Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Could you please explain why historically the Church accepted women deacons and yet since the second century this has been stopped? The Church of England allowed women priests, and the number of its clergy almost doubled in five years. Considering that Benedict XVI allowed married men into the Catholic priesthood to open the Anglican door, could this not be considered a key for Western rules on celibacy to be relaxed in the future? — T.B., Salford, United Kingdom
A: There are several questions in one. The decisions of the Church of England regarding this question have no bearing on the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II effectively closed this debate with a declaration that the Church does not have the power to ordain women priests.
Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to allow married Anglican clergy to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood (which John Paul II had already allowed in a more-restricted manner) does not indicate a relaxation of the celibacy rule, as the norms in place foresee that newly ordained clergy of the Anglican-use ordinariates will be celibate.
Perhaps the principal question regards deaconesses in the Church. Pope Francis agreed to a proposal to set up a commission to study this question. This question had already been touched upon in 2002 by a document of the International Theological Commission: “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.” The whole document is available on the Vatican website and is worthwhile reading so as to have the full context of the part regarding deaconesses which we report below.
“In the apostolic era different forms of diaconal assistance offered to the Apostles and communities by women seem to have been institutional. Thus Paul recommends to the community at Rome ‘our sister Phoebe, servant [he diakonos] of the Church at Cenchreae’ (cf. Romans 16:1-4). Although the masculine form of diakonos is used here, it cannot therefore be concluded that the word is being used to designate the specific function of a ‘deacon’; firstly because in this context diakonos still signifies servant in a very general sense, and secondly because the word ‘servant’ is not given a feminine suffix but preceded by a feminine article. What seems clear is that Phoebe exercised a recognized service in the community of Cenchreae, subordinate to the ministry of the Apostle. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings the authorities of the world are themselves called diakonos (Romans 13:4), and in Second Corinthians 11:14-15 he refers to diakonoi of the devil.
“Exegetes are divided on the subject of First Timothy 3:11. The mention of ‘women’ following the reference to deacons may suggest women deacons (by parallel reference), or the deacons’ wives who had been mentioned earlier. In this epistle, the functions of the deacon are not described, but only the conditions for admitting them. It is said that women must not teach or rule over men (1 Timothy 2:8-15). But the functions of governance and teaching were in any case reserved to the bishop (1 Timothy 3:5) and to priests (1 Timothy 5:17), and not to deacons. Widows constituted a recognized group in the community, from whom they received assistance in exchange for their commitment to continence and prayer. First Timothy 5:3-16 stresses the conditions under which they may be inscribed on the list of widows receiving relief from the community, and says nothing more about any functions they might have. Later on they were officially ‘instituted’ but ‘not ordained’; they constituted an ‘order’ in the Church, and would never have any other mission apart from good example and prayer.
“At the beginning of the second century a letter from Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, mentioned two women who were described by the Christians as ministrae, the probable equivalent of the Greek diakonoi (10, 96-97). It was not until the third century that the specific Christian terms diaconissa or diaconal appeared.
“From the end of the third century onwards, in certain regions of the Church (and not all of them), a specific ecclesial ministry is attested to on the part of women called deaconesses. This was in Eastern Syria and Constantinople. Towards 240 there appeared a singular canonico-liturgical compilation, the Didascalia Apostolorum (DA), which was not official in character. It attributed to the bishop the features of an omnipotent biblical patriarch (cf. DA 2, 33-35, 3). He was at the head of a little community which he governed mainly with the help of deacons and deaconesses. This was the first time that deaconesses appeared in an ecclesiastical document. In a typology borrowed from Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop held the place of God the Father, the deacon the place of Christ, and the deaconess that of the Holy Spirit (the word for ‘Spirit’ is feminine in Semitic languages), while the priests (who are seldom mentioned) represented the Apostles, and the widows, the altar (DA 2, 26, 4-7). There is no reference to the ordination of these ministers.
