In 1976, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its declaration Inter Insigniores, against the possibility of ordaining women to the ministerial priesthood. A commentary which accompanied the decree confessed to having passed over the issue of women deacons because "it is a question which must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas." In 1994, the Canon Law Society of America (CLSA) presented a report at its annual meeting in Montreal, entitled The Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate. Providing us with a historical overview of the female diaconate, and an account of the revival of the permanent diaconate in modern times, the CLSA report contends that "women have been ordained permanent deacons in the past, and it would be possible for the church to determine to do so again." Concerning priestly ordination for women, the Church was compelled to speak again, more definitively than before. In that same year, His Holiness Pope John Paul II issued his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, wherein he declared that, "in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren … that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."
There have been numerous works on the question of deaconesses in Catholic academia, some of them dating to the 17th century. Closer to the present, in 1986, Aimé Georges Martimort authored the book Deaconesses: An Historical Study, published by Ignatius, which according to some is "considered the last word on the subject …" (Homiletic and Pastoral Review). Even more recently, Dr Phyllis Zagano, PhD, wrote Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church, published in 2000 by Crossroad, took a more sympathetic view of deaconesses as a possibility in the present age than did Martimort. Encouraged to write the book while in the Naval Reserve by a chaplain, one Bishop John O'Connor, she later broached the subject in 1986 with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at a press conference. The prefect of the Congregation Doctrine of the Faith is said to have told her, "It is under study." (National Catholic Reporter, 04/13/2001)
The aforementioned exercise of the ordinary magisterium has not quelled demands in some quarters. At the same time, there has been a "sleeper" movement of sorts to consider the revival of a female diaconate. This gained attention recently, in the October 1, 2012 issue of the Jesuit magazine America, in which the retired Auxiliary Bishop of Rockville Centre, New York, the Most Reverend Emil Wcela, makes his case for expanding the diaconate to include women.
Ordaining women as deacons who have the necessary personal, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral qualities would give their indispensable role in the life of the church a new degree of official recognition, both of their ministry and of their direct connection to their diocesan bishop for assignments and faculties. Besides providing such women with the grace of the sacrament, ordination would enable them to exercise diaconal service in the teaching, sanctifying and governing functions of the church ...
This was met with a response by the eminent canonist Dr Edward N Peters, JD, JCD, who challenged the bishop's arguments, if only from the standpoint of canon law.
[I]t seems to me that the CDF excommunication for attempted female ordination (especially in light of the roll-back that excommunication has undergone over the last 150 years) should be taken as a sign that ecclesiastical authority regards female ordination, even to diaconate, with at best grave reservations …
[T]he current norms against women’s ordination (chiefly in Canon 1024) mean that any current attempts at ordaining women -- irrespective of women’s (alleged) ontological capacity for Orders -- are utterly null, that is, they are of no sacramental effect in the Church.
We have observed those who have turned to the diaconate as a means of furthering the official role of women in the Church, and who cite evidence from the past. Their opponents allege the intentions of certain elements within the Church membership, to use the diaconate to eventually justify Holy Orders (and therefore the presbyterate and episcopate) for women.
To the extent that the question of a female diaconate has been left open (as is suggested in the commentary accompanying Inter Insigniores), it is a subject for legitimate debate. Yet this author is concerned that the fear of "preconceived ideas" has already been realized -- dare it be said -- on both sides of the issue. On one hand, supporters of a female diaconate portray its historical model as essentially the same as its male equivalent, and see nothing to stand in the way of its revival, up to and including the reception of Holy Orders. Their opponents tend to downplay the historical significance of the female diaconate altogether, as little more than a lay apostolate, if more formalized than certain others during its tenure. What follows, then, is a brief historical sketch of women in the diaconate, with an emphasis on some of the most common misconceptions.
THE CHURCH OF THE APOSTLES
In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses Phoebe as, "a deaconess of the Church at Cenchrae ... a helper of many and of myself as well" (16:1). In 1 Timothy we find women included with the men in the criteria for various ministries: "The women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things" (1 Tim 3:11). Such inclusion is in light of that which appears elsewhere in the same letter: "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent" (I Tim 2:14).
In the early years of the Church, the Greek word diakonos (ministrae in Latin, ministry in English) initially implied a general service to the Church, while its reference to a specific function, whether male or female, developed gradually. Promoters of the ordination of women say that, because the word in the original Greek text, for both male and female deacons, is the same -- diakonos -- it would follow, by their line of reasoning, that the male and female deacons are essentially the same as well.
