Pope Francis and the Matter of Female Deacons [Updated]

Why must we continually revisit matters that have been addressed in detail and are, in many ways, already set to rest in terms of magisterial teaching?

Does Pope Francis have any idea of the needless can of worms he opened up with his statement earlier today, made to a gathering of superiors general of women religious communities, that the issue of female deacons should be revisited and possibly studied by a “commission”? Apparently Francis, as reported by CWR’s Catherine Harmon, once had a conversation with a professor about the topic, but he admits he has no answer for the question: “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 am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”

“I accept,” the pope said later. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”

As Catherine noted—and as many knowledgeable Catholics already know—the issue has been discussed. At length. In 2002, the International Theological Commission concluded a five-year study of the question of women deacons, initiated at the request of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That study states, remarking on the role of deaconesses in the early Church:

Deaconesses should carry out the anointing of women in the rite of baptism, instruct women neophytes, and visit the women faithful, especially the sick, in their homes. They were forbidden to confer baptism themselves, or to play a part in the Eucharistic offering (DA 3, 12, 1-4). The deaconesses had supplanted the widows. The bishop may still institute widows, but they should not either teach or administer baptism (to women), but only pray (DA 3, 5, 1-3, 6, 2). …

The deaconesses were named before the sub-deacon who, in his turn, received a cheirotonia like the deacon (CA 8, 21), while the virgins and widows could not be “ordained” (8, 24-25). The Constitutiones insist that the deaconesses should have no liturgical function (3, 9, 1-2), but should devote themselves to their function in the community which was “service to the women” (CA 3, 16, 1) and as intermediaries between women and the bishop. It is still stated that they represent the Holy Spirit, but they “do nothing without the deacon” (CA 2, 26, 6). They should stand at the women’s entrances in the assemblies (2, 57, 10). Their functions are summed up as follows: “The deaconess does not bless, and she does not fulfil any of the things that priests and deacons do, but she looks after the doors and attends the priests during the baptism of women, for the sake of decency” (CA 8, 28, 6). …

This is echoed by the almost contemporary observation of Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion, in around 375: “There is certainly in the Church the order of deaconesses, but this does not exist to exercise the functions of a priest, nor are they to have any undertaking committed to them, but for the decency of the feminine sex at the time of baptism.” A law of Theodosius of 21 June 390, revoked on 23 August of the same year, fixed the age for admission to the ministry of deaconesses at 60. The Council of Chalcedon (can. 15) reduced the age to 40, forbidding them subsequent marriage.=

Even in the fourth century the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns. At that time the woman in charge of a monastic community of women was called a deaconess, as is testified by Gregory of Nyssa among others. Ordained abbesses of the monasteries of women, the deaconesses wore the maforion, or veil of perfection. Until the sixth century they still attended women in the baptismal pool and for the anointing. Although they did not serve at the altar, they could distribute communion to sick women. When the practice of anointing the whole body at baptism was abandoned, deaconesses were simply consecrated virgins who had taken the vow of chastity. They lived either in monasteries or at home. The condition for admission was virginity or widowhood and their activity consisted of charitable and health-related assistance to women.

And, in a key conclusion: “The present historical overview shows that a ministry of deaconesses did indeed exist, and that this developed unevenly in the different parts of the Church. It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate.” And, at the very end of the document:

1. The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons;

2. The unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the Magisterium

In other words, the 42,679 word document concludes that 1) deaconesses in the early Church were not participating in some form of holy orders, 2) nor were they even equivalent to deacons. But, of course, many of those pushing for deaconesses today are doing so for the sole purpose of having leverage for the ordination of women to the priesthood.

The studies and findings of the ITC, of course, is of little interest to those invested in the ordination of women, as indicated for example in a National Catholic Reporter article titled “Francis’ female deacon commission brings hope, caution”. The piece quotes the Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, who brought up the topic at the Synod of Bishops last fall: “I’m happy that the pope is seeing it’s appropriate to move this way to study this issue more completely. I certainly believe it needs to be studied in the church and I look forward to seeing how he will set up this commission and how it will be described and who’s part of it and the fruit of its work.” The “Francis effect”, apparently, means that anything and everything prior to 2013 is up for grabs. Why worry about an exhaustive five-year study from 14 years ago when we can have another commission! After all, as Francis likes to remind us, the Holy Spirit is full of surprises, which apparently means the Holy Spirit is also not too concerned about what has gone before, or the reasons for it.

The NCReporter article makes mention of the ITC study, saying:

The International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith discussed women deacons at a meeting in January 2002. The commission seemed to leave open the question of women deacons, saying that “in light of present historical-theological research,” there is a need for “discernment about what the Lord has established for the church.”

But that is not exactly what the study said. The full quote is:

In the light of these elements which have been set out in the present historico-theological research document, it pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.

However, when there is just a sliver of hope, which might open the door a crack, which in turn can start a small move toward the ordination of women, the usual suspects will construct an entire narrative out of curious papal remark. As Cardinal Müller, who served on the ITL in 2002, noted in a January 2002 interview with ZENIT regarding the matter of women and the deaconate:

Contrary to what many think, the Pope is not the owner of the Church or absolute sovereign of her doctrine. He is only entrusted with safeguarding Revelation and its authentic interpretation.

