our church."

At a time when critics have accused Catholic church leaders of declaring a war on women by restricting insurance coverage for contraceptives, rebuking American nuns and maintaining an all-male priesthood, a renewed discussion about ordaining women as deacons indicates high-profile church leaders such as George want to give women more opportunities for church leadership.

"It's a message of hope. It's a way to stay within the boundaries of Catholic teachings and have women with real preaching authority within the system," said Phyllis Zagano, one of the American church's leading researchers on the subject of women deacons. "I think the bishops need to address this issue directly."

In the Catholic Church, there are three levels of ordained clergy: bishops, priests and deacons. Deacons can't say mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick, but they can baptize, officiate at weddings or funerals and preach.

For St. Nicholas, a well-known progressive parish in the Chicago Archdiocese, nominating a deacon of any gender has been a breakthrough.

Since 1988, the parish has had only one deacon to help serve Latino worshipers. Lay people — both men and women — have done most of what deacons typically do, including preach. The Rev. Robert Oldershaw, the parish's former longtime pastor who retired in 2006, admits he sometimes bent the rules. But he always told the faithful they should listen to what God is asking of them. When they felt called to preach, he honored that.

"I didn't have a real positive view of the diaconate simply because it was another way of separating the clerical establishment from the laity and men from women," Oldershaw said. "We've spent so much time separating the clergy from the laity, and yet we're called in our faith to be a community of equal disciples. So that was certainly my approach."

When the Rev. Bill Tkachuk eventually took over in 2010, he intended to introduce the idea of deacons there in his second year. But six months into his tenure, a male parishioner expressed interest.

Tkachuk knew that anything off-limits to women would be a hard sell at St. Nicholas. But he also knew women deacons were more likely than women priests.

"It's a step toward truly acknowledging the leadership abilities that women have to bring to the church and bringing them into a church where they can be a larger part of the conversation," he said. "We need to find other ways to do that. It doesn't have to involve women priests."

"If there was a clear answer that it couldn't be done, that would have been said a long time ago," he added.

A handful of scholars, including Zagano, argue that the diaconate of the early church included both men and women. In fact, they say the Apostle Paul tapped a woman deacon, Phoebe, to deliver his most important epistle to the Romans, explaining the concept of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Historians say in an attempt to accommodate societal norms, the church ceased giving women public leadership roles. The permanent diaconate vanished until the Second Vatican Council asked Pope Paul VI to reinstate it in the 1960s. Even then, the pope asked what role women should play, but the question reportedly never got a public answer.

In 2002, the International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a report that didn't rule out the possibility of women deacons. Seven years later, Pope Benedict XVI issued an apostolic letter that distinguished between the role of bishops and priests and the purpose of deacons. While bishops and priests act as icons of Christ, deacons act as Christ's servants, he wrote.

Zagano, whose archives are housed at Loyola University Chicago, believes if the church had resolved the question and invited women into the permanent diaconate, there would be less upheaval about women priests.

"It's clear that women were ordained sacramentally as deacons and could be so ordained again," Zagano said. "Because the church is not moving, a lot of people are moving beyond it."

But Sister Sara Butler, a professor of systematic theology at University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary, does not believe there is sufficient historical or theological evidence to support adding women to the permanent diaconate.

One of the first two women named to the International Theological Commission in 2004, Butler said the church is still trying to sort out just what it means to be ordained a deacon.

"I don't think it's because they don't want women," she said. "The theology of the diaconate needs to be thoroughly refined. A woman should not be prepared for this or encouraged to prepare themselves. This has been explicitly discouraged repeatedly."

As Mapes-Riordan waits for permission to discern what she perceives as a call to the diaconate, she is working on a master's in liturgy at Catholic Theological Union.

George declined to answer specific questions from the Tribune, reiterating through his spokeswoman that the matter of women deacons was still an "open theological question" for the church. During his meeting with parishioners, George expressed reservations, suggesting some theological questions had to be resolved first. But he also promised to include it in his report to the pope and to raise it with key leaders during his February meeting in Rome with the church's leadership.

"He did say it's a question of our time," Mapes-Riordan said. "It's a question to get answered. There's a sense of some urgency around it."

Tkachuk believes Cardinal George recognizes Mapes-Riordan's authenticity.

"I think he was truly valuing that," Tkachuk said. "This is church at its best. We're having a conversation. And we can all trust each other in this conversation."