e-mail us

Cover story

Out of the past, women deacons point the way


It would appear the 1995 statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on women's ordination ended all hope for women priests. Yet all the statement did was heat up the issue and thrust it to the forefront of Catholic debate.

As much as we would like to forget the past and look to the future, we cannot ignore our collective history, which has shaped and defined who we are today. As a traditionalist, I believe we should look to our early history to see how our "church fathers" regarded women in ministry.

Many people might be surprised to learn that there exists a rich, apostolic tradition of an ordained female clergy that endured until the Middle Ages. The women clergy to whom I am referring were deacons. They served as part of the church's ecclesiastical community for almost half of our 2,000 year history.

When the modern diaconate was restored 25 years ago, married men were ordained deacons for the first time in this millennium. At that time the ordination of women deacons was also considered. However, it was not certain how married male deacons would be accepted after a thousand years of celibate priests, and there was reluctance to implement too many changes too quickly. The decision on female deacons was postponed until the married male diaconate was more established and could be evaluated. The answer to women who aspired to diaconate was never a definitive no, but a cautious wait and see.

There was hope that the waiting was finally over when the Vatican again considered the diaconate for women at its Plenary Sessions on Clergy in the fall of 1995. The Canon Law Society of America provided further hope by issuing a report concluding that canon law posed no impediment to women deacons. Sadly, the plenarium ended by denying the diaconate to women. The people of the church still wait.

The New Testament and the patristic writings of the early church clearly demonstrate that the order of deacon was not an ordained ministry restricted to men in the early church. Romans 16:1-3 provides scriptural recognition of women deacons, where Paul describes Phoebe as "our sister who is a servant" and asks the faithful to receive her as they would anyone set apart by God. The word Paul uses for "servant" is the Greek word diakonos or "deacon." In verse 3, Paul also refers to Priscilla and Aquilla as coworkers, indicating they were probably deacons as well.

The use of the Greek masculine word diakonos indicates Paul did not exclude women from ministry or positions of authority, a posture that was countercultural to 1st century Judaism. Additionally, Paul applies diakonos to people who looked after the needs of others and assisted at liturgy. Paul's writings, which are the earliest works of the New Testament, make it quite obvious that diaconal functions for women were already established in the first generation church.

A scriptural basis for a female diaconate originates even before Paul in the actions of Christ himself. Jesus may have applied the diaconate specifically to women who accompanied the Twelve. Luke 8:1-3 identifies Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and others who provided for the Twelve "out of their own resources."

There is little doubt women were ordained deacons in early Christianity. The Apostolic Constitutions provide a detailed rite of ordination for deaconess, referring to Old Testament women and the Theotokos (Mary, the mother of Jesus). The Apostolic Constitutions also discuss the office of widow and virgin, but neither have the same status as deaconess. The former were considered laity, while the latter were clergy. Byzantine writings evidence the ordination of women well into the Middle Ages, with some deaconesses serving in monasteries as late as the 11th century

There is some ambiguity over what role these women deacons played. Deaconesses appeared to hold an official office and were valuable coworkers with the episcopate and presbyterate in spreading the Christian faith. It is unclear what sacramental duties, if any, they were given, and there is little evidence they performed any of the more cultic functions of the presbyterate and male diaconate. In the early church document Didascalia Apostolorum, a deaconess' duties appeared commensurate with those of a deacon. However, in another early church document, the Apostolic Constitutions, the duties of a woman deacon were equated to that of a male subdeacon, although they officially ranked as deacons. Both documents included the deaconess as clergy, not laity.

Due to the socio-gender restrictions of society, deaconesses most likely provided pastoral care to other women. There was a dichotomy of functions where deaconesses ministered to women and deacons to men. Male and female deacons had many of the same responsibilities, but they were not interchangeable. At liturgy, women deacons exchanged the sign of peace with other women and distributed the Eucharist to female worshipers. Women deacons also carried the Blessed Sacrament to infirm women, and they received female visitors into the community as the male deacons did for the men. A deaconess was also sent to minister in situations where existing cultural mores prohibited men, such as those requiring touching or laying on of hands.

Despite the ordained status of the deaconess, women remained subordinate to a male diaconate. Although deaconesses were clergy, they were in a special class that was not called to ordained priesthood as were male deacons. In the second century hierarchy deaconsesses were below deacons yet above subdeacons. At liturgical celebrations deaconesses would partake of the Eucharist before the congregation but only after the three male orders. Deaconesses were also barred from assisting the presider at the eucharistic table.

Although the Apostolic Constitutions did not permit women to assist at the Eucharist, it is conceivable that some deaconesses may have actually presided at the Eucharist in isolated areas where there were no presbyters. The Council of Nicea in 325 prohibited deacons from presiding at the Eucharist, indicating that some deacons must have been presiding at Eucharist, or there would have been no need to prohibit it. Nicea makes no distinction between male and female deacons. It is therefore not implausible that some of these presiding deacons may have been women.

The order of deaconess was more readily accepted in the Eastern churches than in the West, with Orthodox and Byzantine Rite churches celebrating the feast days of many women deacons including Phoebe, Macrina, Nonn, Melania, Thesebia, Goronia, Olympias and Apollonia. The authority and acceptance of women deacons slowly diminished as the church became more hierarchical and patriarchal.

Furthermore, when the church began baptizing infants, there was no longer a need for female deacons to accompany adult women catechumens. Despite their innumerable contributions to the church, the order of deaconess eventually disappeared by the Middle Ages.

Women deacons served the early church in the true spirit of diaconal service, and the order of deaconess was an ecclesiastical office of importance that was widely accepted for many centuries. The diaconate for women has validity based on its Christological roots (in all four gospels), and the apostolic and patristic churches' recognition of the female diaconate. There are no scriptural, theological or historical barriers that obstruct the ordination of women to diaconate as a full and equal office.

We cannot disregard our history as people of God. Our knowledge of history shows us that church doctrine has never been static. Doctrinal changes occurred in places such as Nicea and Trent. Vatican II would never have happened if the church had neglected its history and the socio-theological developments that influenced changes in church teaching.

Ordained women disappeared not because of any actions by Christ or the apostles but because of changes in society that subordinated women. Today the cultural pendulum has reversed itself and the time is ripe to again make ordained women a viable part of the church. If we as people of tradition reject our history, our future has no hope.

Gerald Ladouceur is a deacon in New York’s Albany diocese.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 1997