Clearing the Air on Women Deacons

What Is — and Isn’t — Possible


WASHINGTON — The phone at the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) office rang off the hook for days after Pope Francis reportedly said he would consider studying the question of women deacons.

“We’ve heard from [former] members who haven’t been members in a long time,” said Erin Saiz Hanna, co-executive director of the group, which wants to see women ordained as Catholic priests, deacons and bishops. “There is an incredible amount of energy about this possibility.”

Despite the excitement generated in some quarters by media reports of the Holy Father’s May 12 comments to members of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), it seems unlikely that further study of the diaconate would lead to ordaining women as priests or even deacons (see related coverage).

The day after news reports reverberated with the enthusiasm voiced by the WOC’s Saiz Hanna, Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, told the Italian news service La Stampa, “The Pope says he is thinking of establishing a commission that can look into these questions, offering a clearer picture. But let us be honest: The Pope did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of women deacons; much less so did he talk about ordaining female priests.”

Even the WOC, though encouraged by Pope Francis’ openness to talk about women deacons, acknowledged that the Holy Father already has restated the Church’s position about not ordaining women as priests. Nonetheless, Saiz Hanna said, “We see a willingness to dialogue more with Francis. There is an openness to be able to talk about things.”

Sister Carmen Sammut, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa and USIG president, said the question posed to the Pope about a study of women deacons was one of several that came from delegates to the group’s plenary assembly. She said members were surprised by media reaction, which she said dealt solely with the deacon question and “sometimes distorted both the question and the answer.”

Her hope, she said, is that a new study of women deacons requested by her group and done by those who understand the needs of a Church with a shortage of priests could lead to a fruitful conclusion.

It is unclear, however, what further study would accomplish, given much has been done already. A significant and extensive treatment of the topic was published by the International Theological Commission in 2002, which said deaconesses in the tradition of the ancient Church, who are often cited by advocates of a contemporary female diaconate, were not equivalent to deacons.

“That document was really thorough,” said Chad Pecknold, associate professor of historical and systematic theology at The Catholic University of America. “It’s hard to imagine that they’re going to find out anything more.”

Pecknold said although some have seen the study as giving ambiguous advice, he thinks it went through the biblical, historical, doctrinal and liturgical evidence systematically and reached clear, though cautious, conclusions.

Catherine Tkacz, research professor of theology at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and a scholar on women in the Church, agreed, saying the report is “clear and careful, marshaling a wealth of historical evidence and scholarship and assessing it accurately.”

Tkacz explained that the ancient institution of deaconesses was centered on the reception of baptism and the Eucharist by female members. At women’s baptisms, which took place in the nude, deaconesses could instruct and anoint, to protect the modesty of the candidates. They also gave the Eucharist to housebound women because it would have been scandalous in those times for a male priest or deacon to enter a woman’s home. However, Tkacz said, “The deaconess was never a ‘female deacon’ or ‘woman deacon’ with the liturgical roles of a deacon.”

Furthermore, the rite for commissioning those who took the Eucharist to the housebound differs significantly from the rite for ordaining deacons.

For example, she said, a deaconess was not vested in an alb, nor did she kneel before the bishop, as the male deacon did. The bishop placed his hands on the deaconess candidate’s head and prayed two prayers, but they were not the same as those for the deacon. The prayers also referred to the candidate’s role in “ministry,” but did not call her a deaconess; and she received a diaconal stole, but not a liturgical fan, which was used when the deacon stood by the altar at the consecration.

Such acts, Tkacz said, indicated that the deaconess had no liturgical role.

The deaconess then received and placed a chalice back on the altar, signifying that she would not be distributing the Eucharist at the liturgy, but only taking it to housebound women; the deacon, by contrast, received the chalice and then went forth to give Communion to the faithful.

Tkacz said some scholars insist that the rites and roles of deacons and deaconesses were the same.

“They claim that, for the Church today to ordain women as deacons, that would ‘restore’ past practice, which is false.”

Furthermore, she said, the cultural context in which deaconesses served has changed so that most Catholics are baptized as infants, and it is not considered scandalous for a priest to take the Eucharist to a woman in her home: “To begin now to ordain women as deacons would not be a ‘restoration,’ but a radical innovation.”

Tkacz believes the ultimate goal in claiming it would be a restoration is the ordination of women as priests, a notion that she said is not sacramental, but egalitarian.

Indeed, Saiz Hanna, whose group applauded the USIG for posing the question about women deacons to Pope Francis, said, for her and advocates of women’s ordination, it’s all about God having created men and women equal.

“We feel that it’s limiting God to say that God can’t work through women,” she said. “We know there are women who are called to be priests. That call is stronger than anything else, and that call is denied — so it still comes down to equality.”

Dominican Father Giles Dimock, who holds a licentiate in liturgy and teaches novices at St. Gertrude Priory in Cincinnati, said advocates of women’s ordination have sometimes used the slogan, “Don’t baptize me if you’re not going to ordain me.” But he said this reflects a misunderstanding of the Church. “There are many different roles in the mystical body, and all complement and need one another,” he said. “This whole notion of complementarity needs to be rediscovered.”

That said, Father Dimock added, it may be valid to explore new modes of service that are particularly germane to women, without necessarily restoring deaconesses in the Church. Even if the role of the deaconess were revived, he said, it would not be the same as that of a male deacon. “And I guess there’s the problem. What would it mean?”

The UISG’s Sister Carmen said although media reports focused on the question to Pope Francis about women deacons, the group also asked him about the absence of women from the decision-making processes of the Church.

“He was very strong about the fact that women should be in the decision-making processes and the decision-making positions of the Church and that this should not be linked solely with priesthood or sacramental status,” she said in a video statement.

Pope Francis, she added, spoke about the dangers of both feminism and clericalism, telling the sisters they should not want certain positions just because they are women and saying that being a priest or bishop does not give someone an exclusive right to make decisions. That right, she said the Pope told the sisters, comes from baptism, so that all baptized Catholics should be involved in decision-making at the parish and higher levels.

Catholic University’s Pecknold said he, too, noted the Holy Father’s references to clericalism in his audience with the UISG. “It’s one of the least reported and indicates his own mind on the question.”

Pecknold said in reviewing what Pope Francis had said before news reports about the audience emerged, “I read that the Pope was very gently indicating that he has no intention of ordaining women to the permanent diaconate. In fact, what he really confirmed was … that women and laymen should not ask to be clericalized.” 

“What I heard in Pope Francis’ words was [his intention of] reminding them that their dignity is actually great in itself, and they shouldn’t ask to be clericalized, because that view of priestly vocation, diaconal vocation misunderstands the distinctions between orders and states,” he said. “The dignity inherent in service to the Church is always by virtue of our baptism. We’re not going to gain some greater dignity from serving in an office other than what we’re called to.”

Sister Carmen added: “Religious do not want to become deacons to have an honorific title. We don’t need that. We want to be enabled to give better service to the people of God to whom we belong.”

Nonetheless, there is some concern that even by raising the question and studying it further, advocates of ordaining women as deacons and priests could seize the discussion and use it to further their own agendas, as they have done with the Pope’s May 12 response.

In the Anglican Church, Pecknold said, arguments for women deacons led to the ordination of women priests.

However, Sister Carmen said she does not see discussions about women deacons as a path to priesthood for women. “I think ordination to the priesthood is another discussion, and the Pope has already spoken about it.”

Judy Roberts writes

from Graytown, Ohio.