“The Didascalia laid stress on the charitable role of the deacon and the deaconess. The ministry of the diaconate should appear as ‘one single soul in two bodies.’ Its model is the diakonia of Christ, who washed the feet of his disciples (DA 3, 13, 1-7). However, there was no strict parallelism between the two branches of the diaconate with regard to the functions they exercised. The deacons were chosen by the bishop to ‘concern themselves about many necessary things,’ and the deaconesses only ‘for the service of women’ (DA 3, 12, 1). The hope was expressed that ‘the number of deacons may be proportionate to that of the assembly of the people of the Church’ (DA 3, 13, l). The deacons administered the property of the community in the bishop’s name. Like the bishop, they were maintained at its expense. Deacons are called the ear and mouth of the bishop (DA 2, 44, 3-4). Men from among the faithful should go through the deacons to have access to the bishop, as women should go through the deaconesses (DA 3, 12, 1-4). One deacon supervised the entries into the meeting place, while another attended the bishop for the Eucharistic offering (DA 2, 57, 6).
“Deaconesses should carry out the anointing of women in the rite of baptism, instruct women neophytes, and visit the women faithful, especially the sick, in their homes. They were forbidden to confer baptism themselves, or to play a part in the Eucharistic offering (DA 3, 12, 1-4). The deaconesses had supplanted the widows. The bishop may still institute widows, but they should not either teach or administer baptism (to women), but only pray (DA 3, 5, 1-3, 6, 2).
“The Constitutiones Apostolorum, which appeared in Syria towards 380, used and interpolated the Didascalia, the Didache and the Traditio Apostolica. The Constitutiones were to have a lasting influence on the discipline governing ordinations in the East, even though they were never considered to be an official canonical collection. The compiler envisaged the imposition of hands with the epiklesis of the Holy Spirit not only for bishops, priests and deacons, but also for the deaconesses, sub-deacons and lectors (cf. CA 8, 16-23).The concept of kleros was broadened to all those who exercised a liturgical ministry, who were maintained by the Church, and who benefited from the privileges in civil law allowed by the Empire to clerics, so that the deaconesses were counted as belonging to the clergy while the widows were excluded. Bishop and priests were paralleled with the high priest and the priests respectively of the Old Covenant, while to the Levites corresponded all the other ministries and states of life: ‘deacons, lectors, cantors, door-keepers, deaconesses, widows, virgins and orphans’ (CA 2, 26, 3; CA 8, 1, 21). The deacon was placed ‘at the service of the bishop and the priests’ and should not impinge on the functions of the latter. The deacon could proclaim the Gospel and conduct the prayer of the assembly (CA 2, 57, 18), but only the bishop and the priests exhorted (CA 2, 57, 7). Deaconesses took up their functions through an epithesis cheirôn or imposition of hands that conferred the Holy Spirit, as did the lectors (CA 8, 20, 22). The bishop pronounced the following prayer: ‘Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, creator of man and woman, who filled Myriam, Deborah, Anne and Hulda with your spirit; who did not deem it unworthy for your Son, the Only-Begotten, to be born of a woman; who in the tent of witness and in the temple did institute women as guardians of your sacred doors, look now upon your servant before you, proposed for the diaconate: grant her the Holy Spirit and purify her of all defilement of flesh and spirit so that she may acquit herself worthily of the office which has been entrusted to her, for your glory and to the praise of your Christ, through whom be glory and adoration to you, in the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.’
“The deaconesses were named before the sub-deacon who, in his turn, received a cheirotonia like the deacon (CA 8, 21), while the virgins and widows could not be ‘ordained’ (8, 24-25). The Constitutiones insist that the deaconesses should have no liturgical function (3, 9, 1-2), but should devote themselves to their function in the community which was ‘service to the women’ (CA 3, 16, 1) and as intermediaries between women and the bishop. It is still stated that they represent the Holy Spirit, but they ‘do nothing without the deacon’ (CA 2, 26, 6). They should stand at the women’s entrances in the assemblies (2, 57, 10). Their functions are summed up as follows: ‘The deaconess does not bless, and she does not fulfill any of the things that priests and deacons do, but she looks after the doors and attends the priests during the baptism of women, for the sake of decency’ (CA 8, 28, 6).