Keeping the Church´s faith in mind, which is expressed in its dogmatic and liturgical practice, it is all together impossible for the Pope to intervene in the substance of the sacraments, to which the question of the legitimate receiving subject of the sacrament of orders essentially belongs.

It’s notable that Cardinal Müller also stated:

What women accomplish today as professors of religion, professors of theology, pastoral agents, and also in unremunerated activities in the communities goes far beyond what the deaconesses of the early Church did.

The re-establishment of the former ministry of the deaconesses would only be an amusing anachronism. On the contrary, the Council has given guidelines for the future for the collaboration of the laity in Chapter 4 of the constitution “Lumen Gentium” — unfortunately, not much studied.

Which brings me back to the Holy Father. Why did he say what he did? If he truly is oblivious to the 2002 ITL study and all that has already gone into this topic, then one has to wonder about how prepared and studied he actually is. If he really thinks that this topic needs to be revisited, does he not see how unnecessary and confusing it is, and how essential time and effort would be far better spent on both emphasizing the wonderful and vital role of religious life and the dynamic and grace-filled vocation of the laity? If he said what he did just as an off-the-cuff statement, does he not see how unhelpful it really is, and how it only provides fodder for those who would, ironically, undermine both the authority of the Church and the unique role of the ministerial priesthood?

Finally, if I may, Francis’ comment about having discussed this matters years ago with a professor is perhaps more revealing than it initially appears. I also had conversations with professors about these and related matters; I also, despite not being a professional theologian or a priest/bishop, am well aware of what the ITC has studied over the years, not to mention what the CDF has stated about a whole host of questions in recent decades. Why must we continually revisit matters that have been addressed in detail and are, in many ways, already set to rest in terms of magisterial teaching? Why not recognize that even if the Church revived a female deaconate today, it would cause far more confusion and dissent than it would anything else? Rather than invest more time and effort into such matters, why not zero in on the real and substantial challenges faced by the Church in 2016?

Yes, the Holy Spirit is full of surprises, but being surprised is not the same thing as being confused. 

UPDATE (May 13, 2016): Various outlets have now posted the entire Q&A with Pope Francis at the meeting with the International Union of Superiors. Below is the text, from ZENIT (which has posted the official Vatican translation), which mentions deaconesses.

The role of consecrated women in the Church
Consecrated women already do much work with the poor and the marginalised, they teach catechism, they accompany the sick and dying, they distribute the communion, in many countries they lead common prayers in the absence of priests and in those circumstances they pronounce the homily. In the Church there is the office of the permanent diaconate, but it is open only to men, married or not. What prevents the Church from including women among permanent deacons, as was the case in the primitive Church? Why not constitute an official commission to study the matter? Can you give an example of where you see the possibility of better integration of women and consecrated women in the life of the Church?

Pope Francis
This question goes in the direction of “doing”: consecrated women already do much work with the poor, they do many things … “doing”. And it touches on the problem of the permanent diaconate. Some might say that the “permanent deaconesses” in the life of the Church are mothers-in-law [laughter]. In effect this exists in antiquity: there was a beginning. …I remember that it was a theme I was quite interested in when I came to Rome for meetings, and I stayed at the Domus Paolo VI; there was a good Syrian theologian there, who had produced a critical edition and translation of the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian. One day I asked him about this, and he explained to me that in the early times of the Church there were some “deaconesses”. But what were these deaconesses? Were they ordained or not? The Council of Chalcedon (451) speaks about this but it is somewhat obscure. What was the role of deaconesses in those times? It seems – I was told by this man, who is now dead but who was a good professor, wise and erudite – it seems that the role of the deaconesses was to help in the baptism of women, their immersion; they baptised them for the sake of decorum, and also to anoint the body of women, in baptism. And another curious thing: when there was a judgement on a marriage because a husband hit his wife and she went to the bishop to complain, deaconesses were responsible for inspecting the bruises left on the woman’s body from her husband’s blows, and for informing the bishop. This, I remember. There are various publications on the diaconate in the Church, but it is not clear how it was. I think I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to some studies on this theme, because I have answered you only on the basis of what I heard from this priest, who was an erudite and able researcher, on the permanent diaconate. In addition, I would like to constitute an official commission to study the question: I think it will be good for the Church to clarify this point, I agree, and I will speak so as to do something of this type.

Then you say: “We agree with you, Holy Father, that you have on several occasions raised the issue of the need for a more incisive role for women in decision-making roles in the Church”. This is clear. “Can you give me an example of where you see the possibility of better integration of women and consecrated women in the life of the Church?”. I will say something that comes after, because I have seen that there is a general question. In the consultations of the Congregation for men and women religious, in the assemblies, women religious must be present: this is certain. Another thing: better integration. At the moment concrete examples do not come to mind, but there is always what I said earlier: seeking the judgement of the consecrated women, because women see things with an originality that is different to that of men, and this enriches, both in consultation and decision-making, and in practice.

These works that you carry out with the poor, the marginalised, teaching catechesis, accompanying the sick and the dying, are very “maternal” tasks, where the maternity of the Church is expressed the most. But there are men who do the same, and well: consecrated men, hospital orders … and this is important.

So, with regard to the diaconate, yes, I agree and it seems to me it would be useful to have a commission to clarify this well, especially with regard to the early times of the Church.

With regard to better integration, I repeat what I said earlier.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.