What about women deacons?

What about women deacons? Catholic scholar and author Phyllis Zagano speaks during a symposium on the history and future of women deacons at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus in New York City. Looking on is Jesuit Father Bernard Pottier, a member of the Vatican's International Theological Commission. The event was hosted by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. Photo: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz
If the Church restores the female diaconate it will be up to individual bishops to decide, writes Phyllis Zagano


Nearly three years ago, Pope Francis accepted the request of the International Union of Superiors General, the membership organisation of some 1,800 heads of women’s religious orders and institutes, to establish a commission to study women deacons. He appointed 12 scholars to the Papal Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women, which sent a report to Pope Francis several months ago.

The contents of the report remain a papal secret, but the facts of history are well-known. Women deacons served the Latin Church at least until the 12th Century.


The question is: were they ordained? There is substantial liturgical evidence of the ordinations. For centuries, women were ordained as deacons in ceremonies virtually identical to those used for men. In the 17th Century a French scholar, Jean Morin, identified many of these liturgies and judged them sacramental according to the criteria established by the Council of Trent.

Why? They contain the following requirements:

(1) The bishop ordained women to the diaconate at the altar in the sanctuary;

(2) The bishop laid hands on the women and invoked the Holy Spirit;

(3) The bishop placed a stole on the woman;

(4) She took the chalice and self-communicated the Blood of Christ;

(5) Importantly, the newly ordained woman was called a deacon.

Some writers who disagree about the historical ordinations of women to the diaconate point to Canon 19 of the 5th-Century ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, where about 520 bishops voted to accept and reinforce the doctrine of Christ’s human and divine nature. Those council fathers were also concerned about heretics, and especially about a group called the Paulinists. They said Paulinists must be rebaptised and their deaconesses “possess no ordination but are to be reckoned among the laity”.

Well, that makes sense. But requiring heretics to be re-baptised and saying that the deaconesses among them do not belong to the order of deacons is not real news. Even so, pundits and others point to this canon attempting delegitimise women ordained to the diaconate, then or in the future.


So, then the question becomes: what did women deacons do?

The fact is, women were ordained to the diaconate and they performed diaconal tasks and duties. It is impossible to say that in every territory during every era, women ordained as deacons performed identical tasks and duties.

We know they assisted at baptisms of women by anointing them and helping them enter and leave the baptismal pool. We know they catechised women and children. We also know they managed the women’s portions of the assembly. There is evidence that they anointed ill women and brought them the Eucharist. At least one Pope – Gelasius I – complained that they served at the altar in Sicily. He wrote: “With impatience, we have heard that divine things have undergone such contempt that women are encouraged to serve at the sacred altars, and that all tasks entrusted to the service of men are performed by a sex for which these [tasks] are not appropriate.”

But, what is inappropriate about women serving at the altar? Why would that be such a scandal?

Well, the Western ecclesial memory inherited menstruation taboos from the ancient Middle East, and these women deacons at the altar were quite probably Greek Catholics. Their tradition had no problem, but for the Latin Church, women were unclean. Progressive prohibitions in the West banned women not only from altar service, but from touching sacred vessels, vestments, even altar cloths as well. Even today, according to Musicam Sacram, the 1967 Vatican document on liturgy, a mixed choir of men and women cannot sing from within the sanctuary.

Deacons are ordained to the ministry of the Word, the liturgy, and charity.  A principal task of the deacon was and is to proclaim the Gospel. Could women do this? What about the ban attributed to St Paul in Corinthians, that women should not speak in Church?

Again, we need to look to the times and the culture. There are some 5,700 early Scripture manuscripts, most partial copies of copies. Not all have that section, and those that do include it in different places within the text. It is entirely possible that the restriction against women speaking in Church is a later gloss and not part of the original letter.

Recall that women deacons were responsible for managing the women’s part of the assembly. They also received the stole at ordination, giving them the authority to proclaim the Gospel and perhaps preach. In the ancient world as today, certain forces sought to silence women’s voices.


Similarly, women were progressively banned from the altar, even from giving the responses to the priest at Mass excepting in the direst of circumstances. How could a woman deacon continue to perform her altar duties if she could not mix the water and wine at the altar, proclaim the Gospel, announce the prayers of the faithful, or invoke the final blessing?

By the 9th Century, liturgical service by deacons became progressively complex and ceremonial, and the deacon’s role of managing the Church’s charity began to fade, even disappear. Soon, due to the rule of the cursus honorum — the course of honour — the diaconate as a separate office effectively died out in the West. Only men destined for priesthood could begin the steps to it: tonsure, porter, lector, exorcist acolyte, subdeacon and deacon. Women never participated in the cursus honorum, so by the time of the Gregorian Reform in the 11th Century, the female diaconate began to die out.

Coincidentally, management of Church funds and charity by deacons faded and virtually disappeared.

So, what about women deacons today?

Since the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent vocation following the Second Vatican Council, many quarters of the Church have asked about restoring women to this ordained office. Every request, whether from the bishops’ conferences of Germany and the US or from the People of God, has been met with the same response: women cannot be priests. But the diaconate is not the priesthood.

In 2009, Benedict XVI modified Canon Law to reflect what was already in the Catechism. Canon 1009 §3 reads: “those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.”

In a word: deacons are not priests.

So, what happens now?

No one knows whether the Pope will publish the commission report, or if he will send the question out for more consideration, or if he will simply write a motu proprio (on his own accord) allowing territorial episcopal conferences to decide if women deacons are needed in their various locales.

Should the Church decide to restore women to the diaconate, it would still be up to individual bishops to decide what to do in their own dioceses.

Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University, was appointed to the Papal Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women in 2016. Her many writings on women deacons include Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future, for which a Study Guide is available for free download here.

Dr Zagano will host a Zoom webinar meeting about women deacons on April 15, 2019 7pm Irish time. Participants will be able to type in questions using the Zoom chat function. Register in advance for this meeting here.