Would Female Deacons Unite or Separate Catholics From the Orthodox?

While the Catholic Church continues to debate deaconesses, some Orthodox Churches have already embraced them, and still others look on with caution.

Ani-Kristi Manvelian, 24, was ordained as a deaconess on Sept. 25, 2017, in  the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Ani-Kristi Manvelian, 24, was ordained as a deaconess on Sept. 25, 2017, in the Armenian Apostolic Church. (photo: MEHR/Iman Hamikhah)

Since the conclusion of the Amazon synod, the Catholic Church has been once again in the midst of a discussion about the role of the deaconess. But if the Catholic Church actually moved to allow the female diaconate, it might intensify a century-long debate within Orthodoxy on deaconess with ramifications for the cause of ecumenical unity.

The final report of the Amazon synod raised the issue of the role of women in the local Church, their possible participation in the diaconate, and a proposed ministry of “women community leaders” that would help address the  local Church’s need. In response, Pope Francis pledged to reconvene the 2016 commission he had established to review the historic record on deaconesses, perhaps “with new members.”

Mirroring some of the debate that is ongoing in the Catholic Church, the role of the deaconess has been a live question over the course of the past century in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches.

“Right now, within the global Orthodox community, there’s a pretty fierce division about the question of the female diaconate,” explained Deacon Nicholas Denysenko, who is an Orthodox deacon and Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Deacon Denysenko told the Register that the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa and the Church of Greece are the only Eastern Orthodox Churches to have authorized a revival of the female diaconate in the past 20 years.

“If this happens among the Catholics, it would intensify the debate among the Orthodox,” he said.

Within the Latin Church, when it comes to the sacramental nature of deaconesses, there are two views in tension. The conclusion advanced by Sister Sara Butler, of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, author of The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, is that when the early Church had ordained women, it ordained them to their own order of “deaconess” and not to the diaconal grade of holy orders. Others, such as Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, have argued that the Church ordained both men and women to the same diaconal order, while only men could be candidates for priestly ministry.

While Pope St. John Paul II stated definitively in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) that the Church has “no authority whatsoever” from Jesus Christ to ordain women to the priesthood, he did not declare anything definitive regarding women and diaconal ordination.

A subsequent investigation of the matter by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC) resulted in a 2002 document that maintained a lack of evidence in support of the historical claim that there had ever been female deaconesses who were equivalent to male deacons. “The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church — as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised — were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons,” the International Theological Commission document said.

The ITC’s conclusions subsequently came under criticism that the commission had neglected to take sufficient account of recent scholarship on the matter. Pope Francis convened a new investigation in 2016, but the Pope disclosed in May 2019 the commission’s members agreed up to a point and then deadlocked over whether the deaconess received the same sacramental ordination as a male deacon.


Eastern Orthodox Debate

While the historical record is not complete, among the Eastern Orthodox Churches, deaconesses in the first millennium appear to have had some liturgical role, as a number of churches had choirs of deaconesses for the Divine Liturgy. Deaconesses also served as catechists for women who were considering conversion, assisted at baptisms for female adult converts, and distributed the Eucharist to female shut-ins. The record on the historical function or role of the deaconess in the Latin Church is comparably much less complete.

Deacon Denysenko said Orthodox opposition to a female diaconate is “particularly acute in the North American context.” This opposing view looks at the deaconess as primarily motivated by political theologies that have failed in the West and are just the camel’s nose under the tent to women priests and bishops. Often, the Orthodox opponents point to the collapsing Anglican jurisdictions that introduced women as deacons and shortly thereafter as priests. The Episcopal Church USA ordained women deacons in 1970, soon to be followed in 1976 by authorizing women priests and women bishops.

Orthodox in favor of restoring the deaconess, however, see a strong need for parishes to have a dedicated women-to-women ministry. Deacon Denysenko said that especially in the #MeToo era, many women would feel more comfortable turning to a woman for spiritual counsel than to a man. But he said a deaconess would have that task of women’s ministry in addition to serving all the people of God.

