Women and the Diaconate: A Theological Opinion
COMMENTARY: Cardinal McElroy’s recent public stance in favor of women’s ordination cannot be sustained by the historic and theological evidence.
In a recently published interview in America magazine, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego discussed the notion of “inclusion” as it relates to the Synod on Synodality.
Though he spoke on a range of issues, what was common to each of these is an ecclesiology thoroughly inconsistent with Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church. Reminiscent of what Pope Benedict XVI called the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” the cardinal’s comments were at odds with the long-standing Catholic theological tradition. What particularly caught my attention was his support of admitting women to the diaconate.
Arguing for a possible change in Church teaching, he indicated that there was “a lot of evidence” that women were “doing the work of deacons and were ordained in various ceremonies.” Having studied this particular area of theology quite extensively, I was taken aback by the cardinal’s statement. While it certainly contained elements of truth, it was a broad generalization that, in its conclusion, cannot be sustained by the historic and theological evidence.
In 2020, I was one of 10 international scholars selected by Pope Francis to serve on the Papal Commission on Women and the Diaconate. This was preceded by an earlier 2016 commission on the same topic, though the focus was more historic, while the new commission would be more theological. Because that first commission did not reach a consensus, the Holy Father, at the request of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region, initiated a second commission.
Unlike the first, the second commission was specifically tasked with making recommendations. While the content of both commissions remains confidential, the recent commission members have been cleared by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to express their own theological opinion. What follows is a brief summary of my own thoughts as a private theologian in response to Cardinal McElroy’s claim and those who share his view. Far from comprehensive, it represents what I believe are some of the more salient points.
Establishing the Framework
Like any good line of inquiry, it is essential to situate the question of the admission of women to the diaconate within a broader contextual framework. Such an approach ensures that the response will closely correspond to the question itself, thereby maintaining a necessary coherence. Given the Christological, ecclesial and sacramental nature of admitting women to the diaconate, it is fundamental to recognize, as did Pope Francis, that the question is, at its core, theological.
In this respect, it is not what a particular group may want or feel, but about the mind of God, as revealed in divine Revelation and whose interpretation falls under the exclusive competency of the magisterium. To argue otherwise is to rip the question from its theological framework, imposing a secular egalitarian approach, robbing it of its Catholic identity and authenticity.
Because the question is fundamentally theological in nature, it concerns Church doctrine and, as a result, must be grounded in divine Revelation. As Pope Francis observes, this is the sole criterion for determining the validity of admitting women to the diaconate. Speaking to the 21st assembly of the International Union of Women Superiors in 2019 on this very subject, he said, “I can’t do a decree of a sacramental nature without having a theological, historical foundation for it.”
Francis continued by saying, “In regard to the diaconate, we must see what was there in the beginning of Revelation. If there was something, let it grow and it arrives, but if there was not, if the Lord did not want a sacramental ministry for women, it can’t go forward.”
For Pope Francis, reflecting the long theological tradition, it is ultimately about the mind of God as expressed in divine Revelation. As Vicar of Christ on earth, he is the steward of this revelation, not its master.
A Question of Doctrine Not Discipline
Where doctrine, properly understood, belongs to the deposit of faith and represents official Church teaching, discipline involves its pastoral and practical application, as determined by the Church. While, as St. Vincent of Lérins and later St. John Henry Newman point out, doctrine may organically develop, that development represents a deepening of a truth already revealed, the authenticity of which is determined exclusively by the magisterium. In this respect, defined doctrine cannot change, though, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it may be understood in a more profound way over time.
This is precisely what Pope Francis was referring to when he said, “If there was something, let it grow and it arrives.” Insofar as it is derived from divine Revelation, doctrine is received, while discipline is the Church’s way of applying this received teaching to specific aspects of the Christian life within a particular historic context. Thus, for example, where the exclusivity of men to priestly ordination is a doctrinal matter as defined in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, priestly celibacy is a matter of discipline.
