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Deaconesses? Sure. ‘Women Deacons’? Not So Fast.

“You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

This trope from the 1987 film The Princess Bride comes to mind whenever I think of the push from some Catholics for the ordination of “women deacons.” Women deacons? They keep using that phrase, but I do not think it means what they think it means.

When it comes to the subject of women’s ordination, old hobby horses seem to die hard. Ever since Pope St. John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, which made clear that the “woman priest” is an impossibility, the runner-up has been the “woman deacon.” Despite the International Theological Commission’s 2002 document on the diaconate (see sidebar p. xx)—which concluded there was no pure and simple equivalency between the order of deaconess and the order of deacon—some Catholics still claim that the Church ought to “restore” the long-lost office of women as deacons.

To be clear, once upon a time the Church had “deaconesses”; but no evidence exists to support the idea that men and women once participated in a single order of diaconate.

What’s the difference? The Church has always understood the order of diaconate to be of indisputable apostolic origin, while the order of deaconess could make no such claim. Rather, the deaconess—like the now-retired order of “subdeacon” in the Latin Church—is of ecclesiastical origin. The post-apostolic Church—not the Apostles—created the order. In this sense, then, the Church’s long-held distinction between major and minor orders would clearly place deacons as a major order and deaconesses as a minor one.

Indeed, deaconesses are apparently not to be found in the whole of the Western Church throughout its first 500 years. This means that, while the deacon participates in the sacrament of holy orders, the now-defunct order of deaconess did not.

Deaconesses became more prevalent in the East in those first 500 years largely because of the socio-cultural landscape: Deaconesses helped preserve the modesty of women at baptism and assisted women in the assembly during liturgies in which males and females sat separately. They performed other works of charity on behalf of women in the community, works that for the sake of propriety were better accomplished by women.

Like the subdeacon, the faithful deaconess could at most claim status as a valuable sacramental of the Church. But she could not claim a participation in the sacrament of holy orders.

Without going further into the theology of the diaconate (though much wonderful material exists in this arena—see the sidebar of additional resources on p. xx), let’s instead unpack the terminology associated with this debate. Because of the radical post-Vatican II shift in the centuries-old structure of “orders” in the Church, our modern eyes and ears can no longer easily conceive of the historical context associated with terms such as minor orders and major orders, what it means to be a cleric, and what it means to be ordained.

I think this is why so many Catholics seem persuaded by the contemporary claims that women deacons of the past were ordained and were clerics and therefore should be permitted once again to be ordained clerics alongside their presumed male-deacon counterparts.

The way it was

The Church’s long and varied history regarding clerics and orders of all kinds may be unfamiliar to many Catholics. We may think the difference between layman and cleric is identical to the difference between “ordained” and “non-ordained,” and that ordained means “receiving the sacrament of holy orders.” But things were not always that simple.

For example, if we had been part of the Catholic landscape just a few generations ago, we would have been in a Church in which men became clerics before they were ordained. The rite of first tonsure marked the beginning of life as a cleric. Then came ordinations to four minor orders—porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte—that paved the way for a man to receive the major orders: subdeacon, deacon, and priest.

Even within this framework, it was understood that the sacrament of holy orders involved the orders of apostolic origin: deacon, priest, and bishop. The presence of subdeacon among the “major orders” arose largely because of the subdeacon’s requirement of celibacy and his direct service at the altar.

It is important to keep all this in mind when discussing “women deacons,” because some assume the ecclesiastical order of “deaconesses” to be part of the sacrament of holy orders merely because deaconesses were once “ordained” and were sometimes ranked alongside those counted among the clergy in the Church.

My response to such claims is “So?” Historically, innumerable men of the Church were known as clerics without ever having been ordained, and innumerable men of the Church were “ordained” without ever having received the sacrament of holy orders.

The historical evidence points us toward the conclusion reached in 2002 by the International Theological Commission: Deaconesses and deacons were different. Thus a woman ordained into the minor order of deaconess fifteen centuries ago ought not to be confused with a man participating in the sacrament of holy orders as a deacon today.

The way it is

Around the time I was preparing for my First Communion in 1972, things changed. Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam (Aug. 15, 1972), “by which the discipline of first tonsure, minor orders, and subdiaconate in the Latin Church is reformed,” changed the lexicon we use to describe clergy, ordination, and orders in the Catholic Church. I would assert that we have not yet come to realize the transformative significance of this change.

Among its thirteen articles, the motu proprio abolished first tonsure and decreed that entrance into the clerical state “is joined to the diaconate.” Further, the term minor orders would be replaced by the term ministries, and the ministries in the Church would be reduced to reader and acolyte, restructured to include the functions of subdeacon and now open to lay men. Readers and acolytes would also be “instituted,” not ordained (since they were no longer minor “orders”).