On the contrary, and with respect to the women, the masculine noun diakonos in ancient Greek is preceded by a feminine article, thus rendering a feminine usage, regardless of either the noun or the context. Further, there were other aspects of the female diaconate not found in the male equivalent. (It is for this reason alone that a distinction is justified in English between a "deacon" and a "deaconess.") It was not unheard of for the wife of a deacon to be called "deaconess" (although addressed in the present day by the title of "diakonissa") simply by virtue of her husband's status. For most of their history, deaconesses were chosen from among the ranks of virgins and widows. In later times, a minimum age would be set for deaconess-candidates, anywhere from forty to sixty years. Such limitations were not imposed upon male candidates.
The diaconate had its beginnings primarily as a ministry of service -- distributing goods to the poor, serving those in need, and so on -- and was not devoted to the liturgy or to preach, as were the Apostles (bishops) and elders (presbyters, or priests). That a woman was a point of contact for a particular community of believers (Tabitha in Acts 9:36; Mary the mother of John Mark in Acts 12:12; Lydia in Acts 16:14-15; Priscilla with her husband Aquila in Romans 16:3) did not denote any sort of ceremonial function; more likely that of a caretaker, or a source of hospitality or patronage. (One cannot help but notice how many Catholics today associate being "in charge" of anything in the Church with ordination, an official title, or other ceremonial trappings. Such was not a preoccupation of the early Church.)
By the end of the third century, the foundation was laid for distinctions in the work of the Church, between the roles of men and women, as well as matters temporal and spiritual. The diaconal office would eventually evolve beyond administration and service, into a distinct liturgical role. As it did, the offices of deacon and deaconess would continue to develop along separate lines.
THE POST-NICENE CHURCH
From the fourth through the ninth centuries, the diaconal office for women flourished, particularly in the Eastern Church. It is here that we must view the ancient world through the eyes of those who lived it.
The social norms of that time and place demanded very strict and separate roles for men and women. A man could not speak to a woman on the street, for example, without her father's or husband's permission. By now Christians could worship in public, of course, but the men and women stood in separate sections. It would have been scandalous for a priest to visit a sick woman to administer communion, especially in a pagan household or district. The catechumens were immersed in a pool for baptism and were unclothed, including the women. It would have been awkward for men to join them there, let alone in a house of public worship. And so, the demands of expediency and modesty required that women, as deaconesses, be called upon for the administration of pastoral care.
The role of the deaconess varied according to time and place, lending some difficulty to the development of a clear model for the present. As a case in point, we will examine and compare two documents of the period. One is the Didascalia Apostolorum, written about 300 AD. The other is the Apostolic Constitutions, written about 375 AD.
In the Didascalia, we find a description of the deaconess: "Those that please thee out of all the people thou shalt choose and appoint as deacons; a man for the performance of the most things that are required, but a woman for the ministry of women." She brought communion to those women who were ill, "for there are houses whither thou canst not send a deacon to the woman, on account of the heathen, but mayest send a deaconess." With respect to baptism, "let a woman deacon, as we have already said, anoint the woman. But let a man pronounce over them the invocation of divine Names in the water." (This was meant to follow the example of Christ, who chose John the Baptist as opposed to His mother Mary, to baptize Him.) Afterwards, the deaconess would "instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be kept unbroken in purity and holiness."
By the latter part of the fourth century, we see in the Constitutions that the deacon no longer baptized, as this was the task of the priest, nor did the deaconess instruct the women. But the deaconess did receive the women from the waters of baptism while the deacon received the men. The deaconess continued to visit the sick, "for sometimes he (the bishop) cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the woman, on account of unbelievers. Thou shalt therefore send the woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad." The deaconess would serve as an intermediary between women and Church officials. In public worship, she was a keeper of the doors for the women's entrance and an usher for the women's section of the assembly, so as to keep order and to prevent fraternization with the men.
The place of the deaconess in the ranks of orders varied as well. At one time or place, she ranked below the deacon and above the subdeacon, both male orders. At another, she would rank below the subdeacon, yet above the other minor male orders (such as acolyte, lector and cantor). At still another, she would rank below all male orders, yet above the other female orders (virgins, widows, et cetera). She might have been counted among the ranks of the clergy or (particularly in the West) the laity. Such variation adds to the general confusion by our standards.
