Let’s All Take a Breath about “Women Deacons”

Let’s All Take a Breath about “Women Deacons” May 12, 2016

Women deacons

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The National So-Called Catholic Reporter falls down in a paroxysm of joy. In their spasms they write:


Pope Francis has announced he will create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic church, signaling an historic openness to the possibility of ending the global institution’s practice of an all-male clergy.

Now, let’s get one thing straight here before people rush through the streets throwing confetti in the air; or plunging daggers into their chests and pitching themselves over the nearest cliff. What Pope Francis is talking about is the possibility—I emphasize possibility—of reviving the ancient order of deaconess; which no one, ever, thought of as female “clergy.” (At least, not in the sense that term is commonly understood today. More on that below, courtesy of the Catholic Encyclopedia.) So when you hear words like “ordain women,” or when you read breathless articles that “women deacons” will soon be serving in one and the same capacity as male deacons, your cow detector should be mooing at a loud pitch. This is the progressive Catholic media doing its typical panting routine.

Dear reader, I keep telling you that you can’t just read the headline and then reach for your confetti or your dagger. Buried deep within the article at So-Called is this:

The pope responded that he had spoken about the matter once some years ago with a “good, wise professor” who had studied the use of female deacons [i.e., Order of Deaconess] in the early centuries of the church. Francis said it remained unclear to him what role such deacons had.

“What were these female deacons?” the pontiff recalled asking the professor. “Did they have ordination or no?

“It was a bit obscure,” said Francis. “What was the role of the deaconess in that time?”

“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked aloud. “I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point [i.e., what role in the early church deaconesses had, and whether that constituted “ordination”]. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”

So all this means is that the pope is putting together a commission that will study what deaconesses did in the early Church. They shall query whether that was “ordination” or no. The pope seeks answers on an historical point. That is all. To find a greater role in the ministry of the Church for women, in keeping with early Church customs, would be welcome, particularly from a pope who has called for a “deep theology of women.” That would be great. We should all rejoice to see that. But “the ministry of the Church” is larger than the priesthood, so let’s not have street parties or fainting fits. Remember that the pope, in a story also reported by So-Called, has affirmed that women cannot be ordained.

And indeed the Catholic Encyclopedia gives us some useful information here:

The Apostolic Constitutions expressly attribute to [deaconesses] the duty of guarding the doors and maintaining order amongst those of their own sex in the church, and they also (II, c. 26) assign to them the office of acting as intermediaries between the clergy and the women of the congregation; but on the other hand, it is laid down (Const. Apost., VIII, 27) that “the deaconess gives no blessing, she fulfills no function of priest or deacon”, and there can be no doubt that the extravagances permitted in some places, especially in the churches of Syria and Asia, were in contravention of the canons generally accepted.

But So-Called goes on and on as though women priests are at the very door; and you can read it all if you like, but I would not advise it. The real story here is getting lost: Pope Francis is seeking ways to emphasize the dignity and the holiness of women, the indispensible role they play in the body of Christ; that their dignity and holiness is equal to the dignity and holiness of men. Women are not a footnote or an afterthought, a mere presence to be conceded. Women can be deaconesses, doctors of the Church, theology professors training priests. They are not less.

So I love the thought of bringing back the order of deaconess. But this is not about priesthood or ordination, and those who try to tell you that it is are selling you an agenda dressed up as elation or fear.


Update: Catholic News Service adds a further clarification. “Asked about deaconesses in the New Testament and the possibility of the modern church admitting women to the permanent diaconate, Pope Francis had said his understanding was that the women described as deaconesses in the Bible were not ordained like permanent deacons are. Mainly, he said, it appeared that they assisted with the baptism by immersion of other women and with the anointing of women.”

A good scholarly treatment on the subject is Deaconesses: An Historical Study, by Fr. Aime Georges Martimort.

The Vatican’s document on the subject can be found here.

A full transcript of the pope’s remarks can be found here.


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