What are the reasons the Catholic Church might, or might not, ordain women in the clerical rank of deacon? (Almost all Q and A topics are posted by our online audience, but The Guy decided to pose this timely question himself.)
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Catholicism’s long-simmering discussion about whether to ordain women into the clerical ranks as “permanent deacons” took a dramatic turn May 12 when Pope Francis said he’ll form a commission to study the issue. His promise came during seemingly off-the-cuff answers to questions during a Rome session with the International Union of Superiors General, whose members lead nearly 500,000 nuns and sisters in religious orders.
Without doubt, female deacons would be a major change. Liberals hope — and conservatives fear — that permitting women to be deacons would be a step toward allowing female priests. However, that’s a distant prospect if not an impossibility considering Pope John Paul II’s absolute prohibition in his 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.”
To explain that term “permanent diaconate”: The order of deacons in the early church gradually dwindled over centuries so that eventually ordination as a “deacon” became a mere stepping-stone for men on the path to priesthood. (That usage occurs in Anglican and Episcopal churches. Lutheran deacons, male and female, fill a permanent office, not a temporary one. Baptists use the deacon title for lay members who govern congregations with the pastor.)
Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) restored the “permanent diaconate” as a third, separate and ongoing ministerial order in its own right that is subordinate to priests and bishops. Particularly in North America, which has half the world total, such deacons help ameliorate the shortage of priests.
Just one day after Francis’ comment, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi hastened to dampen speculation: “The pope did not say that he had any intention of introducing ordination for female deacons, much less priestly ordination for women.” True, Francis stated no support on deacons, but he didn’t rule out the idea, either. Rather, he cautiously noted that the role and status of female deacons or “deaconesses” in early church history “was a bit obscure” and the church should “clarify” matters.
That echoed an elaborate historical study of the office of deacons (females included) issued in 2002 by the church’s International Theological Commission. This complex text, complete with 336 footnotes, is the essential starting point for serious discussion: www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_
pro_05072004_diaconate_en.html. This study concluded that the “deaconesses” in the early church “were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons” who were male, and it remains for the church “to pronounce authoritatively” on whether to ordain modern-day females.
Francis has spoken about enhancing the role of women in church decision-making. In theory, many leadership, administrative and advisory positions traditionally filled by priests are open right now to lay women and sisters without needing ordination as deacons. Many such posts require no theological study. But change has been snail-slow.
Today’s “permanent” deacons must be “mature” (above age 35) and can be married, though if their wives die they are celibate and cannot remarry. The “transitional” or priests-in-preparation deacons and “permanent” deacons fill the same ministerial roles commonly associated with priests, for example presiding at baptisms, weddings, and funerals, or administering charity or church finances. But they cannot consecrate the bread and wine at Mass or administer the sacrament of Penance.
Turning to the history that furrowed Francis’ brow: The traditional understanding is that the earliest church established the office of deacon when seven men were chosen (Acts 6:1-6) to “serve at tables” and, by extension, handle charity and money, so the apostles could focus on evangelism. Paul’s New Testament letter to the Philippians (1:1) greets the “deacons,” sometimes translated as “ministers.”
In Romans 16:1, Paul applied that identical Greek word to a woman, Phoebe, rendered in various English translations as “deacon,” “deaconess,” “minister,” “leader,” or a more generic “servant.” The 2002 study document said it’s uncertain whether that designated “the specific function of a ‘deacon’,” but Phoebe at least “exercised a recognized service” in the church.
“The Catholic Study Bible” (3rd edition, 2011) says the titles in Romans and Philippians “seem to represent an earlier stage of development of the office” that by the later 1 Timothy 3:8-13 “has become an established official in the local church.” The Timothy passage mentions “women” but the 2002 study said it’s unclear whether that meant women deacons, or wives of male deacons, or perhaps widows who had special status in the church.
Christianity’s first martyrs recorded after biblical times (not by name) were two deaconesses whose torture was noted in an A.D. 112 letter from Governor Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan. But what status and function did these and later deaconesses have in the church’s first centuries?
Turning again to the 2002 study, church documents indicate women deacons were “officially ‘instituted'” but “not ‘ordained.” Yet one, but only one, important church text recorded that women were ordained by the laying on of hands just as occurred with priests. The women’s role was largely charity work rather than participation in the Mass, and instruction and home visiting among women. Also, in those times the naked bodies of adult converts were anointed before baptisms by full immersion, so involvement of female deacons preserved propriety. Would such precedents restrict 21st Century women deacons?
Modern Eastern Orthodoxy has discussed this question, not surprising because in the ancient church women deaconesses were far more common in the East than the Latin West and several are saints listed on the liturgical calendar. Restoration of women deacons was on the agenda for the Russian Orthodox Council that was cut short by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. A series of international Orthodox theology conferences since 1976 pondered this. In 2004 the bishops of the Church of Greece opened the ministry of deacon to women for missionary, educational, and charitable purposes.