(Remember that the “ministries” of reader and acolyte are open only to men and are not to be confused with the men and women—and girls and boys—who serve your parish regularly as “lectors” and “servers.” Such lay liturgical volunteers serve in the absence of such men duly instituted to the ministry of reader and acolyte.)

That change forty-two years ago marked the first time after centuries of Catholic history that the terms cleric and ordained are aligned exclusively with the reception of the sacrament of holy orders.

This, too, is why there is a push by some in the Church to anchor the “deaconess” to the male diaconate. If women cannot be priests, the only remaining foothold to being an “ordained cleric” in the Church is the diaconate. Further, only clerics can exercise “governance” in the Church (see Code of Canon Law, can. 274; cf. Lumen Gentium 21). Therefore, only a participation in the diaconate of apostolic origin affords women a potential identity as an ordained cleric who can exercise the kind of authority in the Church that arises from the sacrament of holy orders instituted by Christ himself.

This is why there is no push toward merely restoring an order of “deaconesses” in the Church, even if it’s proved or conceded that deaconesses were once ordained and ranked alongside the male clergy. It is only by having women claim a participation in the male diaconate that women could realize a direct participation in the power of “governance” outlined in canon law.

Also, if the Church were to permit women to receive the first degree of the sacrament of holy orders (diaconate), it would necessarily raise the issue of why women can’t receive the next degree of the sacrament—the priesthood. I’m convinced this is precisely the kind of pressure many who promote “women deacons” would like to see brought to bear on the magisterium.

One obvious objection to “women deacons”

While this is an issue of great importance, and one I hope that the magisterium will clarify for the faithful, I would suggest that faithful Catholics need not be alarmed by claims that women were once “ordained” and listed among other “clerics” and “orders” in the Church. Until forty-two years ago, such terminology did not adhere solely to the sacrament of holy orders.

Another objection to the claim that deaconesses were women who received the sacrament of holy orders just as the deacons did is that the historical record yields a highly conspicuous absence: If women received the same sacrament as the men, why was there no corresponding formation and progression through the “minor orders” for women as there was for men?

Where is the historical evidence for women ordained as porters? Lectors? Exorcists? Acolytes? Or even subdeacons? Where are the ancient rites used to ordain women to the minor orders prior to their ordination as “women deacons”? Why has no evidence of such participation in these minor orders been produced?

I’d suggest that some “women deacon” advocates in the Church have little interest in this question precisely because their ultimate focus is not in merely “restoring” women’s past ecclesial roles in the Church. They wish to assert a new reality altogether: women as participants in the sacrament of holy orders. As a result, such advocates tend to paint a selective portrait of the historical evidence at hand, which can be of great confusion to the faithful.

Where the evidence is leading

This article can only scratch the surface of the rich and varied history of both deaconesses and the diaconate in the Church. We won’t be able to touch on the New Testament evidence, the emergence of the specific term deaconess, the terms used to describe wives of clerics, the association of deaconesses with the “widows” and the “abbesses” of the historical Church, etc. But we can conclude with a brief consideration of how the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC) saw the state of the question in its 2002 document From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.

As noted in the sidebar, the ITC asserts that its research indicates that the deaconesses of history “were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.” As Catholics, we should view the findings of such a body of experts, headed by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, whose conclusions were published with the approval of the Apostolic See, strongly compelling.

I also find it interesting that, while the document acknowledges that the “sacramentality” of the diaconate is “taken for granted in the practice of the Church and in most documents of the magisterium,” the ITC suggest that this position “faces questions which need to be clarified more fully.” As a deacon ordained the year this document was published (2002), I’m intrigued to consider the complex history of this particular question, so well-articulated in the ITC document, while at the same time having based all I know about my diaconal identity on that identity being a participation in holy orders.

What if the presumption that the diaconate is part of the sacrament of holy orders were to change? How would that affect the desire for “women deacons”? Would proponents of “women deacons” today be satisfied with an authentic restoration of a minor order of “deaconesses”?

Integrity of the sacrament

Such questions bring us once again to the unicity—the oneness—of the three degrees of holy orders as bishop, priest, and deacon. If two of these three degrees of the sacrament cannot be administered to women, while at the same time there is a clear “ecclesial tradition” and teaching from the magisterium that these three degrees inseparably comprise the sacrament, then how can one truly consider the remaining degree (diaconate) open to women?

It would seem to me that the integrity of the whole sacrament rests upon the masculine identity of its recipients across all three degrees. The authors mentioned as resources for further reading provide some rich theological and anthropological observations about fatherhood and manhood to support a consistent requirement that only men receive all three degrees of holy orders.

Yet, as the ITC notes, we are all ultimately reliant upon the “ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.” Just as with women and the priesthood, so too with women and the diaconate: The authoritative and definitive voice of the magisterium will, God willing, someday resolve the question beyond dispute.

But the magisterium will do so in light of the evidence at hand, evidence that in my view continually points away from the possibility of women receiving the sacrament of holy orders as “women deacons.”

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