Mapping out a lost ministry

Mapping out a lost ministry
Is a Vatican commission set to oblige Pope Francis to restore the female diaconate, asks Greg Daly


It seemed somehow appropriate that hardly had Minister Josepha Madigan sought to frame her impromptu leading of an ad hoc Communion service as a story about women being denied a role in the Church’s ministry that the head of the Church’s doctrinal watchdog declared that a Vatican study on women deacons would not be advising Pope Francis on whether he should re-establish the ministry.

“The Holy Father did not ask us to study if women could be deacons,” Cardinal-designate Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told press on June 26, two days ahead of being created a cardinal by the Pope. “The Holy Father asked us to search to say in a clear way the issues…that were present in the early Church on this point of the women’s diaconate.”

Explaining that the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, founded by Pope Francis in August 2016, had been primarily tasked with considering what role female deacons had served in the first Christian centuries, Cardinal Ladaria said that it had not been the commission’s role to advise on whether women could be ordained deacons today.

“This is not what the Holy Father asked and it is not our job,” he said.


Describing the commission’s work as being at “a good point”, he said there were questions around whether female and male deacons had fulfilled the same role – indeed, whether they were the same sort of thing – and around whether this was a universal or localised phenomenon.

The latter point is, after all, one that bedevils the study of almost anything to do with the institutions of the Roman Empire and late Antiquity. If historians find evidence of something, does that mean it was a common phenomenon or simply an anomaly, a culturally distinct and conditioned one-off? At what point are there enough examples of things for historians to be able to say with confidence that they are not looking at anomalies and exceptions, and are looking at a clear and definite pattern pointing to a credible reality?

The question of whether women could be ordained deacons today is one the Vatican has been pondering since at least the 1970s, with a study commissioned by Blessed Paul VI having been suppressed, although in 1974 a member of that commission published an article concluding that women had indeed been ordained in the early Church, with such ordinations being regarded as sacramental.

The diaconate, it is worth remembering, was essentially ‘invented’ by the Church, with the Apostles, overstretched and needing to devote themselves to prayer and preaching, having called the first seven deacons to serve the early Church. These deacons were not ‘transitional’ deacons, as we would term them, men on the way to priesthood, but ‘permanent’ deacons, men with a distinct role and vocation.

This office flourished in the Church into the 5th Century, and then began to fade out, such that by the high Middle Ages it was almost defunct, not to be restored until the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

There are pointers even in Scripture to some deacons having been women, with Paul at Romans 16:1-2 describing one Phoebe as “a deacon of the Church in Cenchreae”.

Although this might be generically a reference to her as a servant of the Church, it is harder to explain away the reference at 1 Timothy 3:11, in the midst of a discussion of deacons’ duties, to how “in the same way, the women must be respectable, not gossips but sober and quite reliable”.

References to female deacons or deaconesses appear throughout early Church records. The Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote early in the 2nd Century, for example, of two women described by the Christians as ministrae, the probable Latin equivalent to the Greek diakonoi.

It would be more than another century before the terms diacona and diaconissa appeared in Latin, but by the 3rd Century onwards there is clear evidence of women called deaconesses having a specific ecclesial role, notable in Eastern Syria and Constantinople, with one document, the Didascalia Apostolorum stating that deacons were tasked with “many necessary things” while the deaconesses were “for the service of women”.

It certainly seems that women’s ordinations could be identical to those used when ordaining men to the diaconate, with the ordination ritual of the Apostolic Constitutions for women deacons, codified by the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon beginning “O bishop, you shall lay hands on her in the presence of the presbytery”, and with the oldest known complete rite of ordination for women deacons, an 8th-Century Byzantine document, requiring that women deacons be ordained by bishops within the sanctuary.

Never prominent in the western Church, such deaconesses seem to have faded away earlier than deacons in Church history, with some of their roles becoming obsolete as the wider culture changed, while in other respects they were supplanted by nuns.


There still remains the question of whether these deaconesses were sacramentally ordained, with early liturgies being carefully scrutinised. What was this ordination? Was it sacramental?

This indeed was a question Pope Francis himself acknowledged when first raising the notion of having the Vatican look into the possibility of whether the Church could have women deacons.  Noting that as he understood it, the women described as deaconesses in the Bible were not “ordained like permanent deacons are”, mainly assisting at the baptisms of other women, he then added: “I will ask the (Congregation for the) Doctrine of the Faith to tell me if there are studies on this.”

The discussion is further hampered by confusion over the relationship between priests and deacons, largely due to the many centuries in which the diaconate was seen simply a stepping-stone to priesthood rather than the distinct order that it is.

There are, however, differences between ordinations to the diaconate and ordinations to priesthood and episcopacy. Priests and bishops are, unlike deacons, anointed at ordination, and are called to represent Christ to the Church – they are said to act in persona Christi, whereas deacons have been understood as acting in the name of Christ or as a representation of Christ as servant. Could such an ordination have always been off limits to women?

It may be that Cardinal Ladaria’s commission is not tasked with advising Pope Francis, but if it finds that women once exercised a legitimate ministry in the Church that is currently denied them, it will be difficult for the Pope to do other than restore it.

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