“This is echoed by the almost contemporary observation of Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion, in around 375: ‘There is certainly in the Church the order of deaconesses, but this does not exist to exercise the functions of a priest, nor are they to have any undertaking committed to them, but for the decency of the feminine sex at the time of baptism.’ A law of Theodosius of 21 June 390, revoked on 23 August of the same year, fixed the age for admission to the ministry of deaconesses at 60. The Council of Chalcedon (can. 15) reduced the age to 40, forbidding them subsequent marriage.
“Even in the fourth century the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns. At that time the woman in charge of a monastic community of women was called a deaconess, as is testified by Gregory of Nyssa among others. Ordained abbesses of the monasteries of women, the deaconesses wore the maforion, or veil of perfection. Until the sixth century they still attended women in the baptismal pool and for the anointing. Although they did not serve at the altar, they could distribute communion to sick women. When the practice of anointing the whole body at baptism was abandoned, deaconesses were simply consecrated virgins who had taken the vow of chastity. They lived either in monasteries or at home. The condition for admission was virginity or widowhood and their activity consisted of charitable and health-related assistance to women.
“At Constantinople the best-known of the fourth-century deaconesses was Olympias, the superior of a monastery of women, who was a protégée of Saint John Chrysostom and had put her property at the service of the Church. She was ‘ordained’ (cheirotonein) deaconess with three of her companions by the patriarch. Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon (451) seems to confirm the fact that deaconesses really were ‘ordained’ by the imposition of hands (cheirotonia). Their ministry was called leitourgia and after ordination they were not allowed to marry.
“In eighth-century Byzantium, the bishop still imposed his hands on a deaconess, and conferred on her the orarion or stole (both ends of which were worn at the front, one over the other); he gave her the chalice, which she placed on the altar without giving communion to anyone. Deaconesses were ordained in the course of the Eucharistic liturgy, in the sanctuary, like deacons. Despite the similarities between the rites of ordination, deaconesses did not have access to the altar or to any liturgical ministry. These ordinations were intended mainly for the superiors of monasteries of women.
“It should be pointed out that in the West there is no trace of any deaconesses for the first five centuries. The Statuta Ecclesiae antiqua laid down that the instruction of women catechumens and their preparation for baptism was to be entrusted to the widows and women religious ‘chosen ad ministerium baptizandarum mulierum.‘ Certain councils of the fourth and fifth centuries reject every ministerium feminae and forbid any ordination of deaconesses. According to the Ambrosiaster (composed at Rome at the end of the fourth century), the female diaconate was an adjunct of Montanist (‘Cataphrygian’) heretics. In the sixth century women admitted into the group of widows were sometimes referred to as deaconesses. To prevent any confusion the Council of Epaone forbade ‘the consecrations of widows who call themselves deaconesses.’ The Second Council of Orleans (533) decided to exclude from communion women who had ‘received the blessing for the diaconate despite the canons forbidding this and who had remarried.’ Abbesses, or the wives of deacons, were also called diaconissae, by analogy with presbyterissae or even episcopissae.
“The present historical overview shows that a ministry of deaconesses did indeed exist, and that this developed unevenly in the different parts of the Church. It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate. At the very least it was an ecclesial function, exercised by women, sometimes mentioned together with that of sub-deacon in the lists of Church ministries. Was this ministry conferred by an imposition of hands comparable to that by which the episcopate, the priesthood and the masculine diaconate were conferred? The text of the Constitutiones Apostolorum would seem to suggest this, but it is practically the only witness to this, and its proper interpretation is the subject of much debate. Should the imposition of hands on deaconesses be considered the same as that on deacons, or is it rather on the same level as the imposition of hands on sub-deacons and lectors? It is difficult to tackle the question on the basis of historical data alone. In the following chapters some elements will be clarified, and some questions will remain open. In particular, one chapter will be devoted to examining more closely how the Church through her theology and Magisterium has become more conscious of the sacramental reality of Holy Orders and its three grades. But first it is appropriate to examine the causes which led to the disappearance of the permanent diaconate in the life of the Church.”