Even in those instances when the deaconess received her office within the sanctuary, her service was always performed outside, as the sanctuary itself was the place of presiding. Most documents of the period are particularly adamant on this point. Eventually, distinct garments of liturgical vesture would evolve for the various orders. By the ninth century, in the Byzantine Church, both the deacon and the deaconess wore the stole, but it was the orarion, the diaconal stole, as opposed to the epitrakhelion, or priestly stole, which was of a different design. The deacon wore his orarion around one shoulder and under the other, while the deaconess wore hers around the neck with the ends hanging in front.
While the deacon had a clear and consistent liturgical role, whether baptizing or assisting the priest at the Eucharist, the deaconess did not. The orders of deacon and deaconess both continued to develop, but remained very distinct, with the deaconess being charged mainly with serving the needs of women.
THE DEACONESS IN THE WESTERN CHURCH
The female diaconate was not as common in the Western Church. It was virtually unknown in the earlier years, and made its initial appearance in Gaul in the fourth and fifth centuries, but the order of deaconess never gained a solid foothold in the West. Saint Hippolytus, a pope in the third century, and author of the Apostolic Traditions, expressly forbid their ordination, and the Didascalia reflects his influence. The First Council of Orange decreed in 441 that "deaconesses are absolutely not to be ordained; and if there are still any of them, let them bow their head under the benediction which is given to the congregation." The female diaconate continued to take hold in Gaul, until the Second Council of Orleans effectively suppressed the order in 533. The most likely reason for its early demise in the West was that it was a transplant from another setting, one where the Church had different needs, and where matters of order and discipline in the Church had developed differently. Curiously, at least one vestige of the office has survived in the West until modern times. In the Carthusian order of nuns, the traditional ceremony of profession includes the bestowal of the stole and maniple by the bishop.
THE SECOND MILLENNIUM AND BEYOND
By the 11th or 12th century, the female diaconate in the Eastern Church reached its near demise. The acceptance of infant baptism, the rise of communities of religious women devoted to prayer and service, these and other factors may have contributed to the trend. Still, the practice continued for some time of the leader in a community of women being made a deaconess, so that she could lead the divine office, read the Gospel, and administer Communion to her sisters when no bishop, priest, or deacon was available.
Since the late 19th century, the Orthodox churches (with whom Catholicism shares the essentials of the Faith) have witnessed a revival of the deaconess; sporadically at first, but more steadily in recent years. In the early part of the 20th century, the Greek Orthodox have used them in the absence of a priest, where they read the Gospel and administer Communion. Still, they are considered part of the laity and roughly equivalent to a parish assistant, even though the practice of monastic deaconesses has also prevailed among them for some time. Meanwhile, the office has also been revived in the present day among the Antiochian, Armenian, Russian, and Syrian Orthodox. Even as the revival continues officially, however, there remains much disagreement within Orthodox circles, especially the application thereto of the term "ordination" (cheirotonia), and the confusion that may arise, as they along with the Catholic Church have a valid sacramental priesthood, one that is limited to males.
THE QUESTION OF ORDINATION
At the heart of the matter of a female diaconate, then, is the question of whether the deaconess would be ordained in the sense that we understand the term. The teaching of the Church notwithstanding, we have seen that the term has been applied to deaconesses at the height of their service, and proponents of the ordination of women are quick to point this out. Indeed, it was during the proliferation of the female diaconate, that a distinction arose between ordination (in Greek, chierotonia, for bishops, priests, deacons and deaconesses) and institution (cheirotesia, for the lesser orders). The Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 313 held that deaconesses need not necessarily have been ordained, and the Didascalia did not provide a ritual for it. On the other hand, the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 expressly provided for a ceremony of the laying on of hands and ordination for them. This is found in the Apostolic Constitutions, as well as later Church orders, since by the end of the fourth century, the term cheirotonia was used almost exclusively in the case of the deaconess.
There are two considerations in shedding light on this question. One is the sacraments themselves as they would have been understood at the time. The other is the authoritative writings of the councils and the Fathers of the Church during the period in question, as they understood the place of the deaconess in relation to the sacramental priesthood.
Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that it was Christ Himself who instituted the seven Sacraments, and who left them to His Church from the beginning, as a provision for sanctifying grace. But it would be over a millennium before an exact inventory had been made. While most of the early Fathers mention them in their writings, they did not attempt to distinguish between Sacraments (signs of grace) and sacramentals (merely signs). Such a broad application of the term continued into the Middle Ages, during which time the writings of Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas gave precision to its theology. The final list of seven was formally recognized by the Council of Florence in 1439, and defined as a matter of faith by the Council of Trent in 1547.
