While I now try to keep a policy of avoiding every controversy from Rome, the hubbub on “deaconesses” is too great a temptation to resist and provides an opportunity for a solid catechizing moment, speaking as someone who has felt called to the order of deacon for eight years. What is a deaconess? Is a “deaconess” the same as a “woman deacon”? Did the Church really ever ordain women to the sacrament of Holy Orders? What would a deaconess do in the 21st century?
Odd as it is to say, the idea of restoring deaconesses poses a bigger problem for the Latin Church now, after Vatican II’s reforms to Holy Orders, than it would have before 1972 when bishops, priests, and deacons co-existed with the “man-made” minor orders and subdiaconate. The first are sacraments, while the second are sacramentals.
Bear with me now while we go through this step by step.
What is a deacon?
It may help to first define what a “deacon” is. I intend to write a complete article on this subject alone in future, but for now, the short version must suffice: a deacon (from the Greek diokonos, or “servant”) is a man ordained by the bishop to the lowest of the three degrees that comprise the sacrament of Order proper. It’s clear to most of us that the priest shares in the bishop’s ministry of Christ the High Priest; they both act in persona Christi capitis. The deacon, likewise, shares the ministry of Christ the Servant (in persona Christi servi). The bishop alone holds the fullness of orders. Nothing makes this so clear as when a bishop is clad in full traditional vesture, wearing the deacon’s dalmatic under his priestly chasuble.
While the priest’s role in the Church is quite clear; after all, without a priest, we have no Eucharist; the deacon’s is more nebulous or, shall we say, fluid. In the ancient Church, the deacon’s ministry of service seemed all-encompassing. They were entrusted not only with serving the bishop at the altar, but in the administration of his secular responsibilities, i.e. the Church’s finances and properties. Not a few early fathers complained that the deacons’ intimate relationship with the bishop led them to abuse his trust and lord it over the priesthood. See, for instance, Saint Jerome’s letter to Evangelus here:
“But you will say, how comes it then that at Rome a presbyter is only ordained on the recommendation of a deacon? To which I reply as follows. Why do you bring forward a custom which exists in one city only? Why do you oppose to the laws of the Church a paltry exception which has given rise to arrogance and pride?”
(Indeed, until the post-Vatican II reforms, the Roman rite of ordination to the priesthood had the archdeacon, who was not necessarily also a priest, call the candidates for priestly ordination forward. From the post-conciliar rite of 1968 onward, it must be a priest who does so.)
Can anyone other than a bishop, priest, and deacon be ordained?
At the onset of the Middle Ages, the deacons increasingly delegated their lesser duties to men of lower ranks. They acquired their own servants at the altar, who became known as acolytes. The duty of exorcising the catechumens; which was not performed merely once before baptism, but daily; was given to the order ofexorcists. The reading of lessons in the liturgy was delegated to lectors, save for the Gospel which the deacons reserved for themselves. Even the business of locking the church at night and re-opening it in the morning was passed down to the lowly porters. The most important ministries at the altar which could yet be delegated were given to the deacon’s closest assistant, the subdeacon.
The early medieval Church came to call these the minor orders: degrees that were not of divine origin like the “big three”, but instituted by the Church as sacramentals. Even though they were colloquially spoken of as “ordinations”, and often even conferred by the bishop at the same Mass as priestly and diaconal ordinations, there were yet some important distinctions. For many centuries, priestly and diaconal ordinations could only be conferred on the Easter Vigil or the four Ember Saturdays of the year; but the minor orders could be given on any day, and not even necessarily in the middle of Mass. Only a bishop could ordain priests and deacons; but “ordinations” to the minor orders, which were more akin to blessings, could be given by mere priests in certain conditions (more usually by mitred abbots or cardinal priests). Importantly, at least in the Latin Church, only priestly and diaconal ordinations were made by the laying of the bishop’s hands over the candidate. For every other order, “ordination” was made merely by the presenting of a sacred object for the candidate to touch. Even the subdeacon, who by the 13th century came to be regarded as a major cleric (in the West, but not the East) by virtue of his proximity to the altar and promises of celibacy, was ordained merely by the touching of an empty chalice and paten presented to him by the bishop.
For one reason or another, these “sacramental but non-sacramentary” ordinations were deemed confusing or obsolete after the Second Vatican Council, so in 1972, Pope Paul VI completely reorganized them for the Latin Church in the motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam. The orders of lector and acolyte were retained but retitled “ministries”, and those who held them were no longer to be referred to as clerics, as they had been in the past. The ministry of acolyte was also to subsume any surviving functions formerly reserved to subdeacons. The orders of porter and exorcist were suppressed, though bishops’ conferences could elect to petition Rome to restore them or institute new ministries for their regions (no bishops’ conference has, to date, ever taken up this offer).
What is a deaconess?
What documentation from the first centuries of the Church tells us about deaconesses is shrouded in mystery. There may be aspects of it which are forever lost to time. It’s certain that our Lord had women who were disciples in the general sense. The Apostles, likewise, employed women to serve the Church in some capacity; hence, in his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul commends the services of Phoebe, who is called a diokonos. However, since that word is a general term for “servant”, it’s no evidence that women shared in the sacrament of Order, properly speaking, alongside ordained deacons. It is only in the second century that any idea of deaconess as a real office seems to take shape, only to disappear again by the eighth century in all but the rarest of instances.
The Eastern Church’s Didascalia Apostolorum, originating in the middle of the 3rd century, gives the first concrete description of a deaconess’s duties. While a deacon’s responsibilities are vast, a deaconess is commissioned to minister specifically to women. Chief among them is the anointing of a female catechumen’s body at baptism; which, in the early centuries, was still common among adult converts, and was necessarily by immersion in the nude. No culture would have thought it appropriate for a priest or deacon to anoint a woman’s naked body, so having a woman perform the anointing was a practical necessity.
