A Rose By Any Other Name

Author: David L. Alexander

A Rose By Any Other Name

The Ordination of Women to the Diaconate

by David L. Alexander

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1976 issued its declaration , against the possibility of ordaining women to the ministerial priesthood. A commentary which accompanied the decree confessed to having passed over the issue of women deacons because "it is a question which must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas." This past year, the Canon Law Society of America (CLSA) presented a report at its annual meeting in Montreal, entitled . Providing us with a historical overview of the female diaconate, and an account of the revival of the permanent diaconate in modern times, the CLSA report contends that "women have been ordained permanent deacons in the past, and it would be possible for the church to determine to do so again."

This report has emerged amidst increasing demands, on the part of some, for women in the priesthood. They have been met with further declarations by the Apostolic See against such a possibility. Some have turned to the diaconate as a means of furthering the official role of women in the Church, citing evidence of their use in the past. Their opponents allege the intentions of certain elements within the Church membership to use the diaconate to eventually justify Holy Orders (and therefore the presbyterate and episcopate) for women.

To the extent that the question of a female diaconate has been left open, it is a subject for legitimate debate. Yet this author is concerned that the fear of "preconceived ideas" has already been realized-dare it be said-on both sides of the issue. On one hand, supporters of a female diaconate portray its historical model as essentially the same as its male equivalent, and see nothing to stand in the way of its revival. Their opponents tend to downplay its significance altogether. What follows, then, is a brief historical sketch of women in the diaconate, with an emphasis on some of the most common misconceptions.

The Church of the Apostles

In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses Phoebe as, "a deaconess of the Church at Cenchrae ... a helper of many and of myself as well" (16:1). In 1 Timothy we find women included with the men in the criteria for various ministries: "The women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things" (1 Tim 3:11). Such inclusion is in light of that which appears elsewhere in the same letter: "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent" (I Tim 2:14).

In the Apostolic era, the Greek word ( in Latin, in English) initially implied a general service to the Church, while its reference to a specific function, whether male or female, developed gradually. Promoters of the ordination of women say that, because the word in the original Greek text, for both male and female deacons, is the same--it follows that the male and female deacons are essentially the same as well.

First of all, with respect to the women, the masculine noun in ancient Greek is preceded by a feminine article, thus rendering a feminine usage, regardless of either the noun or the context. Further, there were other aspects of the female diaconate not found in the male equivalent. It was not unheard of for the wife of a deacon to be called "deaconess" simply by virtue of her husband's status. For most of their history, deaconesses were chosen from among the ranks of virgins and widows. In later times, a minimum age would be set for deaconess-candidates, anywhere from forty to sixty years. Such limitations were not imposed upon male candidates.

The diaconate had its beginnings primarily as a ministry of service-waiting tables, distributing goods to the poor, serving those in need-and was not devoted to the liturgy or to preach, as were the Apostles (bishops) and elders (presbyters, or priests). That a woman was a point of contact for a particular community of believers (Tabitha in Acts 9:36; Mary the mother of John Mark in Acts 12:12; Lydia in Acts 16:14-15; Priscilla with her husband Aquila in Romans 16:3) did not denote any sort of ceremonial function; more likely that of a caretaker, or a source of hospitality or patronage. (One cannot help but notice how many Catholics today associate being "in charge" of anything in the Church with ordination, an official title or other ceremonial trappings. Such was not a preoccupation of the early Church.)

By the end of the third century, the foundation was laid for distinctions in the work of the Church, between the roles of men and women, as well as matters temporal and spiritual. The diaconal office would eventually evolve beyond administration and service, into a distinct liturgical role. As it did, the offices of deacon and deaconess would generally develop along separate lines.

The Post-Nicene Church

From the fourth through the ninth centuries, the diaconal office for women flourished, particularly in the Eastern Church.

The social norms of that time and place demanded very strict and separate roles for men and women. A man could not speak to a woman on the street, for example, without her father's or husband's permission. By now Christians could worship in public, of course, but the men and women stood in separate sections. It would have been scandalous for a priest to visit a sick woman to administer communion, especially in a pagan household or district. The catechumens were immersed in a pool for baptism and were unclothed, including the women. It would have been awkward for men to join them there, let alone in a house of public worship. And so, the demands of expediency and modesty required that women, as deaconesses, be called upon for the administration of pastoral care.

The use of the deaconess varied according to time and place, lending some difficulty to the development of a clear model for the present. As a case in point, we will examine and compare two documents of the period. One is the , written about 300 AD. The other is the , written about 375 AD.

In the , we find a description of the deaconess: "Those that please thee out of all the people thou shalt choose and appoint as deacons; a man for the performance of the most things that are required, but a woman for the ministry of women." She brought communion to those women who were ill, "for there are houses whither thou canst not send a deacon to the woman, on account of the heathen, but mayest send a deaconess." With respect to baptism, "let a woman deacon, as we have already said, anoint the woman. But let a man pronounce over them the invocation of divine Names in the water." (This was meant to follow the example of Christ, who chose John the Baptist as opposed to His mother Mary, to baptize Him.) Afterwards, the deaconess would "instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be kept unbroken in purity and holiness."