We also know that, whatever the variations in the practice or status of the female diaconate, women could never legitimately aspire to the priesthood. As important as the deaconess was to the service of the Church, the Apostolic Constitutions were mindful of the distinctions from their male counterparts. It is here that the parameters of diaconal service by women could not be clearer: "A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons, but only is to keep the doors and to minister to the presbyters in the baptizing of women on account of decency." The prayers of ordination for a deacon and deaconess usually differed slightly, one from the other; that of the deacon referring to the example of the Protomartyr Stephen, while that of the deaconess referring to Phoebe of Cenchrae. The prayers of the former would also include a petition that the recipient may go on to the priesthood or the episcopacy.
There were, of course, attempts by women to perform priestly rites throughout the history of Christendom. Many pagan and pre-Christian religions had priestesses. In the Christian realm itself there were numerous heterodox sects in the early centuries in which women had a prominent ceremonial role. One example was the Priscillians, condemned by the Council of Nimes in 394. But even as the office of deaconess was in its fullest flower, it was understood by this council and others, and stated time and time again, that women, by virtue of their sex, could not aspire to "the Levitical ministry," as it was an "innovation ... unknown until today."
In the fourth century, Epiphanius of Salamis addressed the problem of the Collyridian heresy, in which women offered sacrifices to Mary, the Mother of God. Writing in his Panarion, he also gives an analysis of the proper role of the deaconess: "They tell us that certain women come here from Thrace, from Arabia, make a loaf in the name of the Ever-Virgin, assemble together in one self-same place and carry out quite irregular actions in the name of the Blessed Virgin, undertaking to do something blasphemous and forbidden and performing in her name, by means of women, definitely priestly acts ... Never, anywhere, has any woman acted as priest for God, not even Eve; even after her fall she was never so audacious as to put her hand to an undertaking so impious as this; nor did any of her daughters after her ever do so ... (Mary) was not even entrusted with the bestowal of Baptism, since the Christ Himself was baptized not by her but by John ... Never has a woman been appointed amongst the bishops and priests." He also responded to claims that the daughters of Philip, who were understood to have exercised the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9), were honored as such by the sect. "Yes, but they did not exercise the priestly office. And it is true that there is the Order of Deaconess in the Church. But they are not permitted to act as priests or have anything to do with the Office ..." In other words, they did not share in the ministerial priesthood, that of Holy Orders.
Given the latitude with the terminology and the clear prohibition of women from priestly roles, we can surmise that the term "ordination" (cheirotonia) was applied more loosely (albeit consistently) in the first millennium than it would be today. Be that as it may, we can see that, throughout the history of the office, the deaconess did not receive Holy Orders upon her "ordination."
THE QUESTION OF ONTOLOGY
There are, among the seven Sacraments as defined by the Church, those with qualities that leave an indelible mark, and so are received only once. Holy Orders is one of them. The man who is ordained to the diaconate, presbyterate, and/or episcopate, is changed forever, at the level of his very being. The study of the nature of being is a branch of philosophy, in particular, metaphysics, known as ontology (from the Greek word meaning "being" or "that which is"). In her book Holy Saturday, Dr Zagano maintains the ontological equality of men and women.
That men and women are ontologically identical, that is, ontologically beyond sexuality in their substance while embracing sexuality in their accidents, argues even more strongly for the all-encompassing nature of God as reflected in Christ's human nature and, ultimately, in the whole body of Christ, the Church, which in and of itself reflects the complementarity that is the fullness of God. Hence, Christ could not ask his Church not to reflect his perfection: it is the Incarnation that argues the ontological equality of men and women.
Even as Zagano speaks at length about the distinction between being equal and being identical (that is, the same), this entire section of her argument reduces that very distinction to a sort of androgyny, as if our sexuality were merely a biological construct, to be employed or dispensed with at will (which is the aspiration of many who devote their lives to the pursuit of "gender studies"). In fact, while men and woman are equal in their humanity and their dignity, they are not the same; otherwise, there would be only one sex instead of two. That they are different yet still equal, underscores the complementary nature of their relationship to each other. This masculine/feminine symbiosis can be found in all of creation, from the relationship of God Himself to His people, to that of Christ and His Church, to that of men and women, to the very primal matter of the earth. A man and woman who enter into sacramental marriage do in fact become "one flesh," but not merely on a biological level. So too does a man become ontologically changed upon the receipt of the Sacrament of Holy Orders (which even here distinguishes him from a man who does not receive the sacrament), through which he is able to enter into a nuptial relationship -- a "marriage" of sorts -- with those under his spiritual care. A woman could not incur such a transformation, and therefore such a role in that relationship, through Holy Orders, anymore than she could undertake the masculine role through marriage. Her very being is not suited to that part of the complementary relationship, therefore she could not receive Holy Orders, therefore she could not receive the diaconate in the way as does a man, inasmuch as by so doing, the man is sharing in the ministerial priesthood, and by extension, that part of the relationship which requires his masculinity, thus, at the biological level, his being male.
