Can Women Be Deacons?
The Ordination of Women, Pt. II
Just recently, I came across a well-written entitled Catholic Women Deacons seeking to make a case for the restoration of the female diaconate. The author, a professor of Religious Studies, makes her case by drawing largely upon the historical evidence of deaconesses in the early Church and during the Patristic era.
The presence of a female diaconate in the church is a matter of historical fact. While it is clear that the role of deaconesses in previous times differs drastically from the role of deacons today, the question remains about the nature and status of their position—whether it was an ordained ministry or a celebrated and respected non-ordained position in Christian communities.
From my knowledge of church history, sacramental theology, and ecclesiology, particularly as it relates to the Latin and Greek traditions of the Church, the author is inquiring within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy. The position, in favor of a female diaconate, as far as I know, is legitimately an orthodox position; this does not mean, Catholics of good faith, cannot contradict this position. Admittedly, I do not fully embrace her view.
She makes the case quite well using history and theological tradition:
“The question of women deacons has been before the commission for at least 20 years. The original study on women deacons, requested by Pope Paul VI, was suppressed. While that document remains unpublished, an article published in Orientalia Christiana Periodica in 1974 by then-commission member Cipriano Vagaggini concluded that the ordination of women deacons in the early church was sacramental. What the church had done in the past, he suggested, the church may do again. Other scholars, before and after Vagaggini, have reached similar conclusions, but the current document only refers to the debate and strenuously avoids concluding that women ever received the sacrament of holy orders.”
“As time and practice accrued, women were ordained to the diaconate in rituals identical to those used to ordain men to the diaconate. The ordination ritual of the Apostolic Constitutions for women deacons, codified by the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (421) begins: “O bishop, you shall lay hands on her in the presence of the presbytery.” Perhaps the oldest known complete rite of ordination for women deacons, a mid-eighth century Byzantine manuscript known as Barbarini 336, requires that women be ordained by the bishop within the sanctuary, the proximity to the altar indicating the fact of a true ordination.”
“Echoing the Council of Trent, the commission finds that the majority theological opinion since the 12th century supports the sacramentality of the diaconate and says this finding must be considered in propositions regarding women deacons.”
“The study notes that the documents of the Second Vatican Council presuppose the sacramentality of both modes of the diaconate (permanent and transitional). It then devotes considerable space to distinguishing between how the priest acts in persona Christi capitis (“in the person of Christ, head [of the church]”) and a new term this document uses to describe how the deacon acts, in persona Christi servi (“in the person of Christ servant”).”
“As for the diaconate, the universally accepted theology of the diaconate shows the deacon acting in the name of Christ in his church, as opposed to in the person of Christ, head of the church.”
“In 1985 the late Basil Cardinal Hume, archbishop of Westminster and president of the episcopal conferences of Europe, told an Italian journal he would be very happy if the church decided to ordain women deacons. Women already exercise the diaconate, he said, and the diaconate is not part of the sacerdotal priesthood.”
- “St. Paul called Phoebe a deacon (not a deaconess) of the church at Cenechrae.” – presupposing this is a woman, though, the name is feminine.
“The church has given reasons why women, although ontologically equal to men, may not be ordained to the priesthood, but the judgment that women cannot be ordained priests does not apply to the question of whether women can be ordained deacons. Women are now called and have been called in the past to the diaconate. There are stronger arguments from Scripture, history, tradition and theology that women may be ordained deacons than that women may not be ordained deacons. Women have continually served the church in diaconal ministry, whether ordained to such service or not. The ordained ministry of service by women is necessary to the church.”
As is stated in the article, any answer to the question about a female diaconate must answer a series of questions. The author creates such a list for us: “1) What did women deacons do? 2) Were women deacons ever sacramentally ordained? 3) Does the ordained diaconate share in the sacrament of order? 4) Does the ordained diaconate share in the sacrament of order in such a way that it is part of the sacerdotal priesthood?”
Unless I am mistaken, the author is precisely correct that there is historical evidence that women were actually ordained as deacons, using the same, or very similar, formulas and prescriptions as used presently for the ordination to the diaconate. The attempt to gloss over this to preserve the integrity of an exclusively male priesthood is admirable in its intention, but intellectually dishonest.
Historically speaking, Eastern Christianity more often than the West made use of the female diaconate and had more women in the diaconal ministry, at least, until the ninth century. This would make much sense since the East is predominantly of Greek influence and biblically-speaking, at the time of Christ, many pagan religions had women priestesses and a greater respect for the idea of female prominence, at least, in this sense. In the twentieth century, Eastern Orthodoxy began to renew this practice by ordaining women to the diaconate starting in the 1950s (and perhaps still continuing – I’m not sure), but mainly in monastic, contemplative settings.
Personally, I am convinced theologically and historically of the author’s case. A side, but tangent note, I am quietly a supporter, even if limited, of married priests. I understand wholly and entirely the Church’s reasoning for celibacy and I believe that it is admirable and will be the case until such a time the Holy Spirit deems otherwise through the Magisterium. I love the theological richness of the married priests in the East and their wives called “presbyteras” not because they are thought to be female priests, but rather their vocation to marriage has called them to be “one flesh” with their husband (who is a priest) and has caused them to accept, as it were, a richer call, as was the original woman in Genesis, to be a “helpmate” to her husband in his priestly ministry. Again, this is a matter of theological opinion in regard to discipline. I just happen to be a huge fan of the earlier tradition preceding priestly celibacy, which I believe is a wonderful tradition as well. I think the former, however, would contribute in the short-term to our ongoing dialogue with both the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants.
As it happens, however, I am not sure a transition to a married priesthood should be welcomed so swiftly. Quite apart from what seems to be historically the case, it seems that the role and function of deacons have changed since the Patristic era and I don’t think considering the tasks now assigned to the diaconate that it would be appropriate to restore a female diaconate. In terms of pastoral prudence, it would produce quite a bit of confusion among the laity and may raise false hopes that it is one step in the direction of women becoming priests.
Dare I say, the Church, in my view, should make the prudential judgment even if it is theologically permissible not to do it at this point in history because it could cause a tremendous crisis in the Church while we are in an age struggling with issues of masculinity, femininity, sexuality, and gender roles—and as much as I hate to admit it, our struggle with these issues, may be reason enough to not allow married men to pursue the priesthood in the Latin rite.