Furthermore, from antiquity up to the beginning of the modern era (and to this day in much of the third world), life was segregated by sex in ways we might struggle to comprehend. Men and women stood on opposite sides of the church; a practice still recommended, at least on paper, in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (and still observed today in traditional Russian Orthodox churches). It was improper for a man, especially a priest, to visit a woman’s home alone. And thus, the office of deaconess naturally arose to fulfill the needs of a society with strict cultural norms. The deaconess escorted the priest to the lone woman’s home during sick calls. She catechized women and girls, and governed them in professed communities.
If some of those duties are starting to sound familiar, it’s because deaconesses were among the first to form communities of women religious. However, they soon found that no ordination was needed for women who only ever interacted with other women; and the vast majority of women religious in the early centuries of monasticism were strictly cloistered nuns (rather than the 1950’s sort we imagine with Ingrid Bergman teaching boys how to sing). Further, as the pagan empires and tribes gave way to Christendom, there was less need to baptize adults, and so the deaconesses’ most important function fell into abeyance.
Were deaconesses ordained?
Yes; or at least, some of them were. Again, we should recall that ordinations may be given as sacramentals, not necessarily just to the three degrees in the sacrament of Order. In Syria, the 4th century Constitutiones Apostolorum has a rite of ordination for deaconesses even with the imposition of hands…. and yet, it is emphatically not the same as the rite of ordination for a (male) deacon. Only to the deacon does the bishop pray,
“fill him with the spirit and with power as thou didst fill Stephen the martyr and follower of the sufferings of thy Christ”.
The Council of Nicaea, sensing confusion in the status of deaconesses, sought to make things perfectly clear by forbidding them to be ordained through the imposition of hands, declaring in canon 19:
“We refer to deaconesses who have been granted this status, for they do not receive any imposition of hands, so that they are in all respects to be numbered among the laity.”
Do we need deaconesses today?
If there was some reasonable assurance that the Church at large was capable of understanding the proper role of a deaconess as employed by our ancient forefathers in faith… then yes, I can see some advantage to restoring them. If, God willing, I were to exercise the diaconal ministry in the future, I would be quite glad to have a deaconess accompany me to a woman’s house if I were bringing Communion to her while her husband was away at work, just to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety. There may be further applications of such an office in countries like India, where traditional gender segregation still prevails, that I couldn’t possibly be aware of. And, at last, as our world returns to the paganism of old Rome, the order of deaconess might rise up again out of natural need as the “smaller” Church Benedict XVI spoke of must once again baptize adult women by the hundreds.
But as it stands, we all know that any talk of “deaconesses” will inevitably be co-opted by those with another agenda. Father James Martin, SJ, for instance, has already framed it in terms of “women deacons” in direct contradiction of Church history and everything I wrote heretofore. In his own words:
“Women deacons would be able to baptize, preside at marriages and funerals, and preach during various liturgies. Their preaching would mean that the church would finally be able to hear, from the pulpit, the experience of over half its members.
What kinds of things could women deacons preach on? Everything of course, like male deacons! But imagine them preaching on the following: The Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, the Syrophoenician woman, the appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, and on and on. Women deacons could preach on anything, like male deacons, but how I long to hear them preach on Jesus and on women in the New Testament. (I’d love to hear them preach on men in the Bible as well!)”
In the end, I suspect any study on deaconesses or women as deacons by Rome will come to naught for just the reason I mentioned at the beginning: the Vatican II reforms to Holy Orders. It is, ironically, Pope Paul VI who closed the door to deaconesses in the modern Church; not the men of tradition. For those who are still exposed to the minor orders today, such as Eastern Rite Catholics or Latin Catholics who are ministered to by the FSSP or Institute of Christ the King (whose seminaries still retain the pre-1972 use of the minor orders and subdiaconate), it can be understood that the Church can ordain someone as a mere sacramental. We don’t have to go very far back in history to find examples of the pre-conciliar Church conferring other privileges on women religious which might, on the surface, appear to be strictly clerical. Abbesses have, from time to time, been given the privilege of carrying the crozier or even wearing the mitre on very specific occasions. Even today, sisters of the Norbertine Order are properly called canonesses, even though the title of “canon” is typically associated only with priests (whether regular or secular).
Until the minor orders are restored, the Church can only restore “deaconess” to an instituted ministry at best… and that’s an alternative that has no appeal to the advocates of women’s ordination. In fact, a vocation to the deaconess of antiquity is just about the least glamorous, sexy thing imaginable for their ilk. If anything, a ministry which exists solely to minister to other women and perpetuate divisions between the sexes would be a complete step backward in their eyes! The ideal candidate for “deaconess” was a woman at least forty years of age, preferably a widow or spinster, perhaps a midwife or in some other non-professional occupation dedicated to women’s needs. The perfect match for a restored order of deaconess in our century would not be the “liberated” woman with an agenda and three graduate degrees to prove it, but rather, the archetypal “old rosary lady”.
As future studies come to the same conclusion as that which I’ve outlined in this essay, the more likely scenario will be that women’s ordination groups suddenly call a retreat and ask the book to be closed on all talk of deaconesses once they dread the horrid reality of its implications for them. The alternative would be to give official title to the very class of women they consider to be either brainwashed or, worse yet, traitors to the female sex.
Originally published at Modern Medievalism.
James Griffin is a convert from Seventh-day Adventism and currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter. An autodidact and self-proclaimed expert in medieval history, liturgy, and culture, James also has a keen interest in sacred music, and has dedicated many years to restoring the hallowed tradition of Gregorian chant in his native Texas. You can find more of his musings on his blog, Modern Medievalism.