Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Did the Catholic Church Ordain Women Deacons?

Catholic Deaconesses in the Early Church and Why They Were Not Ordained Deacons

Deaconesses were women who served the Church in various ways, such as assisting in the baptism and anointing of women, distributing communion to sick women, teaching and catechizing women converts, and caring for the poor and the widows. They were not, however, ordained deacons in the same sense as men who received the sacrament of holy orders and participated in the ministry of the word, the altar, and the governance of the Church.

The term "deaconess" comes from the Greek word diakonos, which means "servant" or "minister". In the New Testament, this word is used in a general sense to refer to anyone who serves Christ and his Church, such as Paul, Timothy, Phoebe, and even the civil authorities (Romans 13:4). It is also used in a specific sense to refer to those who are appointed to a special service in the Church, such as the seven men chosen by the apostles to assist in the distribution of food to the widows (Acts 6:1-6).

The only woman in the New Testament who is explicitly called a diakonos is Phoebe, whom Paul commends as "a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae" (Romans 16:1). However, this does not necessarily mean that she was ordained to a specific office or function since the word diakonos was still used in a very general sense at that time. Moreover, Paul does not mention any specific tasks or duties that Phoebe performed as a deaconess, except that she was a "benefactor" or "patron" of many people, including Paul himself (Romans 16:2).

In the early centuries of the Church, there is evidence that some women were appointed or consecrated as deaconesses by bishops, especially in the Eastern churches. The most detailed source for this practice is the Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of ecclesiastical laws and liturgical texts compiled in Syria around the fourth century. According to this document, deaconesses were to be chosen from among mature and reputable women, preferably widows or virgins, who had dedicated themselves to God. They were to be consecrated by the bishop with the laying on of hands and a prayer of blessing, similar to that used for deacons. However, they were not to receive the imposition of hands on their heads, as this was reserved for those who received holy orders. They were also not to wear any distinctive garment or insignia that would indicate a clerical status.

The main role of deaconesses was to assist in the baptism of women, since this involved full immersion in water and anointing of the whole body with oil. Deaconesses were also responsible for instructing and preparing women catechumens for baptism and confirmation. In addition, they could distribute communion to sick women who could not attend the liturgy, visit and comfort women prisoners and martyrs, and perform works of charity and mercy for the needy.

Deaconesses were not, however, authorized to preach, teach, or exercise any authority over men in the Church. They were also not allowed to serve at the altar or touch any sacred vessels or objects as a deacon would. However, they would function like altar girls/women.  They were subordinate to the bishop and his presbyters (priests) and deacons, who alone possessed the sacrament of holy orders and exercised the threefold ministry of Christ as prophet, priest, and king.

The institution of deaconesses gradually declined and disappeared in both the East and the West by the Middle Ages. Several factors contributed to this development, such as:

- The change in the mode of baptism from immersion to infusion (pouring), which reduced the need for deaconesses to assist in this sacrament.

- The rise of monasticism and religious orders for women, which offered alternative ways for women to dedicate themselves to God and serve the Church.

- The reform of the clergy and the restoration of celibacy for deacons in both lungs of the Church.

- The opposition of some bishops and priests to deaconesses, who saw them as a threat to their authority and influence.

Today, some Christian churches have revived or introduced the ordination of women as deacons or deaconesses. However, this practice is not accepted by the Catholic Church, which teaches that only men can receive holy orders as bishops, priests, or deacons (see: Sacerdotus: Why the Catholic Church Cannot Ordain Women). This teaching is based on:

- The example and will of Christ, who chose only men as his apostles and entrusted them with his authority and mission.

- The constant tradition and practice of the Church, which has always reserved holy orders to men alone.

- The magisterial teaching of the Church, which has definitively declared that the Church has no authority to ordain women to holy orders.

In 2002, the International Theological Commission, a body of theologians appointed by the pope to advise him on doctrinal matters, issued a document on the history and theology of the diaconate. In this document, the commission concluded that deaconesses in the early Church were not equivalent to deacons and did not receive holy orders. Therefore, the commission stated, "it is not possible to see in the diaconal ministry of women as it was developed in the ancient Church a clear basis for a possible sacramental ordination of women deacons in the future." (From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles, n. 88)

The commission also suggested that the Church could consider other ways of enhancing the role and participation of women in the Church, without ordaining them to holy orders. For example, the commission proposed that "the ministries already accessible to women — whether in direct collaboration with the priestly ministry or in the many activities of charity and assistance — could be more clearly defined and more intensely promoted, so that they may be more highly valued and appreciated." (Ibid., n. 89)

In conclusion, deaconesses were women who served the Church in various ways in the early centuries, but they were not ordained deacons in the same sense as men who received holy orders. The Catholic Church does not ordain women as deacons or priests, because this is contrary to the will of Christ and the tradition of the Church. However, the Church recognizes and appreciates the many contributions of women to the life and mission of the Church, and encourages them to use their gifts and talents for the glory of God and the good of his people.


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## References

- History of Deaconesses | EWTN - EWTN Global Catholic Television Network https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/history-of-deaconesses-4813

- The Order of Deaconesses in the Early church - Women Priests https://womenpriests.org/articles-books/hannon3-the-order-of-deaconesses-in-the-early-church/

- Deaconesses? Sure. ‘Women Deacons’? Not So Fast. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/deaconesses-sure-women-deacons-not-so-fast

- Should Women Be Ordained Catholic Deacons? - Boston University https://www.bu.edu/articles/2022/should-women-be-ordained-catholic-deacons/

- From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020222_diaconate_en.html

Sacerdotus: Pope Francis & Deaconesses

Sacerdotus: Deaconess Commission

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