Yesterday, during a question and answer session with the International Union of Superiors General, Pope Francis was asked a number of questions about the role of women in the Church. As part of the exchange, the subject of deaconesses was raised and, in light of the Pope’s responses, it seems fairly likely that this subject is going to be mentioned with some frequency in the coming weeks and months. But what do we really know about these often cited but little understood figures from the history of the Church?
The elusive historical figure of the deaconess resurfaces from time to time in Church debates, usually when discussing how to better incorporate women into the leadership and governance of the Church. Deaconesses in the early Church were a fact: they existed and there is reference to them in numerous documents dating back even to the Apostolic period. It seems, from the body of historical evidence available, that they had a definite place within the structure of the Church, at least in some dioceses, and were appointed through some kind of laying-on of hands.
This, together with the apparent synonymity of terms with the order of deacons, leads to a common assumption that this was a form of sacramental ordination and that there was little, if any, distinction between the role of deaconess and deacon, other than gender, and that it is therefore historically, logically, and theologically coherent for women to be ordained as permanent deacons in the modern Church. It is actually a little more complicated than this.
While deaconesses are an historical fact in the life of the Church, even in the patchy records we have it seems clear that they had a distinctly separate ministry from that of the deacons, who operated as assistants to the bishops and priests and who were in charge of works of charity. In some places they seem to have assisted in the baptism of women and visited and cared for the widows of the community, in others they led female monastic communities and seem closer to modern day abbesses, while in some places they lived as anchorites attached to churches. Pope Francis acknowledged this as his understanding in his response to some of the questions he received in his meeting with the superiors general.
On the specific question he was asked about establishing “an official commission to study the question [of ordaining women to the permanent diaconate]” Pope Francis responded: “I accept it would be useful for the Church to clarify this question.” On this, and the historical role of deaconesses, Pope Francis said that he would ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to brief him better in the issue.
While the prospect of deaconesses in the modern Church, however remote and in whatever form, will no doubt make headlines, Pope Francis went on to caution against the motivation underlying many of the calls for the return of deaconesses. He noted that while women can and should play a far greater and more prominent role in Church affairs, simply looking for ways to incorporate them into the clerical state actually does nothing to broaden lay participation in the life of the Church.
Lay women, and lay men for that matter, have enormous expertise and enthusiasm which they could offer the Church, and bringing their potential to bear does not hinge upon ordaining as many of them as possible. Canon law, while reserving the power of governance to those who have been ordained, already allows for lay people to cooperate in the exercise of governance (c. 129). This provision alone allows for enormous scope. Lay people can serve as catechists, teachers, ecclesiastical judges, and canon lawyers, to name just a few possibilities. In many dioceses in the United Sates, for example, the office of Chancellor of the diocese is often filled by a lay person, and very often a woman, whose role is often broadened to be the effective COO of the diocese.
The problem, intended or otherwise, with calling for a study of deaconesses in this way is that it instantly muddies the discussion of better incorporation of all the laity into the life and work of the Church with the movement for women’s ordination. The two, properly speaking, have nothing to do with one another, and conflating them as part of a general drive for ever more radical “reform” in the Church looks like a dangerously easy way to ensure the whole issue of lay participation in ecclesiastical life is derailed by an unnecessary fight over settled doctrinal matters. In much the same way, the Pope’s urgent message on the vital importance of marriage in society was hijacked by the debate on access to Communion.
It is to be hoped that history need not repeat itself in this way. Given Pope Francis’s stated intention to create a Congregation for the Laity, Family and Life as part of his curial reforms, this will provide a golden opportunity for him to give lay people, of both genders, a prominent voice in Church affairs without simply lining them up for ordination.
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