Pope Francis says a lot of things that get under the skin of the Katholik Krazies. The comments about many (if not most) contemporary marriages being invalid because so many people today don’t understand—and consequently cannot make—lifelong commitment is only one thing. His recent agreement to authorize a study about women deacons is another—and probably even more threatening.
The reason that women deacons are such a threat to the established (and, let’s me hones, patriarchal) Church order is that the diaconate is the firewall to the priesthood. Ordination to the diaconate is the final step before Ordination to priesthood, and to ordain women to the diaconate—well, dollars to maniples, it is only a matter of time before we will see women being ordained priests and bishops. At least this is what the krazies fear—and, frankly, I think they are right. Once we are used to the sight of a woman in an alb and stole standing at the altar, our emotional prejudices against women in the ordained ministries will somewhat quickly evaporate. As a faithful Catholic I will agree that the priesthood (and episcopate) is closed to women; as a historian I have to say that the trajectory of history says it is only a matter of time.
Deaconesses are mentioned as early as Paul’s letter to the Romans which refers to Phoebe as a deaconess. (The Greek text uses this word but—at the insistence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Catholic translations usually use the word “servant”—which is a literal translation of the Greek and which can be applied as well to male deacons.) Both Christian writers (Clement of Alexandria and Origen) and pagan writers (Pliny the Younger) refer to deaconesses in the Christian communities. Saints Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa all refer to ordained deaconesses and their ministry as well.
Traditionalists acknowledge that there were deaconesses in the early Church but they claim that a deaconess is not a woman deacon, that deacons and deaconesses are two distinct offices and that the deaconesses did not share in the sacramental character attributed to deacons. That question bears study but we need a very careful monitum (that’s Latin for “warning” for those, including some of our younger clergy, who like to pray in Latin but don’t understand a word of it). We cannot attribute the 21st century theological understanding of the Sacrament of Orders which we embrace to the Church of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. Our theology has evolved considerably—and in this case especially with the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic (and neo-scholastic) theologians who follow him and who for centuries now have held the balance of power in Catholic theological thought. We must compare the deaconesses of late antiquity, not to how we understand deacons today but to how the Church of the late Roman world (and also the Byzantine world where women deacons continued to function until about the 12th century) understood male deacons in their day. Did the Church of those early centuries consider deaconesses to be women deacons or did they understand them to be in a “separate and unequal” position?
On the one hand, deacons and deaconesses had distinctly different ministries. Deaconesses were assigned ministry to women where male deacons would not have been accepted. In the Roman world women were always under the “protection” of a male—their fathers until marriage, then their husband, and in their widowhood their eldest surviving son. A woman had no status before the law and could neither sue nor be sued—the legal burden fell on the man under whose protection she dwelt. In such an environment it was necessary that certain ministrations to women, especially to the sick and the enfeebled and to women in childbirth, be carried out by a woman who could move comfortably around a Roman household. But in fact, male deacons were designated for the care of the poor and the sick as well so the major difference was not the work but to whom they ministered. Women deacons, unlike men deacons, did not directly participate in liturgical leadership. The women’s choir was under their direction but they themselves did not step forward to proclaim the Gospel. But again, it would have been considered inappropriate for a woman to have entered the all-male presbyterium where the clergy took their places around the altar. Women deacons did have a liturgical role however in the sacrament of Baptism where they performed the actual baptism of women as the men deacons baptized the males.
As the Roman world dissolved into the chaos of the Barbarian West the legal and social distinctions between women and men also dissolved. Women were much more free to interact with men as equals—and even superiors—and the need for separate ministers for women became less pressing. At the same time in the West baptism by immersion began to be replaced by pouring or sprinkling and nudity was not required for the baptismal candidates, removing the need for women to be baptized by women. The female diaconate survived however primarily in monastic communities where the abbess and perhaps a few senior nuns were still set apart (to avoid using the controversial word “ordained”) as deaconesses. They wore the stole and maniple as did male deacons and sang the Gospel during the liturgical offices (and seemingly at Mass should no male deacon be present) though they sung it from within their choir and not from the presbyterium. Deaconesses lasted somewhat later in the Eastern Churches—in public churches perhaps until the seventh century and in monastic communities until the 12th. But like in the West, as the primary function of the deacon became strictly liturgical, women were increasingly excluded.
A curious vestige of the female diaconate has survived in the Western Church were the hermit-nuns of the Carthusian Order—the most secluded of the monastic orders—still receive at their final profession of vows the stole and maniple. These nuns also still sing the Gospel during the Night Offices.
Deacons are ordained and receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders but they do not receive nor participate in the priesthood (as do presbyters and bishops) other than to the extent and manner in which all the baptized faithful share in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ as members of God’s Priestly People. One can still maintain, therefore, the current teaching of the Church that participation in the hierarchical Priesthood of the Episcopate—in which the presbyters (priests) share—is reserved by Divine Law to men and favor the ordination of women to the diaconate. But my earlier point that the cultural barriers against admitting women to the ordained priesthood will evaporate as we accommodate to women deacons stands. The opposition to women deacons is because the all-male diaconate is the firewall that protects an all-male priesthood.