Deaconesses, part 1: parsing papal parlance

This is part one of a five-part series on the female diaconate in the Catholic Church. The following four parts in this series will examine (a) the testimony of the New Testament, (b) sources from the Tradition, (c) the differences between deacons and deaconesses in the early Church, and (d) the current judgment of the Church. In the end, we will conclude that the impossibility of a sacramental female diaconate as part of Holy Orders is an infallible teaching of ordinary magisterium.

In this part, we will focus solely on the Pope Francis’ comments on deaconesses from his address to the UISG.


On 12 May 2016, the Holy Father received the Unione Internationale Superiore Generali (International Union of Superiors General, henceforth UISG), an “organization of superiors general of institutes of Catholic women religious”. After a brief address, he fielded a few questions from his audience. One question dealt with the possibility of re-establishing the office of female deaconess in a manner analogous to the restoration of the permanent diaconate. Reaction to the question and Francis’ response has incited the old debates about female ordination and assumptions of a possible clericalization of women (an idea which the Pope has strenuously rejected in the past).

What follows are the relevant excerpts from the original Italian, my own English translation, and some comments. The question posed to the Pope is thus:

Le donne consacrate lavorano già tanto con i poveri e con gli emarginati, insegnano la catechesi, accompagnano i malati e i moribondi, distribuiscono la comunione, in molti Paesi guidano le preghiere comuni in assenza di sacerdoti e in quelle circostanze pronunciano l’omelia. Nella Chiesa c’è l’ufficio del diaconato permanente, ma è aperto solo agli uomini, sposati e non. Cosa impedisce alla Chiesa di includere le donne tra i diaconi permanenti, proprio come è successo nella Chiesa primitiva? Perché non costituire una commissione ufficiale che possa studiare la questione? Ci può fare qualche esempio di dove Lei vede la possibilità di un migliore inserimento delle donne e delle donne consacrate nella vita della Chiesa?

Consecrated women already do much work with the poor and marginalized: they teach catechesis, accompany the sick and dying, distribute communion; in many nations they lead common prayer in the absence of priests, and those circumstances they preach the homily. In the Church, we have the office of permanent deacon, but it is only open to men, both married and single. What impedes the Church from including women in the permanent diaconate, as how it was in the primitive Church? Why not establish an official commission to study the issue? Can you give some example of where you see the possibility of a greater insertion of women and consecrated women in the life of the Church?

Francis’ response, while open to confusion and containing a few inaccuracies, is nevertheless an overall admirable and balanced attempt to explore the concept of deaconesses.

Io ricordo che era un tema che mi interessava abbastanza quando venivo a Roma per le riunioni, e alloggiavo alla Domus Paolo VI; lì c’era un teologo siriano, bravo, che ha fatto l’edizione critica e la traduzione degli Inni di Efrem il Siro. E un giorno gli ho domandato su questo, e lui mi ha spiegato che nei primi tempi della Chiesa c’erano alcune “diaconesse”. Ma che cosa sono queste diaconesse? Avevano l’ordinazione o no? Ne parla il Concilio di Calcedonia (451), ma è un po’ oscuro. Qual era il ruolo delle diaconesse in quei tempi? Sembra – mi diceva quell’uomo, che è morto, era un bravo professore, saggio, erudito – sembra che il ruolo delle diaconesse fosse per aiutare nel battesimo delle donne, l’immersione, le battezzavano loro, per il decoro, anche per fare le unzioni sul corpo delle donne, nel battesimo. E anche una cosa curiosa: quando c’era un giudizio matrimoniale perché il marito picchiava la moglie e questa andava dal vescovo a lamentarsi, le diaconesse erano le incaricate di vedere i lividi lasciati sul corpo della donna dalle percosse del marito e informare il vescovo. Questo, ricordo. Ci sono alcune pubblicazioni sul diaconato nella Chiesa, ma non è chiaro come fosse stato. Credo che chiederò alla Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede che mi riferiscano circa gli studi su questo tema, perché io vi ho risposto soltanto in base a quello che avevo sentito da questo sacerdote che era un ricercatore erudito e valido, sul diaconato permanente. E inoltre vorrei costituire una commissione ufficiale che possa studiare la questione: credo che farà bene alla Chiesa chiarire questo punto; sono d’accordo, e parlerò per fare una cosa di questo genere… Dunque, sul diaconato, sì, accetto e mi sembra utile una commissione che chiarisca bene questo, soprattutto riguardo ai primi tempi della Chiesa.

I remember that this was an idea that interested me a lot when I would come to Rome for meetings and when I would stay at the Domus Paolo VI [note: this is a lodging facility for clergy who come to Rome for curial business]. There was a good [bravo] Syrian theologian who had done a critical edition and a translation of the hymns of Ephraim the Syrian. One day I asked him about this matter, and he explained to me that in the earliest times of the Church, there were some “deaconesses”. But what were these deaconesses? Did they receive ordination or not? The Council of Chalcedon speaks of it, but it is a bit obscure. What was the role of deaconesses in those times? It seems– this is what this Syrian told me, who has now died, who was a great, wise, erudite professor– it seems that the role of the deaconesses was to assist in the baptism of women by immersion; they baptized the women, on account of decorum, and also to conduct the anointing of the bodies of women in baptism. And here is a curious fact: when there was a matrimonial judgment where the husband would beat his wife and the wife would complain to the bishop, the deaconesses were charged with seeing [vedere] the wounds on the woman’s body left by the husband’s attack and to report to the bishop. This I remember. There are some publications on the diaconate in the early Church, but it is not clear how it was. I believe that I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to report to me on certain studies on this issue [che mi referisccano circa gli studi su questa tema], because I have only responded to you all on the basis of what I heard from this [Syrian] priest who was a worthy and erudite researcher on the permanent diaconate. And furthermore I would like to establish an official commission to study the matter: I believe that it will do well for the Church to clarify this point; I agree, and I will speak [to the CDF] in order to something like this… Therefore, on the diaconate, yes, I accept [your proposal] and a commission that well clarifies this issue, especially regarding the earliest times of the Chruch, seems useful to me.

What is clear is, first of all, that the Pope is not ordering a study into the possibility of future diaconal ordination for women, but only a clarification on the nature of deaconesses in the early Church. He acknowledges that he is not well-educated on the subject and will refer to the judgment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What the Pope doesn’t seem to realize that such a judgment under the auspices of the CDF already exists.

Interestingly, the the current Cardinal-Prefect (Mueller) of said dicastery was part of that very same International Theological Commission’s subcommittee that produced the 2003 document “From the diakonia of Christ to the diakonia of the Apostles“. This document, while not a magisterial pronouncement, nevertheless bears the signature of the erstwhile Cardinal-Prefect Ratzinger and has an authoritative character, in that it represents the findings of a comprehensive five-year study by a highly competent commission of Catholic theologians. This document concludes, among other things, that (1) deaconesses were never ordained in the same fashion as deacons, and (2) deaconesses had distinct roles from deacons.

The Pope hints at this general understanding of the role of deaconesses, which seems to be an exclusive ministry to women in accordance with historical standards of decorum (per il decoro). In what is certainly a holdover from the Church’s Jewish origins, men and women in the early Church did many things separately, including worship. Far from an example of sexism, this separation functioned to temper male passions while safeguarding the special, life-bearing dignity of women– a consideration wholly characteristic of Semitic cultures. Thus, when it came time to baptize (by immersion) and anoint female catechumens (which in the early Church were both received in the nude), deaconesses assumed this function.

What seems strange is that the nun who raised this issue to the Pope almost answers her own question. After noting the various admirable ministries undertaken by consecrated women today, she asks for a female diaconate that would serve the exact same functions, thus implicitly suggesting the redundancy and/or uselessness of such an office. All the ministries she mentioned are extra-liturgical and already fulfilled by all sorts of laypeople. In fact, the Pope references this fact by making a joke in his response:

E tocca il problema del diaconato permanente. Qualcuno potrà dire che le “diaconesse permanenti” nella vita della Chiesa sono le suocere! [ridono]

And you raise the issue of the permanent diaconate. One could say that the “permanent deaconesses” in the life of the Church are mothers-in-law! [laughter]

Note: suocere literally means “mothers-in-law” but in this context refers to what many Anglophones might call “old church ladies”, or the women who are often found dutifully assisting in the life of the parish. In any case, the historical-cultural circumstances and considerations of decorum which necessitated deaconesses is long dead and gone, raising the question of what real advantage could be gained by the re-establishment of the office of deaconess. Of course, the Pope’s words are being trumpeted by some as a path toward female ordination which is, as we hope to demonstrate in the following parts of this series, an infallibly-taught impossibility.

While the Pope seems unaware of the 2003 study from the ITC subcommission, his stated deference to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith means that he must take that report, with its negative judgments vis-a-vis an ordained female diaconate, very seriously. Furthermore, the fact that one of that subcommission’s members is now the CDF Prefect means that new subcommission to study the matter, under the auspices of the same curial dicastery, will likely reaffirm the findings of the 2003 study.

To be continued…

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