We’ve been hearing a lot lately about women in the diaconate. This is a difficult issue that extends well beyond the question of Church discipline and “small-t tradition.” It touches on dogma, and if we get it wrong, we’ll have a theological disaster to clean up.
What would that disaster involve?
The diaconate is seen in Church teaching as a major order. Ancient tradition associates it with the Levitical priesthood, now recognized as an anticipation of the more perfect priesthood of the Christian presbytery and, as such, a participation in that reality. As such, it derives from, and participates in, the sacramental reality of the order of bishop, by which the fullness of the apostolic office is expressed and perpetuated in the life of the Church.
Now, the question of the ordination of women as priests or bishops is a settled matter, definitively judged by Pope St. John Paul II to fall outside the authority and discretion of the Church (Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 22 May 1994). But because deacons participate in the same sacrament as priests and bishops, it follows by the same logic that women can’t be ordained to the diaconate either. If they can, the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium concerning an essential quality of the sacrament of Holy Orders, the nature of cultic priesthood, and the very structure of the Church itself, identified by a recent pope in a definitively authoritative pronouncement, is, in fact, wrong.
The implications of that kind of error in the life of the Church are staggering. It calls into question the fundamental doctrines of the indefectibility of the Church and the infallibility of the Church and of the pope when, in a universal magisterial act, intending to teach on faith or morals what the faithful are, as Christians, bound to believe.
But weren’t there deaconesses in the early Church?
That said, no competent theologian or Church historian denies that, in the early Church, there were women called “deaconesses” who served the Church in some recognized capacity. But, the First Council of Nicaea in 325 explicitly stated, concerning deaconesses, that they were not ordained and were to be considered as belonging to the laity (Canon 19).
Deaconesses are mentioned widely in the patristic sources, but their use in the Church was limited, to be sure. At first, they were employed really as servants of the poor, distributing food and alms to widows and the needy. In fairness, we should note that this was a responsibility they held in common with male deacons, as indicated in Acts (6:1–7).
Eventually, deaconesses assumed other responsibilities. But, while they were ritual in nature, they weren’t the same responsibilities that fell to male deacons.
When Christianity was young, adult conversion and, thus, adult baptism, were common. A great proportion of any given congregation consisted of those who’d entered the Church as adults. But baptism, we should remember, literally means being “plunged under” or “drowned.” Baptism was a full-body ritual ablution in the early Church—a kind of “nuptial bath” and “spiritual re-birth” from the womb of Mother Church. It was a ceremony that involved removing one’s clothes so as to be bathed, dried off, anointed, and clothed as if for the first time.
To avoid scandal, deaconesses were employed in the baptismal ceremonies where female converts were involved. That way, for the sake of decency, the male deacon, priest, or bishop didn’t have to touch a naked woman descending into or emerging from the baptismal font, in any way that could give rise to scandal.
According to Epiphanius of Salamis (Against Heresies 78.13), deaconesses also assisted during the sacrament of Unction for similar reasons. The sacrament was preceded by an examination of the body of the person to be anointed, so, the deaconess would perform the examination before the presbyter anointed the sick person.
What else did deaconesses do?
Sacraments, remember, are liturgical events, so, in time, deaconesses also came to play a part in the Eucharistic Liturgy, to which all other sacramental liturgies are finally directed. Once again, however, deaconesses didn’t do the same thing as male deacons. Rather than assisting at the altar, deaconesses “guarded the doors” and kept order among the female members of the sex-segregated congregation.
The main and almost exclusive function of the deaconess, therefore, was to serve as a buffer between the clergy and women, even women being evangelized. Whenever a woman might be seen by a minister in an immodest state or touched in a way that transgressed societal standards of decency, which, at the time, were quite strict, deaconesses would be inserted between the action of the cleric and the woman receiving the ritual action.
Even so, deaconesses didn’t perform the essential sacrament. They simply created a distance between the ordained minister and any part of the woman’s body that would have to be touched in the performance of the sacrament’s ancillary ritual. When, for example, a woman was anointed after Baptism, the ordained minister still performed an initial anointing on her forehead, and only then remanded the Baptized to the deaconess who performed the remainder of the ritual over the rest of her body.
The anointing itself, as a sacramental act, was, to employ later terminology, “made valid” by the direct ministration of the sacramentally ordained minister who performed the first portion of the anointing ritual. The assistance given by the deaconess doesn’t bring the sacramental reality into being but merely completes the ritual action that surrounds that reality and expresses its deeper meaning.
In isolated cases, certain abuses did occur, of course. But when these isolated cases emerged—when, for example, deaconesses might have performed liturgical blessings—the Church corrected them, decisively.
The Apostolic Constitutions already made very clear, around the year 400, that deaconesses don’t bless people or objects, nor do they do anything else that priests or deacons do, but merely provide assistance to ordained ministers for the sake of decorum (3.16).
Beyond these facts, it’s not really clear what deaconesses were. In some case, they may have functioned as glorified sacristans.
Then, what exactly were deaconesses if they weren’t female deacons?
If deaconesses weren’t just female deacons, why were they consecrated to their station by bishops? Didn’t the bishop lay hands on them and invoke the Holy Spirit?
Sure, but that doesn’t mean they were ordained in the way we would use that term today. A similar action occurs at Confirmation, but a confirmand is still a layman. Today, monks and nuns are consecrated by a similar ritual blessing by bishops and abbots, but again, they’re not thereby ordained. Deacons and deaconesses were consecrated with different words, expressing different functions and different realities. Deaconesses, it seems, were a subset of the class of religiously consecrated women, like nuns.
So, yes, there were deaconesses in the early Church. They served an important function at the time in helping to avoid the appearance of scandal, protecting modesty, and preserving decorum. Women were consecrated to serve in this capacity, but the office of deaconess was really a subcategory of consecrated religious life for women. The Church taught clearly that the deaconess didn’t participate in Holy Orders—that she wasn’t a female deacon and, unlike a deacon, couldn’t bless or do anything else reserved to the ordained ministry.
Why does this question matter?
What’s at stake in the question of women and the deaconate is something very deep and far-reaching. The Church teaches that deacons participate in Holy Orders—that they have a share in the ministry entrusted by Christ to his apostles, manifest fully in the bishop. The deacon, like the priest, is ordered to the bishop, because his orders derive from those of the bishop, who delegates his priests and bishops to act in the sacramental sphere through his own priestly ministry.
The precise question being asked today is whether women could be ordained as deacons, exercising the same functions and possessing the same charism that male deacons exercise and possess. An affirmative response to that question would represent a radical departure from, and, in my estimation, a contradiction of, the constant teaching and tradition of the Church regarding the sacrament of Holy Orders and the nature of cultic priesthood.
If women could be ordained to the same diaconate to which men are ordained, it would mean that they could participate, sacramentally, in the cultic priesthood through the reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders. If so, then, in principle, they could be ordained as priests and bishops as well.
The Church has always taught, teaches now, and teaches definitively, that they can’t.