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Last week, I received some wondering emails when a couple of gentle commenters discussed the office of “deaconess” in the early Church.

As far as I know, the magisterium has not made any definitive statement about the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. In fact, the 1976 CDF document deliberately passed over the issue, saying “it is a question which must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas.” Since then, the Vatican commissioned a group of theologians to study the question, and the theologians recommended against any change in current practice. One commenter, Father Gabriel, acknowledged most of this in his comment. Father Gabriel is most concerned about how we understand the office of deaconess in the ancient Church — and it is a problem, since the office of deaconess has continued in some (separated) eastern churches since ancient times, and was recently restored by the Greek Orthodox Church. The question remains: what is the character of the office? Were deaconesses really performing the same role as the male deacons who were counted among the clergy? I tend to think not, but the ancient sources themselves are unclear.

Those who’d like to learn more about the discussion should read Father A.G. Martimort’s book Deaconesses: An Historical Study, which is published by Ignatius Press. It’s the most thorough treatment of the subject. There are two sober and balanced critiques of the “pro-ordination” position here and here.

13 thoughts on “Deaconesslessness?

  1. Mike,

    The primary source for deaconesses in the Ante-Nicene eastern Church is the Didascalia Apostolorum, which is usually dated to the middle of the third century. Chapter 16 of this document lists three main functions for deaconesses: 1) to visit and give aid to Christian women in pagan households (since if a male deacon visited, the pagans would automatically suspect monkey business), 2) to annoint female catechumens in the Rite of Baptism (since at that time catechumens were baptized by immersion, and it was not right for the bishop to annoint the female catechumens), and 3) to provide post-baptismal catechesis for female neophytes.

    The Didascalia is clear that the deaconesses are not to baptize: “But let a man (the Didascalia allowed presbyters and male deacons to baptize with the permission of the bishop) pronounce over them the invocation of the divine Names in the water” (DA 16.4.)

    Father Gabriel is right in his assertion that women were never allowed to preside at the Liturgy or Baptize in the early Church, except in heretical sects such as the Montanists, the Marcionites, and the Valentinians. However (and this Father Gabriel also points out), the apostolate of women was indispensable to the success of the early Church.

    On the question of whether we could have deaconesses today, I can only say that the decision is above my pay grade. It is not a theological impossibility, as in the case of women priests, but it might be imprudent to reintroduce deaconesses at this time, since it would only encourage those who favor women’s ordination. Sigh! How I wish we could get beyond this dispute, which in so many ways is tearing the Church apart.



  2. Wasn’t the main purpose for having deaconesses in the early Church due to new Christians being baptized in the nude? The Church no longer follows that practice, so there is no longer a need for deaconessess.

  3. It should be noted that bishops were uncomfortable with anointing immersed women, because back then they often baptized people nekkid. Take off your clothes before you climb in, and don’t put on your spiffy new white robe until after you climb out. (Of course, this was in warmer climes than we have….)

    From the Teaching of the Apostles:

    “But concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: having first recited all these precepts, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water, and naked, as nothing must be brought into the holy waters but our bodies, but if thou hast not running water, baptize in some other water, and if thou canst not baptize in cold, in warm water; but if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

    St. Hippolytus said the same thing in the 3rd century, and I think I remember St. Cyril of Jerusalem also talking about this.

    So next time you hear that early Christianity hated the body, remember that it was the religion of full nekkid baptism! In front of a bunch of people, even!

  4. Ooh, somebody beat me to it….

    I suppose deaconesses could still be of use for caring for members of the church who are still stuck in purdah, and likewise for evangelizing women in societies where men aren’t allowed to talk to women without scandal.

    However, I must say that I don’t see a lot of women who want to be deaconesses, also wanting to head for Saudi to spread the gospel. So I’d say that the office itself isn’t what interests them.

  5. I think some of the same circumstances still apply. If a male deacon regularly visits a woman living alone, the neighbors might (as Carl said) suspect monkey business. And the temptation to monkey business might indeed be strong — at least a temptation to disordered attachment, jealousy on the part of a deacon’s wife, and all sorts of ordinary human stuff. I’m kind of glad we don’t have to worry about full-nekkid immersion or full-body anointing.

    Maureen: We don’t have a society “where men aren’t allowed to talk to women without scandal.” But proselytizing the opposite sex could probably, in some states, count as sexual harrassment.

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  7. We live in a society where women (in the US!) are victims of honor killings, and where an unknown but fairly large number of women and men are currently being held as slaves. (The more you read about modern day slavery, the more depressing it gets.)

    But yeah, the sexual harassment point is well taken, too.

  8. Mike and all, it wasn’t just that a deaconess had to visit women because people might think something bad, but that it was still part of the culture that an unrelated man just simply couldn’t do such a thing, especially visiting unmarried young ladies in their father’s home. It was a cultural convention, even a taboo, that we simply don’t have anymore, as opposed to say, Muslims. Deaconesses never had the liturgical role that Deacons do, either, but I think that some hope that they would. Relatedly, there’s the question over whether they were really ordained (through imposition of the hands), and not just listed like the widows were. All in all, most of the functions of deaconesses are no longer necessary. And from what I recall, it was only one Greek bishop giving deaconesses a trial run. It’s certainly not widespread. I don’t even think that bishop is still doing it, either, but I’ll have to check.

  9. I hope no one interpreted my remarks as being in favor of deaconesses today. I was merely trying to explain the cultural conditions that made deaconesses necessary in those eastern communities that used them. I am not in favor of reviving the female diaconate. I think the cultural conditions that existed in the first three centuries in the eastern part of the Roman Empire clearly do not exist today. I also think Kevin Edgecomb is correct that deaconesses were not ordained. Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition speaks to the equivalent office in the Roman Church, that of the widow. Hippolytus is clear: “When a widow is appointed, she shall not be ordained, but she shall be appointed by name.” (AT 11.1.) I suspect, though Didascalia Apostolorum is silent on this point, that a similar procedure was observed in those eastern Churches that had deaconesses; they were appointed, not ordained. The Church leaders made the right decision when they declined to introduce deaconesses in the Roman Catholic Church.

    Carl Sommer

  10. I think the weight of the documents, arguments, and Eastern practice shows that deaconesses were not ordained like deacons nor did they perform the same functions. There is no need for a revival of deaconesses. I would remind all that in the ECUSA as soon as they ordained women as deacons they immediately argued that since they had received one order in the sacrament of Holy Orders that they were eligible to receive ALL of it. They did not care about what deaconesses were or did. They saw it as a wedge and it was. We see the result. Fortunately Rome has also seen it and for those pining for a similar process (radical feminists) in the Catholic Church will be quite disappointed. Personally I would prefer them to bring back the subdiaconate and minor orders, but not for women either mind you.

  11. It seems we’re all agreed on the basics, Fr. J (at least everybody who’s posted in this thread so far).

  12. Perhaps this comment is simplistic, but has the Catholic Church not had Sisterhoods (Nuns) for at least 1800 years? What is lacking in terms of opportunities to serve?

  13. Thanks for the comment, Philip. I don’t think anyone here has said there’s any shortage of chances to serve.

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