By the latter part of the fourth century, we see in the that the deacon no longer baptized, as this was the task of the priest, nor did the deaconess instruct the women. But the deaconess did receive the women from the waters of baptism while the deacon received the men. The deaconess continued to visit the sick, "for sometimes he (the bishop) cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the woman, on account of unbelievers. Thou shalt therefore send the woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad." The deaconess would serve as an intermediary between women and Church officials. In public worship, she was a keeper of the doors for the women's entrance and an usher for the women's section of the assembly, so as to keep order and to prevent fraternization with the men.

The place of the deaconess in the ranks of orders varied as well. At one time or place, she ranked below the deacon and above the subdeacon, both male orders. At another, she would rank below the subdeacon, yet above the other minor male orders (such as acolyte, rector and cantor). At still another, she would rank below all male orders, yet above the other female orders (virgins, widows, et cetera). She might have been counted among the ranks of the clergy or (particularly in the West) the laity. Such variation adds to the general confusion by our standards.

Even in those instances when the deaconess received her office within the sanctuary, her service was always performed outside, as the sanctuary itself was the place of presiding. Most documents of the period are particularly adamant on this point. Eventually, distinct garments of liturgical vesture would evolve for the various orders. By the ninth century, in the Byzantine Church, both the deacon and the deaconess wore the stole, but it was the , the diaconal stole, as opposed to the or priestly stole, which was of a different design. The deacon wore his around one shoulder and under the other, while the deaconess wore hers around the neck with the ends hanging in front.

While the deacon had a clear and consistent liturgical role, whether baptizing or assisting the priest at the Eucharist, the deaconess did not. The orders of deacon and deaconess both continued to develop, but remained very distinct, with the deaconess being charged mainly with serving the needs of women.

The Question of Ordination

At the heart of the matter of a female diaconate is the question of whether the deaconess was ordained. The teaching of the Church notwithstanding, the term appears to have been applied to deaconesses at the height of their service, and proponents of the ordination of women would be quick to point this out.

At this time, a distinction would arise between ordination (in Greek, , for bishops, priests, deacons and deaconesses) and institution (, for the lesser orders). The Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 313 held that deaconesses need not necessarily have been ordained, and the did not provide a ritual for it. On the other hand, the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 expressly provided for a ceremony of the laying on of hands and ordination for them. This is found in the , as well as later Church orders, since by the end of the fourth century, the term was used almost exclusively in the case of the deaconess.

There are two considerations in shedding light on this question. One is the sacraments themselves as they would have been understood at the time. The other is the authoritive writings of the councils and the Fathers of the Church during the period in question, as they understood the place of the deaconess in relation to the sacramental priesthood.

We know that it was Christ Himself who instituted the seven sacraments, and who left them to the Church from the beginning as a means of providing sanctifying grace. But it would be over a millennium before an exact inventory had been made. While most of the early Fathers mention them in their writings, they did not attempt to distinguish between the sacraments (signs of grace) and sacramentals (merely signs). Such a broad application of the term continued into the Middle Ages, by which time theological language became more precise, particularly through the work of Peter Lombard in the mid-12th century, and Thomas Aquinas in the mid-13th century. The final list of seven as we know it was formally recognized by the Council of Florence in 1439. It was defined as a matter of faith by the Council of Trent in 1547, which affirmed that "adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus ... of the Fathers ... the sacraments of the new law were ... all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord."

We also know that, whatever variations in the practice or status of the female diaconate, women could not aspire to the priesthood. As important as the deaconess was to the service of the Church, the were mindful of the distinctions from their male counterparts. It is here that the parameters of diaconal service by women could not be clearer: "A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons, but only is to keep the doors and to minister to the presbyters in the baptizing of women on account of decency." The prayers of ordination for a deacon and deaconess usually differed slightly, one from the other; that of the deacon referring to the example of the Protomartyr Stephen, while that of the deaconess referring to Phoebe of Cenchrae. The prayers of the former would also include a petition that the recipient may go on to the priesthood and episcopacy.

Finally, we know there were attempts by women to perform priestly rites throughout the history of Christendom. Many pagan and pre-Christian religions had priestesses. In the Christian realm itself there were numerous heterodox sects in the early centuries in which women had a prominent ceremonial role-for example, the Priscillians, condemned by the Council of Nimes in 394. But even as the office of deaconess was in its fullest flower, it was understood by this council and others, and stated time and time again, that women, by virtue of their sex, could not aspire to "the Levitical ministry," as it was an "innovation ... unknown until today."

