There are nearly 40,000 men ordained to serve permanently as deacons. When Pope Paul VI rejuvenated the order of deacons, he asked the obvious—or not so obvious—question: What about women deacons? Because there is no modern ruling on ordaining women as deacons, the question continues to circle the globe.
The question of restoring women to the diaconate is attracting serious scholarly and internal Church discussion. The International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented a study document about 10 years ago that said resolving the question was up to the “ministry of discernment” in the Church. The Chicago Tribune reported last year that Cardinal Francis George met with a pastor and his parishioners who have a woman candidate for the diaconate.
Scripture and the Diaconate
The bedrock of Scripture provides primary evidence for any ordained ministry. As the early Church grew and spread, eventually becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the people of God divided Church responsibilities and tasks. Some took leadership roles as overseers, some supported the overseers, and others represented the overseers in liturgical assemblies.
Now, the overseers came to be called bishops; their assistants, deacons; and, later, those who represented them, priests. In the Church today we well understand the role of bishops and priests, and we are increasingly learning more and more about the diaconate, including the fact that women were once included in it.
There is only one person in all of Scripture, Phoebe of Cenchreae, who is actually called diakonos—”deacon.” She appears in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (16:1—2, NSRV).
Early commentary recognizes Phoebe’s role in the early Church. Origen (c. 184—253) wrote: “This passage teaches by apostolic authority that women are also appointed in the ministry of the church.” Many others, including St. John Chrysostom (347—407) and Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393—45 7), as well as the anonymous Ambrosiaster and Pelagius, writing in the West in the fourth and fifth centuries, each recognized Phoebe as a deacon.
Paul points to women serving as deacons in another Scripture text: “Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things” (1 Tim 3:8—11).
Here, according to St. John Chrysostom— along with St. Clement of Alexandria, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Pelagius—Paul is speaking about women deacons. Even Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia (Turkey) between 392 and 428, agreed with John Chrysostom. But not everybody was happy about women deacons. Ambrosiaster was so strongly against them he said only heretics would believe it meant women deacons. Then, as now, arguments abounded. Some local councils forbade women as deacons, even while some bishops allowed them. The fact that local councils forbade women deacons gives us a very good understanding of the fact that women were indeed living and serving as deacons in various places in Christendom.
As the Church grew, eventually clearly splitting between the generally Greek-speaking East and the generally Latin-speaking West, the tradition of women as deacons began to fade away. Some bishops—mostly in the East, but many in the West as well—continued to have women ordained as deacons, mostly serving in monasteries of women.
Called to Witness
So, what about the women who were deacons? The second-century Didascalia Apostolorum records that the bishop is to “choose and appoint as deacons: a man for the performance of most things that are required, but a woman for the ministry of women.” Most everyone agrees that women deacons assisted at Baptisms (including anointing), instructed the newly baptized, and visited the sick. The specific admonition was, “Let a woman be devoted to the ministry of women, and a male deacon to the ministry of men.” Another part of the woman deacon’s job description was, “She is the servant of the bishop and no woman may have communication with him except through her.”
There were many women in the diaconate, and both Christian and non- Christian writers wrote about them. One famous woman who we know was ordained a deacon in the West was Queen Radegund, who left her king in the middle of the sixth century and demanded to be ordained a deacon by a French bishop. The bishop did just that, and Radegund went on to found a monastery of women.
There is undeniable evidence left on the tombstones of other women known in their communities as deacons. Among them, Sophia of Jerusalem is called a “second Phoebe” on her fourth-century tombstone, and Athanasia is called a deacon on her fifth-century tombstone in Delphi, Greece. Others include Anna, buried in Rome; Theodora in Gaul; and Ausonia in Dalmatia, all in the sixth century. And I could go on with literary evidence—there is plenty.
The fact that these women and many others were called deacons (or sometimes deaconesses) may not necessarily mean they were ordained as we understand the term today. While both the East and the West have longstanding records of ceremonies for the making of a woman deacon, academic arguments stretching to the present question whether women ever really received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Why? Well, to some, having women ordained as deacons introduces the prospect of women ordained as priests. However, the Church states that it does not have the authority (understood to have come from Christ) to ordain women as priests. So ordaining women as deacons—especially permanently— would have no impact on the teaching that women cannot be ordained as priests.
Digging into history to forestall women as deacons, as some might, brings interesting surprises. For example, the eighth-century liturgical book of Bishop Egbert of York includes a ritual for ordaining a woman—in the West—as deacon. In fact, Egbert’s ritual book says the same prayer can be used for either a male or a female deacon.
