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Women Deacons in the Catholic Church: Quick Facts and Thoughts
You have probably heard by now that, while addressing 900 women religious (i.e., sisters) in Rome for the meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, Pope Francis was asked to study the question of women in the diaconate. He responded in the affirmative: He said understanding about their role in the early Church remained unclear and agreed it would be useful to set up a commission to study the question.
You may know my doctoral research is on the diaconate, through the lens of receptive ecumenism. So, while others, like Phyllis Zagano, Gary Macy, Aime Georges Mortimort, and Cipriano Vagaggini, have explored the topic of women deacons more directly, I do have something more than gut instinct to offer. Some quick facts and reflections
- The diaconate is the oldest order of ministry in the church, especially if you count the Seven in Acts 6 as deacons. They preexist both bishops and presbyters.
- The Seven in Acts 6 are not deacons, however. At least, not according to the Scriptures themselves. It was not until Irenaeus (c.130-202) that they are identified as such, perhaps by this analogy. At most, we can see in the Seven a prefiguring of the diaconate inasmuch as we see in the Twelve a prefiguring of the episcopate.
- In the New Testament, while diakonia/diakonos are used several times, there are various meanings. Only three times is it clear that we are talking about an office of ministry in the Church: Romans 16.1, Philippians 1.1, and 1 Timothy 3.8-12.
- In two of those three, women are clearly included as deacons.
- In those cases the same word, diakonos (s.) or diakonoi (pl.), is used for both men and women. The use of deacon for men and deaconess for women comes later, in the early to mid third century. (see below)
- Phoebe in Romans 16.1 is the first person named as a deacon in Scripture.
(Stephen, protomartyr, is never called a deacon in the New Testament!)
- 1 Timothy 3 details the qualities of bishops and deacons (no reference to presbyters/priests). Male and female deacons are both addressed in vv.8-13.
- Diakonia is ministry. Not “service” – at least, not if you mean “serving at tables”. “Service” works only if you recall that service is leadership, according to Jesus at the Last Supper. Diakonia is a ministry of servant-leadership, which is why it is a quality of bishops and deacons both.
Select Patristic sources:
(By no means exhaustive)
- “The bishop is the image God the Father; the deacon stands in the place of Christ the Son; the presbyterate succeeds the role of the senate of God or the assembly of apostles.”(Ignatius, c.110)
- The first mention of “deaconess” – a gender-differentiated term rather than just including women as deacons – as noted in the International Theological Commission’s 2002 study on the Diaconate, is in the Didascalia Apostolorum (c.250):
- “The bishop sits for you in the place of God Almighty. But the deacon stands in the place of Christ; and do you love him. The deaconess shall be honored by you in the place of the Holy Spirit…”
- The Apostolic Constitutions apply the concept of cleros (clergy) to the following, in order: bishop, deacon, presbyter, deaconess, subdeacon, cantor, reader.
- Jerome is famous for his disdain of deacons, complaining that they should not see themselves as more important than the presbyterate, the council of elders who advise bishops. However, he acknowledges that the reason for this misconception lies in the fact that deacons are paid more than presbyters, and have more responsibility in assisting the bishop.
While we all know that the Anglicans, Lutherans, and other churches and ecclesial communities born from the Reformations ordain women, even to the diaconate, many Catholics would be sadly uninterested because of the fact that while we recognize the real and effective nature of their ministry, we do not recognize the sacramental validity vis a vis apostolic succession in a juridical sense. This is insufficient reason to dismiss the reality or ecumenical importance of this practice in itself, but, for the sake of brevity, I will look East to where there is an undisputed view of the validity of orders: The Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Churches, and Assyrian Church of the East.
Surely they would laugh at us for even discussing the ordination of women?
- First, the Orthodox are clear on the distinction between ordination (cheirotonia) for “major orders” and consecration/blessing (cheirothesia) for “minor orders”.
- Ordination (cheirotonia) is conducted inside the sanctuary, while the blessing or consecration (cheirothesia) of minor orders (cantor, reader, subdeacon, etc.) was conducted outside the sanctuary.
- The deaconess is clearly ordained (cheirotonia), and conducted within the sanctuary. Not only is she ordained, properly speaking, but it is a major, not a minor order.
- The Armenian Apostolic Church, as well as the Orthodox Churches of Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Japan all currently have, or have recently had, ordained deaconesses.
