Saint Ignatius of Antioch: “Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the bishop as the image of the Father, and the presbyters as the senate of God and the assembly of the Apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church.”
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 March 2019
It is quite common today for women to be “ordained” as “deaconesses” in some Protestant communities. I recall once presiding over a funeral outside of Mass. After the service was completed, a woman approached me and stated that she was an Episcopal Deaconess. She inferred that we were two people on the same ministerial level, albeit serving in distinct, legitimate communities. Given the public setting, I chose to greet her kindly, listen politely, excuse myself, and then move on. It was not the place to mention the fact that Protestants lost apostolic succession with their 16th-century departure from full communion with the Church of Jesus Christ. Because of this intentional and perpetuated rupture, they today lack valid Holy Orders. Consequently, they do not have validly ordained bishops, priests, or deacons, not to mention deaconesses.
Beginning in the late 20th century with the development of new ideologies about inclusiveness and equality of the sexes, there’s been an increasing push for women’s ordination. Eleven women were ordained in the Episcopal Church on 29 July 1974, although their ordination was considered to be irregular by that same church until it was later approved under pressure by its national governing body. On 12 March 1994, thirty-two women were “ordained” as Church of England “priests.” Today, it is quite common to find women ministers in Protestant ecclesial communities who claim to be priests, deacons and even bishops. This situation has led to a number of Catholics thinking that women can and should be ordained to the priesthood and, if not, at least to the diaconate.
According to both the extraordinary and ordinary magisterium of the Church, women cannot be admitted to the priesthood. There are many theological reasons for this restriction. But what about the diaconate? While it’s been the ordinary teaching of the Church that only men can receive sacred Orders, there’s no irreformable pronouncement against women deacons as of yet. Consequently, people see the door as still open.
If there are theological problems with the notion of women “priests,” can the same be said of women receiving Orders to the diaconate? Yes. Women’s ordination to the diaconate is theologically problematic for a number of reasons, which include the unity of the sacrament of Orders (between bishops, priests and deacons); that Orders has always been restricted to men only; that male deacons image Jesus Christ, the suffering servant; that deacons share in the bishop’s office of teaching, sanctifying and governing; that deacons as men proclaim the male words of Christ in the gospel and occasionally preach as homilists (something which only ordained men can do). All of this points to how the three degrees of the hierarchy (bishop, priest and deacon) are exercised in persona Christi Capitis. The office of deacon in the Church is a male office and male role.
Scripture is often cited as evidence for admitting women to the sacrament of Orders as deaconesses. Although Scripture does mention deaconesses in a number of places, that in itself is not an indication that they received the sacrament of Orders. It’s always been commonly understood that deaconesses in the early Church were women installed into a ministry of service to women, for example as given the duty of assisting during baptismal rites for purposes of modesty. Women who assisted during a baptismal rite did not themselves confer the sacrament. Bishops, priests and deacons did that. Women did not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders; nor were they admitted through sacred Orders to the hierarchy of the Church.
Nevertheless, people often insist on women deacons. Consequently, the International Theological Commission examined the issue. A few of their findings are presented below. And Pope Francis established a Vatican commission to further investigate the matter. What did the commission find? Interestingly, perhaps strangely, it seems the commission gave its opinion to Pope Francis several months ago. However, the Pope has not passed it along to the Church.
Nevertheless, we have some second-hand news on the commission’s findings.
An article written by Dr. Maike Hickson for LifeSite News reports that Professor Peter Hünermann, a prominent German theologian with connections to members of the German bishops’ doctrinal commission, has stated that the Vatican commission on the ordination of female deacons found “there is no historical evidence that in patristics women were ordained as deacons.”
The Vatican commission was founded by Pope Francis in 2016 to study the history of female deacons and the possibility of women receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders to the diaconate. It seems the purpose of the commission was more to try to show that women could receive Holy Orders than that they could not, since the Church has no teaching whatsoever that allows for women to be ordained and admitted to the hierarchy. Another possibility would be for the commission to finally put to rest the many claims that women can be ordained to the diaconate.
If the commission could show historical evidence indicating that women received the sacrament of Orders as deaconesses in the early Church, then that would establish a precedent for doing so in the future. However, according to Hünermann’s statement, the commission found that women have never received Orders. There’s no historical basis for the ordination of women to the diaconate.
Those findings are not unique.
According to the LifeSite News article, the same position is held by the former head of the CDF Cardinal Gerhard Müller and by Professor Karl-Heinz Menke, who is a member of the 2016 Vatican commission. Menke stated in 2016: “A female diaconate has nowhere and never participated in the office transmitted by ordination.”