Unlike the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order by the Second Vatican Council, which was a change of ecclesial discipline, the admission of women to the diaconate is a doctrinal matter. It is not simply a question of restoring that which was, but instead bringing into being something new.
As cogently argued by such scholars as Father Aimé George Martimort, Father Manfred Hauke, professor Catherine Brown Tkacz, and Sister Sara Butler of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, deaconesses of the early Church were not the same as deacons. Their primary purpose was to assist the bishop in baptizing women for modesty’s sake and catechizing women. In this respect, it emerges in the West out of pastoral necessity. When this practice of baptism was revised, deaconesses were no longer needed, and the order declined.
In the 2002 final report of the International Theological Commission, writing on deaconesses, they observe, “It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate. At the very least it was an ecclesial function, exercised by women.” Some scholars suggest that deaconesses were eventually absorbed into religious orders or became abbesses, which continued, in some respects, their ancient ministry.
Any argument for the admission of women to the diaconate, because it represents a significant change in doctrine, must be cogent and compelling. It must correspond to the sources of Revelation and integrated within the larger theology of holy orders in a systematic and organic manner. Here, as with all potential theological developments, the burden of proof lies with its proponents.
Consequently, the question, properly framed, is not: “Why not women deacons?” but “Why?” In addressing this question, it is insufficient to selectively choose historic aspects of the Church under the banner of “inclusivity” and artificially string them together, calling it the basis for the development of doctrine. Rather, the arguments must convincingly demonstrate an integral development contextualized within the broader theological tradition.
Not everything that happened in the Church’s past is part of her Tradition. Indeed, the sheer existence of a thing is not proof of its legitimacy. If this were the case, Arianism, which was nearly ubiquitous in the third and fourth centuries, would be part of the theological tradition, leading to a denial of Christ’s divinity.
Likewise, historic references by those who advocate a theological basis for the ordination of women require something more than their historic presence. To suggest otherwise is to fail to distinguish between a norm and an aberration. Indeed, beyond scholarly scrutiny, there needs to be multiple attestation across the whole of the Tradition and throughout the history of the Church, as evidenced by the male diaconate. Such attestation simply does not exist with reference to deaconesses. Even the term “deaconess” was used in different ways from church to church and from age to age, leading to significant ambiguity, an ambiguity not found in the male diaconate.
As Father Martimort concludes in his historical study, “The Christians of antiquity did not have a single, fixed idea of what deaconesses were supposed to be.” In a similar manner, after an analysis of the historic development of deaconesses, the Canon Law Society concludes, “The term ‘deaconesses’ is certainly not a univocal concept … there can be no clear line of evolution of the office of deaconesses from one century to the next or from one place to another.” As a result, to argue that deaconesses were the female equivalent of the male diaconate is to artificially conflate the two.
Proponents of admitting women to the diaconate argue that the doctrinal basis can be found in the ancient ordination rites for deaconesses. A survey of patristic literature in both the East and West provide examples of these.
While these rites bore some similarities to the male diaconate, they were not identical. According to German theologian Father Manfred Hauke: “… we cannot identify the consecration of deaconesses with the ordination of deacons. It was not sacramental ordination that can be identified with the Sacrament of Orders (for bishops, priests, and deacons).” Indeed, to identify consecration as “ordination” without qualifying how the term and subsequent offices were used differently bakes the conclusion into the premise by assuming that similarities mean sameness.
While there is no consensus in the theological community regarding the sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate, it is possible to qualify the term “ordination,” such that it can be applied to both deacons and deaconesses, albeit in different respects. When the term is used in the ancient sense of being enrolled in an order such as the Order of Widows and the Order of Virgins, it may be applied to deaconesses in this limited way. Today, religious women are enrolled in many orders. This is not the same as sacramental ordination nor the equivalent to male ordination, but instead a religious consecration. In this sense, it is sacramental without being a sacrament proper.
But according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Today the word ‘ordination’ is reserved for the sacramental act which integrates a man into the order of bishops, presbyters, or deacons” (1538). As a result, while it can be maintained that deaconesses were “ordained” in the ancient sense of the word, it is an anachronism to suggest that this manner of ordination was the same as deacons.
