When Pope Francis announced his willingness to appoint a commission to study whether women can serve as deacons in the Catholic Church, my first thought was: Here we go!
And sure enough, FutureChurch, the liberal Catholic organization that has subtly pushed for the ordination of women to the hitherto all-male Catholic priesthood, not only praised Francis for his statement but announced its intention to set up a CatholicWomenDeacons.org website, sponsor a retreat for women feeling the “call” to become deacons, and, clearly most important of all, lobby the U.S. bishops to start pestering Rome about opening the diaconate to the female sex. The less subtle Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) faulted Francis for not going all the way and opening the priesthood to women, but it did offer him some limited praise: “WOC advocates that a new commission on the diaconate include discussions on priestly ordination for women in the Roman Catholic Church.”
The “discussions” WOC has in mind seem to be historical in nature. In its press statement, WOC invokes “historical evidence” of the existence of “several women deacons” in the early Church and asserts that, in ordaining women deacons, the Vatican would merely be “recognizing its own history.”
But a look at that history may cause us to doubt whether the aspiring women deacons of today really are in line with the historical Christian women they claim as their forebears.
There is no question that women deacons, even ordained women deacons, performed an ecclesiastical function for many centuries in the early Church. Exactly what that function was, however, is difficult to figure out. We know of Phoebe, the “deacon of the church,” whom Paul mentions in his letter to the Romans. But the Greek noun “diakonos” that Paul uses—which in classical Greek had no specific female gender—meant “servant” during the first century. The same noun is used in John’s Gospel to denote the servants who filled up the water jars during the wedding feast at Cana, and it appears in the Acts of the Apostles with respect to the seven men who were chosen to feed to the poor while the apostles focused on prayer and preaching.
Christian documents of the third and fourth centuries provide more detail, and they seem to depict an increasingly elaborate and formally honored role for women deacons. These documents refer specifically to deaconesses (“diakonissai”), and at least one mentions a bishop’s laying his hands on these women in a kind of ordination ceremony that recognized their special office. Other early documents, mostly from the Eastern Church but also occasionally in the West, name some women as “deaconesses.” These women were almost invariably either widows or celibates who had chosen some form of the monastic life. Their duties largely consisted of charitable works and participating in the baptisms of adult women, in the days when immersion baptism was universal and it would have appeared scandalous for a male priest to immerse a naked woman. These deaconesses sometimes assisted priests at the liturgy—a not uncommon practice among nuns whose only male contact was their priest.
The nunnishness of the early Christian women who became deaconesses is striking. And it is a feature that persisted, even into fairly recent history. Deaconesses disappeared from both the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches during the Middle Ages, when the office of “deacon,” with its specifically liturgical functions of preaching and reading the Gospel, became a formal part of Holy Orders and thus open only to men. Only the Armenian Church continued to ordain deaconesses to serve at the altar, up through the early twentieth century. And it should be noted that every one of those Armenian deaconesses was a nun, often the abbess of her convent.
I suspect that few of the women who suddenly feel the “call” to the Catholic diaconate in light of Pope Francis’s statement will likewise be willing to enter nunneries—much less to adopt the very feminine title of “deaconess.” Most of those pushing for women deacons are interested not in restoring an aspect of early Christian history but in acquiring political power in today’s Catholic Church. Their goal is the priesthood and, ultimately, the episcopate—just as it was for women deacons when the Anglican Church began recognizing their office as part of Holy Orders during the 1960s. Our aspiring women deacons view the female diaconate not as a historical revival, but as a camel’s nose in the clerical tent.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.