Again, while there are instances of deaconesses in the early Church, they were given a ministry of service to women, not ordained to the order of the diaconate. Such a function is similar in many ways to women’s ministry in the Church today. Women in the Church engage in many different types of ministerial functions—and thankfully, because what they do is important. We have women lectors, extraordinary ministers of communion, sacristans, prayer groups, hospitality ministers, women religious, etc. But we do not have female clergy.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Canon 1024, states: “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination” (1577). Here the main context seems to be ordination to the priesthood; however, as the International Theological Commission notes (see below), there is a unity in the sacrament of Orders between the male offices of bishop, priest and deacon, as well as the fact that there is only one sacrament of Orders. There are not separate sacraments of Orders for men and women. When a man receives this sacrament, he is ordained to the clerical state and thus becomes a member of the male hierarchy, which consists of three degrees: bishop, priest and deacon.
In 2002, the International Theological Commission (ITC) did a detailed study on the subject of the diaconate. It’s findings are recorded in its document “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.” Below are a few of the salient points with regard to women deacons.
The Didascalia speaks about deaconesses as only “for the service of women” (DA 2, 44, 3-4). For example, women were allowed to assist during baptisms such as carrying out the anointing, but they were not allowed to administer the sacrament themselves.
The Constitutiones states that deaconesses have no liturgical function and must devote themselves to the “service of women” (CA 3, 16, 1), they are to “do nothing without the deacon” (CA 2, 26, 6), with their functions summed up this way: “The deaconess does not bless, and she does not fulfill any of the things that priests and deacons do, but she looks after the doors and attends the priests during the baptism of women, for the sake of decency.” (CA 8, 28, 6)
The ITC states: “This is echoed by the almost contemporary observation of Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion, in around 375: “There is certainly in the Church the order of deaconesses, but this does not exist to exercise the functions of a priest, nor are they to have any undertaking committed to them, but for the decency of the feminine sex at the time of baptism.”
It’s important to note that the ITC did not make a formal, authoritative pronouncement on whether women can be admitted to the diaconate, since it is advisory in nature. That task belongs to the magisterium of the Church. Its conclusion, however, indicates that the ordination of women to the diaconate would not harmonize with the teaching nor historical practice of the Church. The ITC concludes with these statements:
In the current consciousness of the Church there is only one single sacrament of Holy Orders. Vatican II, taking up the teaching of Pius XII, affirmed this unity and saw the episcopate, the priesthood and the diaconate as included within it. According to the decision of Paul VI it is only these three ordained ministries which constitute the clerical state. However, concerning the diaconate the Council cautiously speaks only of “sacramental grace”. After Vatican II, Paul VI and the CCE (no. 1570) teach that the deacon, through ordination, receives the character of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Can. 1008 of the CIC states that the three ordained ministries are exercised in persona Christi Capitis. Following Lumen gentium 29, which attributed to the deacon the solemn administration of baptism (cf. SC 68), can. 861, 1 spoke of each of the three ordained ministers as ordinary ministers of this sacrament; can. 129 recognized that the potestas regiminis belonged to all those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders.
On the other hand, the difference between the sacerdotal ministries and the diaconal ministry is also underlined. The Council statement that the deacon is not ordained for priesthood but for ministry was taken up by various documents of the post-Conciliar Magisterium. Most clearly of all, the CCE (no. 154) distinguishes within one and the same ordinatio, the gradus participations sacerdotalis of the episcopate and the priesthood, and the gradus servitii of the diaconate. The diaconate, by the very nature of its way of participating in the one mission of Christ, carries out this mission in the manner of an auxiliary service. It is “icona vivens Christi servi in Ecclesia” but, precisely as such, it maintains a constitutive link with the priestly ministry to which it lends its aid (cf. LG 41). It is not just any service which is attributed to the deacon in the Church: his service belongs to the sacrament of Holy Orders, as a close collaboration with the bishop and the priests, in the unity of the same ministerial actualization of the mission of Christ. The CCE (no. 1554) quotes Saint Ignatius of Antioch: “Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the bishop as the image of the Father, and the presbyters as the senate of God and the assembly of the Apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church.”
With regard to the ordination of women to the diaconate, it should be noted that two important indications emerge from what has been said up to this point:
1. The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons;
2. The unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the Magisterium.
Can women receive sacred Orders to the diaconate? The evidence indicates that it has never happened before. Could it happen in the future? While there’s been no definitive prohibition from the universal magisterium, it seems very difficult if not impossible to square it theologically.
One has to ask why it’s necessary at all? Why the push for women’s ordination to the diaconate? Is it just that it seems culturally appropriate, given the radical gender ideology of the age? Is it viewed as a stepping stone to the priesthood for women? That is indeed the case for some. If women are ordained as deacons, then they have received sacred Orders. They would be members of the hierarchy. It certainly would provide a strong impetus for women priests. Even though that door is closed, it would likely lead to further confusion and division.
Many insist that it would be a step toward a more modernized, inclusive Church, as if that is a necessary “solution.” But the Church does not—and must never—allow post-modern ideologies to govern her doctrines; for if that were the case, the gates of hell would indeed prevail. The Church cannot sway with the chaotic winds of culture. She stands as an ark of continuity, grace, and truth, a beacon of light positioned on a hill in the midst of a dark, uncertain, and depraved world.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.