In the fourth century, Epiphanius of Salamis addressed the problem of the Collyridian heresy, in which women offered sacrifices to Mary, the Mother of God. Writing in his , he also gives an analysis of the proper role of the deaconess: "They tell us that certain women come here from Thrace, from Arabia, make a loaf in the name of the Ever-Virgin, assemble together in one self-same place and carry out quite irregular actions in the name of the Blessed Virgin, undertaking to do something blasphemous and forbidden and performing in her name, by means of women, definitely priestly acts.... Never, anywhere, has any woman acted as priest for God, not even Eve; even after her fall she was never so audacious as to put her hand to an undertaking so impious as this; nor did any of her daughters after her ever do so...(Mary) was not even entrusted with the bestowal of Baptism, since the Christ Himself was baptized not by her but by John.... Never has a woman been appointed amongst the bishops and priests." As to the daughters of Philip, who were understood to have exercised the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9), and so were honored as such by the sect, "Yes, but they did not exercise the priestly office. And it is true that there is the Order of Deaconess in the Church. But they are not permitted to act as priests or have anything to do with the Office..."-in other words, a share in the ministerial priesthood, that of Holy Orders.

Given the latitude with the terminology and the clear prohibition of women from priestly roles, we can surmise that the term "ordination" () was applied more loosely (albeit consistently) in the first millennium than it would be today. We can also see that, as we would understand it today, the deaconess did not receive Holy Orders upon her "ordination."

The Deaconess in the Western Church

The deaconess was not as common in the Western Church. It was virtually unknown in the earlier years. It made its initial appearance in Gaul in the fourth and fifth centuries, but the order of deaconess never gained a solid foothold in the West. Saint Hippolytus, a pope in the third century, and author of the , expressly forbid their ordination, and the reflects his influence. The First Council of Orange decreed in 441 that "deaconesses are absolutely not to be ordained; and if there are still any of them, let them bow their head under the benediction which is given to the congregation." But the female diaconate continued to take hold in Gaul, and in 533, the Second Council of Orleans effectively suppressed the order. The most likely reason for its early demise in the West was that it was a transplant from another setting, one where the Church had different needs, and where matters of order and discipline in the Church had developed differently.

Curiously, at least one vestige of the office has survived in the West until modern times. In the Carthusian order of nuns, the traditional ceremony of profession includes the bestowal of the stole and maniple by the bishop.

Beyond the First Millennium to the Present

By the 11th or 12th century, the female diaconate in the Eastern Church reached its near demise. The acceptance of infant baptism, the rise of communities of religious women devoted to prayer and service, these and other factors may have contributed to the trend. Still, the practice continued for some time of the leader in a community of women being made a deaconess, so that she could lead the divine office, read the Gospel, and administer Communion to her sisters when no bishop, priest, or deacon was available.

Early in the century, the Orthodox Church in Greece initiated a brief revival of the deaconess; in the absence of a priest, they were to read the Gospel and administer Communion. Since mid-century, there have been "deaconesses" in Greece, although part of the laity and roughly equivalent to a parish assistant. The practice of monastic deaconesses has also prevailed in Greece for some time. In recent years, the Orthodox Church (with whom Catholicism shares the essentials of the Faith) has proposed the overall restoration of the diaconal office for women.


Pending sufficient review of the historical and theological evidence at the official level, where its implications may be fully considered, it seems premature to anticipate a canonical framework whereby an office of deaconess would be established in the Catholic Church. The CLSA report speaks at length of the graces of the sacrament of Holy Orders bestowed upon the woman deacon. Given our understanding of the sacrament, such consideration would seem pointless given the question of validity.

Prudence would dictate the manner in which to proceed with this topic. The classical definition of a "debate" is one in which the burden of proof rests not with the status quo, but with the innovator. It is a rule traditionally held dear in academia yet applied so rarely in the Church today. Chesterton once said that "the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." Our discoveries in the pages of history must be viewed in light of the tradition and teaching of the Church, whether we agree with them or not-if for no other reason because they were viewed in such a light at the time. In our own time, we have seen women become caretakers of priestless parishes. If we presume their service to be in the tradition of Tabitha and Priscilla, that same tradition does not confer a ceremonial or preaching role. Knowing this requires that we put our "preconceived ideas" aside and let the evidence of history speak for itself. The reasons for reinstituting the female diaconate would have to be as strong as for its suppression. The former is no more likely to happen overnight than the latter.

If one is free to speculate, then it is unlikely that the typical Catholic in the pew will find women dressed in stoles and dalmatics as the ordinary officiants at weddings and baptisms. It is more likely that the order of deaconess would be roughly equivalent to (although it has never been the same as) what was once known in the West (and is still known in the East) as -those steps of candidacy to Holy Orders, which in 1971 were revised in the Latin church as the installed ministries of acolyte and rector.

If tradition is to be our guide, then a diaconal order of women in the Catholic Church would (1) be separate from that of men, (2) exist primarily for the service of women, and (3) still leave the priesthood and episcopacy open only to men, as it has all along. The priest performs his sacrificial duties -specifically, in the role of Christ as the Bridegroom in relation to the Bride, which is the Church, in that nuptial mystery which is the Eucharist. A society attuned to creation and the natural order thereof would understand this, whereas one accustomed to technology and the presumption to control its surroundings might not. Whatever our accomplishments in this life, we do not determine the order of creation; Cod does. In the words of His Son: "You have not chosen me. It is I who have chosen you."

Whether or not deaconesses will serve the Catholic Church once again, this sojourner of history presents what he has discovered along the way for the consideration of the reader, and ultimately, the judgment of the Apostolic See.

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN