Women deacons, why not? Ever since the Second Vatican Council implemented the vision of the Council of Trent to restore the permanent diaconate, the question has lingered. Now with recent statements on the matter by Walter Cardinal Kasper at the spring assembly of the German Bishops Conference, the topic has gained new traction … not that it ever really went away.
Anecdotally, some wives of men in our diocese who signed up for those first diaconate formation classes following Vatican II expected to eventually be ordained themselves. That never happened, at least in the Catholic Church. There was, however, one wife who left the Church to become an Episcopal priest.
From where does this supposed theological controversy originate? Proponents of women deacons often point to two specific references in the New Testament. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe is described as a minister in some translations, as a deaconess in others. In Greek, the word is diakonos, which is used frequently in the New Testament to refer to a “servant,” “attendant,” or “minister,” depending upon the context. In this case, Paul’s letter to the Romans was most likely written in the winter of 57-58 AD from Corinth. Since this represents an early stage of development in the office of the deacon, the precise function is uncertain.
In contrast, the same Greek word in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 is commonly translated as deacon, as it represents a later stage of development. The diakonos had become an established official in the local church. In this epistle, addressed to church leaders, Paul discusses the qualifications of various ministers. The confusion here stems from the inclusion of a passage referring to women in the middle of the requirements for deacons.
How is this to be understood? Are these indeed women deacons or are they simply the wives of deacons? Either way, if they actually had ecclesial responsibilities, what were they? Sources even indicate these women were admitted to the office by the bishop in rites analogous to those for male deacons, sometimes described as ordination. Taken alone, however, this evidence is dubious, if even specious.
First, the rites were distinct from one another, and, at the time, the term ordination had a more general connotation than the specific meaning it later acquired. Second, ministry of women deacons was limited to women and children. Third, they were not encouraged to pursue the priesthood or called to service at the altar as part of their diaconal office. Fourth, many patristic writers who acknowledge women deacons reject the ordination of women priests as the stuff of pagans and heretics. Indeed, after many years of study, the International Theological Commission issued a document in 2003, concluding that deaconesses in the early church were not the equivalent of deacons.
Aside from the historical evidence, or lack thereof, there is also a theological argument to be considered. In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope Blessed John Paul II wrote that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” Proponents of women deacons point to this statement as leaving open the possibility of diaconal ordination, as it refers explicitly to priestly ordination. Opponents, however, argue this interpretation would violate the principle of the unity of Holy Orders, which is a single sacrament with three degrees: deacon, priest, and bishop. If the Church cannot confer priestly ordination on women, by default it can neither confer diaconal ordination on them.
Continuing this line of reasoning which dates to the early 3rd century (Didascalia Apostolorum), the Lord’s own example as reported in the Gospels is instructive. If God had wanted women to perform some ecclesiastical office, he would have chosen Our Blessed Mother before anyone else in the New Covenant. Yet, He did not. Mary was neither among those he sent out to teach and baptize nor among those the Twelve chose to serve the Hellenist widows at table (Acts 6:1-7). Had he intended to assign those ministries to women, he would have first assigned them to his Mother. Those ministries that he did not commit to his Mother, or his other woman compatriots, he did not commit to women.
Case in point, Joel is currently in diaconate formation, in which Lisa is also required to participate. In our class, the wives already have active, diverse roles through which they significantly, positively impact the local Catholic culture. Potentially, they have the ability to minister to more people than their soon-to-be-ordained husbands. What would their right to be ordained to the diaconate do for the Church? Does the Church also need them to witness weddings, baptize, proclaim the Gospel, and preach?
For example, one already is a high-ranking diocesan employee. Another one counsels patients in a Catholic substance-abuse program. Yet another teaches at a Catholic grade school, primarily for low-income immigrants and refugees. Two others have found their calling in religious education, teaching and leading youth groups. Still another hosts a local Catholic radio show. This is a dynamic group of women who already impact the faithful in substantive, life-changing ways. Does the Church really need them to be ordained, too? Not one of them thinks so.
What is the real end game of ordaining women deacons? Is it to enrich the Church, or perhaps something else? Is it rather the stuff of politically correct gender equality, which mandates that a woman can to anything a man can do? Have we lost any sense of complementarity of the sexes?
Women have something to teach men, which is written into their very being. If the body is the sacrament of the person, a visible sign of that which is invisible, what does a woman’s body reveal about her nature? Because she can bear children, she knows how to “make room” for another in a way a man does not. She instinctively knows that every person is someone who was carried under the heart of a mother. Women have something to teach men about love. This is the feminine genius, and it has no need to be affirmed by ordination.
All things considered, however, many theologians suggest the slight possibility of a female diaconate as a “fourth order,” distinct from the sacrament of Holy Orders. This is essentially the same thing Cardinal Kasper posited in his recent remarks. Should a women’s diaconate someday come to fruition, we would submit to the wisdom of Holy Mother Church and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For now, the legacy of women deacons is carried on by women religious, consecrated women, and women in a multitude of lay ecclesial ministries.
© 2013. Joel and Lisa Schmidt. All Rights Reserved.