In the next century, the Gregorian ritual repeats the same prayer for either male or female deacons. Only by the 10th century does the Romano Germanic Pontifical have separate ordination prayers for each, and by the 13th century the oft-repeated prayers for women deacons are dropped from Western liturgical books, though the prayers remained in the East.
Whether the books dropped the prayers because they were no longer used, or the prayers were no longer used because of a change in the way ordination was viewed, is for historians and theologians to battle out. There are opposing conclusions.
Throughout Christian history, the Orthodox Churches, for the most part, retained monastic women deacons. In some places, individual priests and bishops sought to create orders of them for social services outside the monastic setting.
In 2004 the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Greece voted to restore at least monastic women as deacons and recorded serious discussion about women providing diaconal service to assist the larger Church. Also, today there are women serving as deacons in the Armenian Apostolic Church, which requires a deacon as an absolute necessity for the celebration of Eucharist to instruct the faithful, to assist the celebrant, and to read the Gospel.
The Diaconate Returns— with Questions
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council, 50 years ago, began to talk about deacons—male and female. The Council Fathers called for the diaconate, a “proper and permanent order” distinct from the priesthood, specifically described in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church: “At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.’ For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests, they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God” (29). Council discussions of the diaconate included bishops who rose to suggest including women. Both a Peruvian Franciscan bishop and an Italian bishop suggested women as deacons.
While Vatican II did not restore women to the diaconate, it did serve as catalyst for the rejuvenation of the order. When Paul VI issued his apostolic letter Ad pascendum in 1972, he reportedly asked about the possibility of ordaining women as deacons. International Theological Commission (ITC) member Cipriano Vagagini composed a study that concluded ordaining women to the diaconate would be in keeping with the constant tradition of the Church. That study never became an official ITC publication, although it did appear (in Italian) in 1974 in an academic journal.
The debate about women deacons fell to the background when women’s priestly ordination debates took center stage. It’s a long story, but ultimately, in 1994, Pope John Paul II put that question to rest, with a sense of finality. But the question of women as deacons remained.
From 1992 until 2002, the International Theological Commission sought to prepare a study document on the diaconate, which aimed at answering— one way or the other—the question of whether women could be ordained as deacons. A 17-page draft eventually grew to over 70 pages in its original French and had two findings. First, the women who served as deaconesses (the document does not use the term “woman deacon”) are not the same as the deacons of today. Second, the question of ordaining women as deacons is something for the Church’s “ministry of discernment” to determine. The door for restoring women to the diaconate was left wide open. That door has not closed.
Women as Deacons
The main thing to remember when thinking about the diaconate is the word service. The deacon is not a powerful individual, nor is the deacon a power broker. The vocation of the deacon is to serve. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “servants... for God’s sake.”
So, the operative question becomes whether the Church needs the ministry of women ordained to the diaconate. Should women rejoin the Order of Deacons? Just how would women fit in? That, in large part, is the biggest part of the question. Since the Church has not had women as deacons in many hundreds of years, it is hard for anyone to think about what would happen if a bishop called forth a woman to serve as an ordained deacon. We know what deacons do today—at least we know what deacons do in the liturgy—but do we really know what service the deacons provide the people of God?
Chances are we really do not know why we have deacons. We know that we see them from time to time in church, assisting the priest at Mass, proclaiming the Gospel, greeting the people. From time to time they seem to take the place of a priest—at a funeral or Baptism or wedding, for example. But there is so much more to the diaconate. The more than 17,000 deacons in the United States are married men, mostly, serving part-time or full- time in a variety of ministries.
Deacons are teachers, chancery officials, hospital and prison chaplains. Deacons run soup kitchens and homeless shelters. They visit the sick and homebound in their parishes. They teach catechetics. The list of services is literally endless, for they are the eyes and ears of the bishop, his right arm in dispensing charity.
Women ordained as deacons would be the same. We tend to focus on the altar service of the deacons, and altar service by women is something people still argue about. But the simple fact is that a bishop would not need to have women ordained as deacons in his diocese if he did not want to. What is important is that a bishop be allowed to have women ordained as deacons if he needs them.
Dr. Phyllis Zagano two newest Pau list Press books are Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future (with Gary Macy and William T. Ditewig) and Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions on the Diaconate. She began her study of women in the diaconate at the request of New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor, for whom she was a researcher. She has written on Eastern Catholics and on the Examen for Catholic Update.