Pending sufficient review of the historical and theological evidence at the official level, where its implications may be fully considered, it seems premature to anticipate any canonical framework whereby an office of deaconess would be established in the Catholic Church. The CLSA report spoke at length of the graces of the sacrament of Holy Orders ostensibly bestowed upon the woman deacon, and Zagano's presentation depends in large part upon the same. Given our understanding of the sacrament, entertaining such benefits serves no purpose, as women simply cannot receive Holy Orders. If both advocates and opponents of a female diaconate have one thing in common, it is the assumption that the office of deaconess is historically and irrevocably tied to the question of receiving this sacrament. As has been presented here, this is simply not the case. Any legitimate discussion of reviving the female diaconate, therefore, not only must not include provision for Holy Orders, it need not include provision for Holy Orders.
The classical definition of a "debate," where the burden of proof rests not with the status quo, but with the innovator, is a rule traditionally held dear in academia yet applied so rarely in the Church today. Our discoveries in the pages of history must be viewed in light of the tradition and teaching of the Church, whether we agree with them or not in the present, if for no other reason than that they were viewed in such a light in the past. We see women become caretakers of priestless parishes, and legitimately undertake responsibilities once most commonly reserved to priests. If we presume their service to be in the tradition of Tabitha and Priscilla, that same tradition need not confer a ceremonial or preaching role. Knowing this requires that we lay preconceptions aside, and let the evidence of history speak for itself. The reasons for re-instituting the female diaconate, then, would have to be as strong as for its suppression. The former is also no more likely to happen overnight than the latter.
To the extent that one is free to speculate, then, it is unlikely that the typical Catholic in the pew will find women dressed in stoles and dalmatics as the ordinary officiants at weddings and baptisms. It is more likely that the order of deaconess would be roughly equivalent to (if not the same as) what was once known in the West (and is still known in the East) as "minor orders" -- porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte; those steps of candidacy to Holy Orders, which in 1971 were revised in the Latin church as the installed ministries of acolyte and lector. A prelude to such a development may be found in the restoration of the consecration of virgins by Pope Paul VI in 1970, and the publication of Ordo consecrationis virginum. We know from history that deaconesses were often chosen from the ranks of women who offered their virginity to God for life. Whereas the role of women religious is in the context of community, could that of a female diaconate be more appropriate to the solitary life?
Be that as it may, if the tradition and teaching of the Church over two millennia is to be our guide, then, a diaconal order of women in the Catholic Church would (1) be separate and distinct from that of men, both by its inherent nature and its essential function, (2) exist primarily for the service to women, and (3) still leave the priesthood and episcopacy open only to men, as it has all along. The priest conducts his sacrificial duties in persona Christi; specifically, in the role of Christ as the Bridegroom in relation to the Bride, which is the Church, in that nuptial mystery which is the Eucharist. A society attuned to creation and the natural order thereof would understand this, whereas one accustomed to technology and the presumption to control its surroundings might not. Whatever our accomplishments in this life, we do not determine the order of creation; God does. In the words of His Son: "You have not chosen me. It is I who have chosen you."
Whether or not the office of deaconesses will be restored to the service of the Catholic Church once again, this writer presents the above for the consideration of the reader, and ultimately, the teaching authority of Mother Church.
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In addition to those sources referred to directly, the author has availed himself of the following:
Gryson, Roger, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1976)
Hanna, Elaine (recorded lecture), "Women and the Diaconate" (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1991)
Rand, Laurence, "Ordination of women to the Diaconate" (Communio: International Catholic Review, Winter 1981)
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(POSTSCRIPT: The above was originally published in the Arlington Catholic Herald in 1996, and included in the EWTN Online Library later that year. It has since been edited for clarity, updated in light of developments since its original release, and carefully reviewed by a research assistant with a masters in theology. -- DLA)