Why the Synod on Synodality Is Unlikely to Open the Door to Ordained Female Diaconate
ANALYSIS: While the synod’s working document gave some women’s ordination advocates hope that the Church would open up to the female diaconate, no ordained ministry has yet been considered by the Vatican.
ROME — Will the Synod on Synodality assembly open the door to an ordained diaconate for women? This is what a number of columns and articles have been suggesting since the publication of the instrumentum laboris (working document) for the first session of the discussions being held Oct. 4-29 in Rome.
At the origin of this speculation was the passage in the document stating, “Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several episcopal conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered,” and which asked: “Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?”
Yet Pope Francis has so far consistently expressed skepticism about such a demand on theological grounds, as well as in view of the available canonical sources.
The working document itself, when referring to the appropriateness of a discussion on the female diaconate, makes no reference to any ordained ministry. The various opinions of theologians and canonists who spoke to the Register suggest that it should only be considered as an unordained lay ministry.
Misunderstanding Around the Notion of Ministry
In a communiqué following the June 20 publication of the instrumentum laboris, the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) claimed to “find hope” in the document, insofar as it “directly poses the question of envisaging ordained women deacons as well as the possibility of the creation of new ministries for women, conversations that WOC welcomes.”
This term of “ordained ministry” seems in fact to be at the origin of a misunderstanding between the Church hierarchy and advocates of female diaconate because the Vatican has never yet considered any ordained ministry for women.
Two international commissions were created by Pope Francis in 2016 and in 2020 with the specific mission to study the question of women deacons, “especially with regard to the early days of the Church,” but they have so far not provided additional public guidance.
The Pope himself, despite having multiplied initiatives aimed at enhancing the presence and role of women within the Church — notably by giving access to the ministries of the lectorate and acolytate to women — has repeatedly expressed his opposition to any form of ordained ministry for them.
During an audience with the International Union of Superiors General in 2019 in Rome, in fact, he said that on the subject of the diaconate, “we must see what was there at the beginning of revelation, and if there was something, let it grow and it arrives. ... If there was nothing, if the Lord did not want a sacramental ministry for women, it can’t go forward.”
In his interview with the Jesuit magazine America in 2022, Francis stated that a woman could not access any ordained ministry “because the Petrine principle, which is the principle of ministeriality,” does not allow it. He reasoned that there is a distinction between the Petrine principle and the Marian principle, which is “the principle of femininity in the Church, of the woman in the Church, where the Church reflects herself because she is a woman and she is a spouse.”
The Pope continued, “A Church with only the Petrine principle would be a Church that one would think is reduced to its ministerial dimension, nothing else. But the Church is more than a ministry; it is the whole people of God. The Church is a woman.” He concluded that “the fact that the woman does not enter into the ministerial life is not a deprivation.”
While some experts have lamented ambiguity in the terminology of the instrumentum laboris, which does not clearly indicate what type of diaconate will be discussed during the full assembly this October, the Pope’s various statements suggest that, in line with his predecessor Benedict XVI, he envisages the female diaconate only as a lay ministry that would enable women to carry out tasks that would be analogous to those performed by deacons.
What Do Canonical Sources Say?
Proponents of the female diaconate, such as the American academic Phyllis Zagano, base their argument on the fact that women exercised the ministry of deacon in the early Church, particularly up to the 12th century, as well as on the biblical passage stating that St. Paul presented Phoebe as “a deaconess of the Church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1-2, RSVCE).”
Advocates of this cause also rely on the book The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (1972) by Belgian scholar Roger Gryson, who asserts that the deaconesses instituted in the East in the third century and into the Middle Ages were ordained by the laying on of hands and that their ministry was therefore as valid as that of male deacons. But this thesis was rejected a few years later by the French liturgist Msgr. Aimé-Georges Martimort, an important figure in the Church of the 20th century who also took part in the work of the Second Vatican Council. He argued, based on numerous historical documents, that never in the course of history has the female diaconate been put on the same footing as the male diaconate.
“The sources of antiquity and the Middle Ages do not allow us to affirm that ‘deaconesses’ were ordained, in the sense we understand today,” Father Thierry Sol, extraordinary professor of history of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, told the Register.
Noting with regret that many commentators tend to “transpose modern conceptions onto the past,” he pointed out that before the 12th century, canonical terminology had not yet been fixed — although the concepts in play were already clear — and that it has undergone evolution over time. As an example, he cited the term “divorce,” found in canonical sources but meaning only “separation” and not “divorce,” as it is understood today.
He also mentioned the Didascalia Apostolorum, a Christian legal treatise that most likely dates to the third century, which refers to deaconesses and their services in baptismal ceremonies or “social” assistance to women (III, 12-13).
“The historical reality is that some services were performed by women for specific needs, or even readings during the liturgy in women’s communities,” he continued, stressing that none of these forms of service ever led to ministerial diaconate.
Professor Marcin Bider put forward a similar theory in his article “A presentation of canonical sources (7th to 17th centuries) on the ordo ad diaconam faciendam seu consacrandam,” published in Ius Ecclesiae, the international canon law review of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
Bider, who teaches at Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities in Poland, concluded, after examining the available medieval sources, that deaconesses were not parallel to the male sacramental diaconate in the examined historical period, describing them as “a group of women associated with monasticism, consecrated virgins and other specific forms of life in the Latin Church.”
For him, the ordination of deaconesses “had no sacramental value, and therefore it is difficult in modern discussion, citing the medieval sources, to support the introduction of a female diaconate into the Latin Church.”
Diaconate as a Source of Power
This issue could have been limited to intellectual jousting between theologians and historians had it not had so many implications for the orientations of the Church today and in future decades. The stakes are indeed significant, analysts point out, since opening the door to the female diaconate as an ordained ministry would overturn the Church’s historical functioning, as well as its liturgy.
This leads Father Sol to question the underlying motivations for such demands, which he believes are often based on a biased and problematic vision of the diaconate, in which it’s perceived as an honor, a source of power, and an opportunity for more dignified participation in the liturgy.
“In this logic, the absence of a female diaconate is then seen as a ‘denied right’ — as is the absence of a female priesthood,” he said. “The diaconate is in fact service, not a source of power; if we really want to serve the Lord, we can always find an appropriate form in the Church, as attested by the leading role played by women in its history, both lay and religious,” he added, pointing out that the Virgin Mary herself never received the sacrament of holy orders.
He also warned against the increasingly widespread temptation to claim an official ceremony for every mission within the Church that would imitate ordination. “All this is pointless: The sacrament of baptism is sufficient,” he said. “It is quite surprising that at a time when everyone wants more ‘charism,’ more selfless service, the first impulse is to institutionalize everything.”
He concluded that this project is all the more problematic in that it is symptomatic of a process of clericalization of the Church, which consists in undermining the status of the laity, which the Church sorely needs “to work in the world and not in the sacristy.”