But Deacon Denysenko said Orthodox proponents of the deaconess are not too concerned about any push for women to be priests or bishops, due to the strength of the tradition and their sense of history. He said they take the view that there’s a need for woman-to-woman ministry and historically the female deacon was tasked with this role in the Eastern Church. “Tradition shows us what’s possible,” he said, “and therefore let’s pursue what’s possible without becoming innovators.”


Theologies of Ordination at Stake

Orthodox and Catholic discussions around a women’s diaconate differ because of their distinct theologies regarding ordination.

“For the Orthodox, it’s not a dogmatic question,” George Demacopoulos, co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center and professor of theology at Fordham University, New York, told the Register. “It is indisputable that there’s historical precedent for this that lasted nearly 1,000 years. So it’s just a matter of who’s going to reinstitute it, and under what conditions, and for what purpose, and that sort of thing.”

Demacopoulos said the Catholic Church came to rely on ordination theology worked out by the Scholastics of the Middle Ages who defined ordination as “an ontological change” starting with ordination to the diaconate.

“Once you introduce that new kind of anthropological view of what occurs with ordination, then you kind of put yourself in a bind in terms of introducing a path for women to be ordained to the diaconate and not the priesthood,” he said. As a result, he said, “the argument is going to be ‘Well, if there’s an ontological change, and a woman can be a deacon, then why can’t she be a priest?’”

That kind of argument played itself out in Anglican jurisdictions, which are ultimately derived from the Western Church and its theology. Because the Orthodox never developed a theology of ontological change at ordination, their churches “had no problem with ordination for women to the diaconate. It just stopped there,” he said.

But Catholic theology on holy orders has also seen a key development with the Second Vatican Council. Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, made a key distinction: Priests and bishops are ordained to a ministry of priesthood, but deacons are ordained “unto a ministry of service.”


Ordaining or Consecrating Deaconesses

Among the Orthodox communions, there is no consensus about calling the deaconess an “ordained” ministry. Even among the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, attempts to restore the ancient office have proceeded at different speeds.

The Armenian Apostolic Church has retained the deaconess, although the practice almost died out in the 20th century; men and women are ordained to the diaconate using the same rite, with both having functions of chanting the Gospel and serving in the Divine Liturgy.

Some Armenian dioceses are moving ahead with ordaining women to the diaconate, while others (such as in the U.S.) debate whether young girls should be admitted to acolyte or candle-bearer roles during the Divine Liturgy.

In September 2017, Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian, the primate of the Diocese of Tehran, generated attention by ordaining a laywoman as parish deaconess, 24-year-old anesthesiologist Ani-Kristi Manvelian, in Tehran’s St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral.

“What I have done is in conformity with the tradition of the Church and nothing else,” said Archbishop Sarkissian, according to The Armenian Weekly. Manvelian is a woman from the laity who was ordained for parish service, which is unique, since typically deaconesses were ordained from monastic women in the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The archbishop explained that part of his initiative was “to revitalize the participation of women also in our church’s liturgical life,” which he said was connected to the rejuvenation of people’s engagement in the Church’s “social, educational and service spheres.”

“The deaconess, no doubt, would also be a spiritual and church-dedicated mother, educator, and why not, a model woman through her example,” he said. “It is with this deep conviction that we are performing this ordination, with the hope that we are neither the first nor the last to do it.”


Cautious Restorations

The Coptic Orthodox Church most recently revived the office of the deaconess under the previous Coptic pope, Shenouda III, in 1981. But the Coptic Church has called it a “consecration” rather than ordination to make clear deaconesses are never in line for priestly orders.

“For us, the deaconess is an assistant to the bishop or the priest,” explained Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of London. Unlike deacons in the Coptic Church, the deaconesses have no liturgical function in the Coptic Church, but they carry out critical roles in ministering to women and carrying out the parish’s social outreach.

“Women were always pivotal to ministry; they were always serving in that way,” he said. “What we had lost for a little while was the system in which they served.”

Archbishop Angaelos explained the women’s diaconate in the Coptic Church provides an opportunity for women to consecrate themselves to active service in the parish and “authenticates and systematizes something that was already there.” In certain regards, the deaconess is similar to that of a religious sister in the Latin Catholic Church, as the Coptic Orthodox Church’s female monastic orders are all geared toward the contemplative life.

“What the Catholic Church is suggesting is unclear to me, whether it’s diaconate in the way that I’ve described, which is fully in line with our scriptural reading of the diaconate, and Phoebe for instance [mentioned in the Letter to the Romans], and so wouldn’t incorporate that sacramental role,” he said. “Or if it did incorporate a sacramental role, I suppose it would then go back to: What is the Catholic Church’s view of diaconate, and how does it see it with respect to the priesthood?”

Archbishop Angaleos explained the Coptic Orthodox Church is very dedicated to ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church, and he believed that with such an important decision, “the Catholic Church would have very strong processes in place before any decision was taken in any direction.”

Within the Eastern Orthodox communion, the issue of deaconesses took a high profile when Theodoros, pope and patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, consecrated five women to the diaconate in February 2016.

Deacon Denysenko noted that the patriarch of Alexandria also proceeded cautiously. He did not use the historical ordination rite for the deaconess, despite what Deacon Denysenko described as the ordained deaconess role in Byzantine history serving at the altar, wearing vestments and distributing the Eucharist.

“The optics on that would have brought probably a lot more negative attention to the patriarchate than they would have wanted,” he said. “Basically, what they were doing was they were ordaining deaconesses who were going to perform missionary work in remote parts of an enormous patriarchate, the whole continent of Africa.”

But with relations between the Churches in global Orthodoxy at such a fragile point, due to the hostility between Moscow and Constantinople over the creation of a new autocephalous Church in Ukraine, it is doubtful anyone would take “a more decisive step.”

“Nothing concrete is going to happen among the Orthodox until a bishop or a synod of bishops feel safe and confident about moving forward and making a recommendation in restoring the order of the deaconess,” he said.


Ecumenical Ramifications

Father Ron Roberson, associate director for the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told the Register that, in his view, were the Catholic Church to restore deaconesses, it “would not have a negative impact in terms of our relations” with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches.

But how a Catholic restoration of the deaconess would be received among the Orthodox would also largely depend on how the Catholic Church did it, according to Demacopoulos.

“If they go ahead and allow female deacons in the Amazon because context mandates that it is appropriate, that’s one thing,” Demacopoulos said. “It’s another thing if that is simply step one in a two-step process where they are instituted across the board in the Catholic world. Those would be two very different signals.”

Demacopoulos said the Orthodox would see Catholic deaconesses in Amazonia similar to the paradigm of married priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches. And if so, then the Catholic Church would be mirroring how this issue has been developing in the Orthodox world.

“If the Roman Catholic Church decides to grant it across the board, or leave it up to each subjurisdiction to do so,” he said, “then I think that has the potential to both amplify the cause for unity and the critique of unity simultaneously.”

Demacopoulos said, “The super-conservative voices within the Orthodox Church would see it as just one more reason that we shouldn’t get together with the Catholics because they’re going to make us do these progressive feminist things.”

Among “moderate, progressive or ordinary” Orthodox that favor this move, he said, they would “welcome it as both Churches kind of simultaneously affirming the theological implications of the Incarnation” and “use it as an impetus to call for more on the Orthodox side.”

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Demacopoulos noted, does not have the restoration of the deaconess as a top priority, but he has not opposed it either. If the Catholic Church went ahead with the deaconess, Demacopoulos believed the ecumenical patriarch would see it as historically orthodox and a development that “brings him and Francis and his view of Catholicism closer together.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.