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Women Deacons in the Catholic Church: Quick Facts and Thoughts

womendeaconiconYou 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

In Scripture:

  • 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.

Ecumenical Considerations:

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?
Apparently not.

  • 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!

Armenian Women Deacons

Women Deacons in the Armenian Apostolic Church



On the removal of bishops

Twice in the last three months, Vatican Information Service has announced something which, for the last decade, Vatican officials have said was not actually possible: The pope has removed bishops from the pastoral care of their dioceses.

I have mixed feelings on these announcements.

On March 31, VIS reported that the Holy Father had removed his brother bishop Jean-Claude Makaya Loemba from the pastoral care of the diocese of Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo. On May 2, it was announced that he had removed Bishop William M. Morris from the pastoral care of the diocese of Toowoomba, Australia. In neither case was the relevant canon cited which would indicate the actual conditions under which the bishop was ‘removed’.

Bishop Bill has been getting lots of press, both supportive and critical. There has been virtually nothing else on Bishop Jean-Claude. This is the first disappointment – a Caucasian Anglophone bishop gets removed and there is all sorts of coverage, but an African bishop gets the same and… nothing? Really? I know there can be lots of reasons for this: access to internet media, maybe it is all being reported in French, maybe there just is not support for Bishop Jean-Claude as there was for Bishop William, etc. But it still looks bad.

The reasons noted in press outlets for Bishop Jean-Claude’s removal include “mismanagement problems (not moral ones) and tensions in his diocese” – by which is apparently meant tensions with his presbyterate. If every bishop with management problems were removed, we would see this kind of thing a lot more often. This is something that commentators on both left and right picked up on: mismanagement alone is not sufficient for the removal of a bishop, according to canon law. In a global corporation, maybe that would be the case, but this is the Church. So maybe it’s the issue of tensions with the presbyterate – we saw in the case of Cardinal Law that he was not asked to go until his priests declared ‘no confidence’ in his leadership, no matter how many protests from the laity and other ministers.

For the last decade of the sexual abuse crisis, amid calls for the Pope to do something more direct, we have constantly heard that he cannot simply remove malfeasant bishops, that a process must be followed. And then this, where he appears to do just that. But I think partially it is that he appears to do that – and probably this is an inaccurate report by VIS. Both EWTN and Ed Peters, both decidedly right-of-center on ecclesiastical issues, comment on this, so put to rest any accusations of this being a ‘liberal’ complaint.

This is an issue from at least two directions. First, a bad process always leads to a bad decision, even if the actual outcome is a good one. This is moral theology 101 – the ends do not justify the means. So, either there was a better process in place (seems likely) and it was just poorly communicated (still part of the process), or it was a bad process from start to finish.

Second, and more importantly, bishops are not middle management, carrying out their tasks vicariously authorized by the pope – at least, in theory (theology) and in law. In practice however, and in popular Catholicism, this is exactly what they are. The problem here is, if this is what they are, then the Holy See is liable for lawsuit on abuse claims based on the idea that the pope is the supervisor of the bishops. The Vatican’s defense in recent cases was precisely based on Catholic ecclesiology that the bishops are not branch-managers of a global conglomerate. However, if they can be appointed and removed at will by the ‘central office’ then, legally, that is exactly what they are – and the Vatican itself becomes liable for their actions while in office.

With the case of Bishop William “Bill” of Toowoomba, which has generally been focused on a 2006 pastoral letter in which the bishop mused on creative alternatives to the priest shortage in his diocese:

Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of Eucharist for the identity, continuity and life of each parish community, we may well need to be much more open towards other options for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated. As has been discussed internationally, nationally and locally the ideas of:

  • ordaining married, single or widowed men who are chosen and endorsed by their local parish community;
  • welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry;
  • ordaining women, married or single;
  • recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders.

We remain committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas.

The obvious problem point is “ordaining women, married or single”. At least, it should be obvious. Since 1994 and the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the popular understanding is that “we cannot talk about ordaining women anymore”. This is not exactly accurate, as the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate, or as deaconesses, is not excluded and is still very much debated. (I am currently reading an interesting book by Bishop Gerhard Müller who argues that this document meant to exclude the diaconate as well, however).

Many people are not aware that the CDF, under Joseph Ratzinger, a year later issued a Responsum ad Dubium stating, “This teaching… has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” – probably because this claim was repudiated by various theologians expert in the infallible magisterium of the papacy as “not fitting the criterion” to make it such. Some of this was confusion between ex cathedra teaching (which this clearly is not) and the more ambiguous claim to infallibility because it is an exercise of the ordinary and universal magisterium. Much however is based on the argument that the exclusion of women from ordination is not a matter of faith or morals, but of ecclesiastical discipline, and therefore not eligible for “infallible status”.

The rest are valid and viable ideas, to differing degrees. Canon 277.1 obliges all clerics to “observe perfect and perpetual continence … and therefore are bound to celibacy”, but the same canon (277.3) allows the diocesan bishop to establish more specific norms or dispense with this requirement. This is used regularly for deacons, and for priests who are former Orthodox or Anglican priests or Lutheran pastors. Clearly, as a discipline, clerical celibacy is not part of the deposit of faith, is neither irreformable nor infallible, and a (theologically and pastorally, if not politically or prudently) reasonable option for discussion.

Ecumenical dialogue has as one of its goals the recognition of orders and ministries – we can certainly pray for the day when either we can honestly recognize in the orders of these other churches the full understanding of ordained ministry we see in our own, as we already do with the Orthodox and other ancient eastern Churches. And we hope for the day when those ministries are exercised together in full communion with the Catholic Church.

Fundamentally, though, the question comes down to this: If the Holy Father can “remove from the pastoral care of a diocese” bishops whose fault is less serious than shielding pedophile priests, why can we not do the same for those who do?

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