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Restoration of women to the diaconate

Kath Rushton RSM

If we could have visited a Christian community in the first century of the church we would discover three kinds of ministers: “overseers” (episkopoi), “elders” (presbyteroi) and deacons (diakonoi). These were dedicated to their tasks through prayer and the laying-on-of-hands. Paul describes deacons (often translated as ‘servants’) as his co-workers and assistants in the work of evangelisation (I Cor 3:4-5).

The singular term diakonos in Greek may be either masculine or feminine. The pronoun that goes before it indicates whether it refers to a male or female person. In Romans 16:1, when Paul refers to Phoebe, “diakonos of the church of Cenchreae,” we find a female pronoun. The nature of the ancient ‘diaconate’ in general, and Phoebe’s in particular, continues to be a matter of debate. What is certain is that women deacons were charged with certain ecclesial functions in the early church.


Several church writings tell of a later order of deaconesses – a specific female term rather than the same term for female and male deacons. The liturgical texts are very similar for the ordination of a deacon and a deaconess. The bishop is instructed to lay hands upon him or her. The same words are used in both rites: “…upon this your handmaid (in the case of a male, “servant”) who is to be ordained to the diaconate.”

The given duties of deaconesses included: religious instruction – bringing the Gospel to ‘heathen’ women, preparing them for baptism and guidance afterwards; and worship – for example, the pre-baptismal anointing of female catechumens and putting on the white robe after baptism. Other sources tell us that in the assembly, in the absence of the priest and deacon, the deaconess might ascend the lectern, incense both the book and the women present, and read the Gospel, as well as distribute Eucharist.

The deaconess was responsible for the material and spiritual care of sick women. Epiphanius (315-403) says that a priest or deacon could not administer the sacrament of the sick to women. This was a ministry for the deaconess: she shared equally in the priestly ministry of anointing the sick as in the rite of baptism.

St John Chrysostom (349-407) addressed some of his letters to deaconesses. To Olympias, the head of deaconesses in his episcopal see, he wrote at least 17 letters. The eastern restoration of women to the diaconate church was then in full communion with Rome, and deaconesses are explicitly mentioned as being in Rome in the eighth century.

Restrictions were placed on deaconesses, such as a minimum age. The Council of Chalcedon (451) declared that no woman should be ordained a deaconess until she is 40 years old. In terms of their ministry there were also cultural restrictions. The Council of Nicaea restricted both women and men from usurping powers beyond their jurisdiction. Later councils abolished this office altogether for both deacons and deaconesses.

The diaconate in recent times

In the Middle Ages, the three orders of bishop, priest and deacon were unified in the priesthood with the focus on Eucharistic sacrifice. However, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) rejected this view. Deacons are ordained “not to priesthood but to a ministry of service” (Lumen Gentium #29). This, however, does not destroy the unity of the one “ministry exercised on different levels by those who from antiquity have been called bishops, priests and deacons.” (#28)

Some scholars (Martimort and Müller) denied that deaconesses had ever been ordained in the church and saw diaconate as simply a stepping stone to priesthood. Women, they said, were neither ordained deaconesses – nor ever could be – in the sense that men were, and are, deacons. This centuries-old misunderstanding ‘absorbed’ the diaconate into priesthood.

It would seem that such a position may now have been undercut by Omnium in mente, a recent motu proprio issued by Pope Benedict. (A motu proprio is a document issued by the Pope on his own initiative and personally signed by him). In it, Benedict clarifies canon law on the distinction between the diaconate and priesthood. In a radical move, he upholds the constant teaching of the church that diaconate does not necessarily imply priesthood.

A distinction is to be made between priests and bishops on the one hand and deacons on the other, in ways that do not lessen the importance of diaconate or change the notion that it is included in the priesthood. The role of the permanent deacon has been clarified. Priests and bishops are ordained to act in the person of Christ, the head of the church; deacons are ordained to serve the people of God in and through the liturgy, the Word, and charity (canons 1008, 1009).

Women deacons today?

What does this mean regarding the tradition of women deacons? In the light of Benedict’s clarification of the distinction between the roles of the bishop and priest and the role of deacons, two objections used against the ordination of women would seem no longer to apply to their ordination as deacons.

1. the ‘argument from authority’: it was the apostles, not Jesus, who chose the first deacons (Acts 6:1-6).

2. the ‘iconic argument’: the deacon is ordained to serve the people of God, not to act in the person of Christ (in persona Christi). Therefore, the deacon who serves is not to be confused with the bishop and the priest who act as specific icons of Christ.

The changes made by Pope Benedict may have been aimed to distinguish legally the diaconate from the episcopate and priesthood. In clarifying these distinctions between and among the grades of the one Sacrament of Orders, it could be argued that Benedict’s motu proprio may pave the way for the restoration of women to the ancient order of deacon.


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