The document at a later stage describes the disappearance of deaconesses:
“After the tenth century deaconesses were only named in connection with charitable institutions. A Jacobite author of that time notes: ‘In ancient times, deaconesses were ordained. Their function was to look after women so that they should not have to uncover themselves before the bishop. But when religion spread more widely and it was decided to administer baptism to infants, this function was abolished.’ We find the same statement in the Pontifical of Patriarch Michael of Antioch (1166-1199). When commenting on can. 15 of the Council of Chalcedon, Theodore Balsamon, at the end of the twelfth century, observed that ‘the topic of this canon has altogether fallen into disuse. For today deaconesses are no longer ordained, although the name of deaconesses is wrongly given to those who belong to communities of ascetics.’ Deaconesses had become nuns. They lived in monasteries which no longer practiced works of diakonia except in the field of education, medical care, or parish service.
“The presence of deaconesses is still attested in Rome at the end of the eighth century. While the Roman rituals had previously not mentioned deaconesses, the sacramentary Hadrianum, sent by the pope to Charlemagne and spread by him throughout the Frankish world, includes an Oratio ad diaconam faciendum. It was in fact a blessing, placed as an appendix among other rites of first institution. The Carolingian texts often combined deaconesses and abbesses. The Council of Paris of 829 contained a general prohibition on women performing any liturgical function. The Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore contain no mention of deaconesses; and neither does a Bavarian Pontifical from the first half of the ninth century. A century later, in the Pontifical Romano-Germanique of Mainz, the prayer Ad diaconam faciendum is to be found after the ordinatio abbatissae, between the consecratio virginum and the consecratio viduarum. Once again, this was merely a blessing accompanied by the handing over of the stole and veil by the bishop, as well as the nuptial ring and the crown. Like widows, the deaconess promised continence. This is the last mention of ‘deaconesses’ found in the Latin rituals. In fact the Pontifical of Guillaume Durand at the end of the thirteenth century speaks of deaconesses only with reference to the past.
“In the Middle Ages, the nursing and teaching religious orders of nuns fulfilled in practice the functions of diakonia without, however, being ordained for this ministry. The title, with no corresponding ministry, was given to women who were instituted as widows or abbesses. Right up until the thirteenth century, abbesses were sometimes called deaconesses.”
Finally, having analyzed the theology of the various degrees of the sacrament of orders, the document reached the following conclusion:
“With regard to the ordination of women to the diaconate, it should be noted that two important indications emerge from what has been said up to this point:
“1. The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church — as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised — were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons;
“2. The unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the Magisterium.
“In the light of these elements which have been set out in the present historico-theological research document, it pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.”
The documents of the International Theological Commission are authoritative but are not magisterium as such. Any future commission will certainly have to take its research and conclusions into account.
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Follow-up: A Risen Christ on the Cross
After our May 10 column on images of the Risen Christ and the crucifix, a reader wrote, “I have to ask about why Protestants say it’s a cross without Jesus because he already rose.”
There are many possible answers to this question. By the way, not all Protestants reject the use of the crucifix. It is also used by many Eastern Churches albeit less than among Latin Catholics.
As we saw in the previous article both the crucifix and the plain cross have been used from the fifth century on, and there was no great difficulty in using both.
The cross with the figure of the crucified Christ serves as a reminder of his sacrifice and his suffering; the cross without the figure, especially when richly decorated, served as a reminder of his victory through the cross. As St. Paul wrote: “But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (Corinthians 1:23).
Neither crucifix nor cross denies the resurrection — at least no more than the use of the Christmas crèche denies that Christ ever grew up. Indeed, the use of the any form of cross would make no sense without the Resurrection because it is precisely the Resurrection that transforms the symbol of the cross into a sign of triumph. Once more as St. Paul declares: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
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History of Deaconesses
And More on a Risen Christ on the Cross