THE ISSUE of deaconesses has been raised several times in the last three hundred years, yet the feminist movement and the general concern for women's issues have provided the current debate with a certain urgency and impetus. The most surprising support for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate comes from the Canon Law Society of America (CLSA), which in 1992 established an ad hoc committee to study this question and has now produced a report which concludes that “women have been ordained permanent deacons in the past, and it would be possible for the Church to determine to do so again.” The publication of this report is startling because of the fairly conservative profile formerly associated with the CLSAand the role of canon lawyers. In this instance the Canon Law Society is, in effect, proposing a change in the canons. The report suggests that this be done only gradually, beginning with the granting of a dispensation, on an experimental basis, from the present canonical requirement which reserves diaconal ordination to baptized males ad validitatem, i.e., effecting the validity of the ordination. The report recognizes the seriousness of this requirement, but insists that “it is also of purely ecclesiastical law, which is capable of exception and modification.” With this dispensation, women in certain dioceses would be ordained and the results carefully monitored and evaluated to determine the possibility of a wider extension of this practice. The report carefully speaks of the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate since any possibility of the transitional diaconate is precluded by the stipulation that only males may be ordained to the priesthood.

Although the report acknowledges the need for further study, particularly in the areas of history and theology, it takes a firm stand and, one might argue, oversimplifies a complex issue.

In the history of the Church the term “deaconess” has been used differently from one church to another and from one age to another. Evidence indicates that the deaconess was someone who was singled out from the rest of the faithful, lived some form of consecrated life, and was engaged in a life of service, yet there is no single, universal meaning of the term. Sometimes the term is used for widows, at other times for the wives of deacons. Were they truly deacons? Were they ordained for a ministry uniquely their own? In spite of the assertion of the CLSA committee report that “women have been ordained” to the diaconate, scholars are not in agreement as to what the “ordination” of deaconesses means when it occurs in ancient texts and rituals; nor is it clear that the service of the deaconess involved any liturgical role at the altar. In the ancient practice of baptism by immersion, for example, the neophyte was anointed with oil and submerged in the baptismal waters without any clothes. In this case women obviously were needed to serve in the baptism of other women. In one of the Eastern Churches, where baptism by immersion continued to be the norm, the “ordination” of “deaconesses who assist in the baptism of women provides that the bishop lay hands on the deaconess's head not so much as an ordination but as a benediction. Each case and each text needs to be carefully evaluated. Available historical evidence does not provide a continuous tradition or understanding of the office and ordination of deaconess.

A further historical consideration is the relationship between the deaconess and the rise of feminine monasticism. Convents of nuns, as houses of monks, were always associated with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and their lives of liturgical prayer took on an “official” ecclesial character. In one way the rapid expansion of monastic and conventual life for women in the West made the role of the deaconess anachronistic in the Latin Church. In the ancient Churches of Rome, Spain and Gaul, deaconesses known to be part of the discipline of the East, were positively excluded as contrary to apostolic practice, though some form of deaconesses can be found in the Middle Ages.

The thorniest aspect of this question may be its theological implications. The deacon is ordained to assist the priest and the bishop in the Liturgy and in the apostolic service of charity. He is a helper, a minister to other ministers, and to the whole People of God; he is a reflection of Christ the servant. The priest, in distinction, is ordained to act “in the person of Christ,” most properly in presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist, in forgiving sins, and in anointing the sick and dying. One might say that the priest is most properly a celebrant; the deacon is most properly an assistant. These are two distinct functions which flow out of the sacramental character given to the deacon or priest at the moment of ordination. Through the power of the Holy Spirit each is changed so as to reflect a different aspect of the mystery of Christ. This proper distinction between the deacon and the priest may well be used as an argument in favor of ordaining women to the diaconate.

On the other hand, in explaining the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood, Pope John Paul II has relied not only on the lack of scriptural warrant or historical precedent but has stressed as well the need for one who acts “in the person of Christ” to be “in the image of Christ,” i.e., to be a male. The discussion and decision regarding the ordination of women to the diaconate cannot occur outside the context of the nature of the priesthood nor that of the hierarchy of the three orders of deacon, priest and bishop. There is a certain unity and continuity here which must be respected and preserved.

In addition to the historical and theological aspects of the question, there are also cultural questions to be considered. For many Catholics this is where the issue primarily rests. Equality, recognition of gifts, participation in policy making, are phrases one hears. Others speak of the pain of exclusion, and sometimes rehearse the negative hype regarding the male domination and inherent sexism of the Catholic Church.

The CLSA report provides a service to the Church by introducing the issue of the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate in a thoughtful and reasoned manner. This is a question still open for argument and debate. A careful consideration of every aspect of the question will provide the necessary background for the Church's magisterial discernment.

Father Gabriel O' Donnell, O.P., teaches Liturgy at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa.