Canonist Ed Peters corrals a series of objections to the prospect of female Catholic deacons at his blog, In the Light of the Law. Those who follow internal Catholic theological debates will surely be aware of how this concept is occasionally raised and slyly framed in varying ways: either as a sort of counterintuitive thought experiment, or a “halfway covenant” in which traditionalists concede this office in exchange for supposedly ending others’ calls for female priests, or (even more subversively) as an effort at ressourcement (the word “deaconess” appearing in early Church texts, possessing a meaning other than what contemporary activists want to assign it).
Since John Paul II’s statement on female priests in the 1994 letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the ‘question’ of the female diaconate, it’s true, hasn’t been addressed in precisely the same terms. But this does not imply it is a live question, much less constitute evidence (as some activists occasionally try to claim) that the Church is actually moving towards this revision. Rather, as Peters points out, we should take note of recent canon law actions against those who illicitly attempted female ordination, as these penalties were unusual and notable both for their weight and highly public character. A signal was being sent, one that:
. . . represents, I suggest, something more than a temporary disciplinary measure against prematurely implementing a sacramental development that might, in fact, never come. That such a severe sanction is levied at all suggests to me that some very significant—if not yet formally defined—values are being protected thereby.
Consider: sanctions for the invalid and/or illicit conferral of sacraments are relatively few in number, at least when compared to the total number of ways that such conferrals can be abused. Specifically in regard to ordination, only the illicit conferral of episcopal orders contrary to Canon 1382 is punished with excommunication; other violations of law in the context of ordination (say, conferral of orders without proper dimissorial letters, per c. 1383) carry lesser penalties. The same lighter touch marked the Pio-Benedictine Code (see, e.g., 1917 CIC 2364).
Ultimately, this comes down to the sacramental character of the diaconate in the Catholic Church. Ordination to the diaconate is not simply a matter of elevating a lay leader or anointing someone to ‘serve the community,’ as it is in a fair number of Protestant churches. And while a Catholic deacon’s ministry in some ways appears to mirror a minister’s more than a priest’s (in that it centers on the preaching of the Word and service to the community and is distinct from a priest’s central sacral function–deacons may not celebrate Mass or consecrate the Host), it nevertheless commences with the same sacrament that creates priests and bishops.
It would be impossible, then, to alter the character of the diaconate without simultaneously affecting the priesthood, reformulating the basic character of holy orders, and even touching questions of apostolic succession. Despite some theologians’ musings, this is not a proposal for a “minor reform” or a social concession in the way that female acolytes may be permitted (or not) on a diocesan basis. A very simple syllogism, grounded thoroughly in tradition and the Church’s positive pronouncements, should close the door on this misguided notion for good.