- Due to early medieval development of the office, especially in the East, Deaconesses are now generally found in monastic communities (not unlike Orthodox bishops, who always come from monastic priests).
- In fact, even in the west, vestiges of this conflation of the offices of deaconess and abbess remain in that some orders of nuns are still invested with diaconal stole and other symbols of the office (e.g., Carthusians).
Contemporary Catholic Considerations:
- Pope John Paul II, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, made it clear the Church cannot possibly ordain women to the episcopate or the presbyterate, because women cannot be configured to act in persona Christi capitis. In this case, acting “as Christ the head [of the Church]” narrowly means “priesthood” – presiding at Eucharist – not the more broad understanding of a ministry of ecclesial governance or pastoral leadership. He deliberately excluded the diaconate from this prohibition.
- Pope Benedict XVI opened the door for the ordination of women by changing Canon Law in 2009, with his motu proprio Omnium in Mentem. Following the logic above, he changed canons §1008 and 1009 to exclude the diaconate from being one of those ministries “configured to the person of Christ the Head”. This eliminates, or appears to eliminate, the need to be configured to the maleness of Jesus, as well.
- As the current prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, wrote in his book Priesthood and Diaconate, it is the unity of the three orders of ministry that would prevent women from being ordained to any one if forbidden from the other two. A clear demarcation – say, by developing a theology of sacramental priesthood that includes two orders and excludes the third – opens the door to different theologies of who can be ordained.
- Since we know little of the duties of a deaconess beyond the liturgical, principally assisting the bishop at full-immersion baptism and initiation, Müller and others object to the pastoral need for that exact same ministry today. In part, this is an objection to the compromise proposals of theologians like Walter Kasper, who suggested re-instituting the order of deaconesses as a non-ordained ministry, along the lines of the revival of consecrated virgins.
- One significant discussion is whether “deaconess” and “woman deacon” are the same thing. A popular post on the topic notes that both pope and prefect know that “the deaconesses of history ‘were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.'” Though this is not necessarily helpful, as women are not “purely and simply equivalent” to men, either. That makes them no less equal.
- Resulting questions include, are women ordained to the same order of diaconate as men, or are they ordained to a distinct order? If distinct, does that mean we have four ordained offices in the Church, not three? Were there historically two different realities: ordained women deacons and merely consecrated deaconesses (essentially a society of apostolic life, in contemporary terminology)?
- A critique to the Müller objections, however, is that he seems to suggest that deaconesses would have to be identical to their patristic-era form. But of course, this is contrary to the reality of all other ministries. If we went back to the earliest forms, with all three orders together, without historical development, it might look like this:
- The bishop would be mega-parish pastor and the only minister allowed to preside at Christian Initiation and Eucharist;
- The deacons (and deaconesses?) would be the senior (possibly, only) paid staff assisting the bishop, most likely to succeed him, and the career-path of choice for the ecclesial-minded;
- The presbyterate would be a consultative council of mostly older, married men whose career was secular and whose only responsibility is advising the bishop and his deacons.
In any case, the restoration of the diaconate called for at Vatican II (LG, 29) “reestablished the principle of the permanent exercise of the diaconate and note one particular form which the diaconate had taken in the past.” (ITC, Diaconate Study, 73). Moreover, this restoration is a work in progress:
- We still have a transitional diaconate to be suppressed. (Historically understandable, it makes as much sense theologically as a transitional presbyterate for deacon candidates).
- We still have people who think the main difference between deacons and presbyters is marriage and celibacy, respectively. I have heard people complain because the deacon kissed his wife while still in vestments/clerical suit; others still refer to a “lay diaconate” because, clearly, celibacy is the mark of clergy, not ordination!
- We still have people who think that the nature of the diaconate is to be a volunteer ministry performed by retirees.
- We still have people who think diakonia means “menial service” and forbid deacons from exercising their vocation to leadership in the church, even participating in governance in the offices that were once (in other titles) theirs exclusively, i.e., vicars general, episcopal, and forane.
- We still have a wide variety of formation programs for deacons, from requiring an S.T.B. or M.Div. (equivalent to formation for presbyters) to little less than certification for Sunday school catechist.
- We still have dioceses where deacons are not allowed to preach, or where deacons are forbidden from wearing clerical clothing (while seminarians are allowed to do so?).
And so on. We have a lot of theology left to work out. More importantly, a lot of theology in hand has yet to be put into practice, codified into law, or supported by structures. If this conversation and study of women in the diaconate helps with that, so much the better!