Of this, Father Martimort points out, “… theologians must strictly guard against trying to prove hypothesis dependent upon only a part of the documentation available, a part taken out of context. … There exists a significant danger of distorting both the facts and the text ...”
As was already observed, there is no question of the historic place of deaconesses in the early Church, with the remaining question being their equivalency to the male diaconate.
My analysis of the historic record reveals that this was not the case in at least seven broad categories. By way of a brief summary, these are: 1) While the ordination rites demonstrate similarities, they were quite different. 2) Deaconesses did not serve in the liturgy after ordination as did deacons. 3) Deaconesses did not exercise the same sacramental role after ordination as did deacons. 4) Deaconesses did not minister in the community in the same way after ordination as did deacons. 5) Deaconesses did not relate to the bishop in the same way after ordination as did deacons. 6) Deaconesses were never given any grounds to believe that they might aspire to the priesthood as did deacons. 7) Where the diaconate as an order developed in the Church over time, the order of deaconess did not develop as such.
Thus, when the question is asked by proponents of diaconal ordination for women, “What restricts their reentry?” the answer is that one cannot reenter what one has not first entered.
The above represents a concise summary of my thoughts as a private theologian as these thoughts relate to Cardinal McElroy’s claim and the claims of those who support the admission of women to the diaconate. There is much more that can be said, such as the iconic argument, proper matter of the sacraments, and the complementarity of the sexes with respect to the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the Church. These will have to wait for another time. Nonetheless, it is possible to hazard a few closing observations about where the Church may take the question of women’s ordination in the future.
With both the 2016 and 2020 commissions now concluded, and with neither report being released to the press as of the date of this publication, the matter rests where it has always rested: in the hands of the Holy Father, not a synod. He may choose not to speak on the topic, or do so in an informal way, or even issue a formal teaching. Only he knows. Nonetheless, it may be possible to speculate from recent statements where his mind may be headed based on three factors.
First, Pope Francis insists that any change must be grounded in divine Revelation. As we have already demonstrated, with this lacking, he is unlikely to rule in favor of the ordination of women.
Second, the very recent additions in Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, additions approved by the Holy Father as chief legislator, now criminalize the ordination of women. This section, promulgated June 1, 2021, deals with sanctions, offenses and penalties. Canon 1379 §3 states:
“Both the one who tries to confer a sacred order on a woman and the woman who tries to receive it incurs a penalty of excommunication latae sententiae reserved to the Holy See; the responsible cleric may also be punished by exclusion from the clerical state.”
It should be kept in mind that this addition was approved by Pope Francis during the 2020 commission. Because of Canon 1379 §3, it seems quite unlikely that the Holy Father will rule in favor of the ordination of women to the diaconate.
Third, in a recent interview with America discussing ordaining women to holy orders, Pope Francis asks the rhetorical question, “And why can a woman not enter ordained ministry? It is because the Petrine principle has no place for that.” According to professor Gary Devery, “The Petrine dimension of the Church could be succinctly expressed as the service of St. Peter and his successors orientated to the building up and maintaining of the Church’s life of faith, the living of the Christian life in communion and charity, and the unity of the Church.” Here, the Holy Father associates the Petrine dimension with ordained ministry, which includes the diaconate. Though its practical significance needs to be amplified, this would imply that, precisely because of the Petrine dimension, it is not possible to admit women to holy orders.
Of course, all of this is speculation, but it does suggest that, if anything will be said, contrary to the opinion of Cardinal McElroy, it will not favor the ordination of women to the diaconate. It is for these reasons, along with the arguments advanced in this article and others that, in my capacity as a private theologian, I do not believe that it is possible to admit women to holy orders.
Deacon Dominic Cerrato, Ph.D., is director of the Office of the Diaconate for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. Also the editor of The Deacon magazine (OSV), Deacon Cerrato was appointed in 2020 by Pope Francis to an international papal commission to study the question of women and the diaconate.