Pope Francis agreed to set up a “Study Commission on Women in the Diaconate” in response to a request made on May 12 during a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General of women religious. He accepted this suggestion from the floor, and invited the president of the organization to nominate members. During a later press conference, however, the pope said he was surprised and angered by media headlines announcing that he was “opening the door” to the ordination of women deacons. He objected that he had only acknowledged that, since the role of deaconesses in the early Church was a bit unclear, it would be good to clarify it. Pope Francis is known to oppose “clericalism” and “careerism” in the Church. (In an interview in La Stampa in 2013, he asked whether those who want women to be named cardinals did not suffer a bit from clericalism!) He spoke of the danger of clericalism, in fact, during his May 12 meeting with the superiors of women religious. Pope Francis wants all the baptized, not just the clergy, to be involved in decision-making in the Church.
On August 2, however, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had made good on his promise. He has appointed a commission composed of six women and six men to study the diaconate of women in the early Church. The Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ, will chair the group.
The study of women in the diaconate is not an entirely new project. The International Theological Commission (ITC), an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed the topic in Le Diaconat: Evolution et Perspectives, a formal study conducted over ten years, completed in 2002, and published early in 2003. (An unofficial English translation is available on the Vatican website or from Hillenbrand Books.) In fact, scholars and various Church commissions have studied this topic over and over again since the seventeenth century! What is new is that women in the diaconate will be the explicit focus of a commission set up by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that half of the theologians named by the Pope to serve on it are women, and that a leading advocate for women’s admission to the diaconate, Professor Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, is one of the members.
The ITC study provides a much-needed foundation for the commission’s work. Compared to the new commission, the ITC study had a wider scope. It took up the history and sacramentality of the diaconate itself, identified several theological questions that have been raised since the restoration of the diaconate as “a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” by Vatican II (Lumen gentium §29 and Orientalium Ecclesiarum §17), and reported on its contemporary implementation. Within this larger context, the ITC report deals with the “ministry of deaconesses” and “the disappearance of deaconesses.” It identifies two important “indications” touching on the diaconate of women that emerge from its research:
(1) the deaconesses in the early Church, from the evidence related to their rites of institution and their functions, “were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons”; and
(2) “the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of Bishops and Priests on the one hand and the Diaconal ministry on the other,” is strongly underlined by ecclesial Tradition, especially in the teaching of Vatican II and the post-conciliar Magisterium.
The first finding appears to exclude women on the grounds that deaconesses were not admitted to the same office as deacons, and the second finding names the problem the ordination of women as deacons would pose for understanding the unity of the sacrament. Since the diaconate is a grade or degree of Holy Orders (The Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], §1554), the unity of the sacrament seems to require that its subject, who is the sacramental sign, be a baptized male. In the end, the ITC referred the question to the discernment and authoritative decision of the Magisterium.
Encouraged by this apparent openness, advocates for the admission of women to the diaconate have continued to examine the historical sources—early Church orders, ancient and medieval rites, and literary and epigraphical evidence. Many of them dispute the ITC’s finding on the lack of “equivalence” between the women’s and the men’s office. Presumably, then, the commission will take any new or neglected research into account when it revisits this and the question of whether women were ordained to the sacred ministry.
In my judgment, the evidence to date indicates that deaconesses belonged to a women’s order analogous to the male diaconate, carried out a ministry to women (in the congregation or in a monastic community), were ordained in rites similar but not identical to those for men (e.g., the typology in the prayers is either feminine or masculine), and were prohibited from the liturgical ministry at the altar entrusted to deacons. The ministry of deaconesses was sui generis; it was not included in the cursus honorum (the progression from lower to higher ministerial roles), even though deaconesses were sometimes regarded as members of the clergy. The burden of proof seems to lie with those who argue that deaconesses belonged to the same order as deacons.
In the Catholic Church, it should be noted, establishing and evaluating the historical facts is only one step in an evaluation of this topic. The properly theological question, treated in the ITC document, is the sacramentality of the diaconate itself. Deacons are ordained to the “ministry” as distinct from the “priesthood” (CCC §1569), but their office, exercised without interruption since apostolic times, has been recognized as belonging to “major orders” since the twelfth century. And the Church has always taught that the sacrament of Holy Orders is reserved to men (CCC §1577).
Sister Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., is professor emerita of dogmatic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.