Can women be deacons?

Pope Francis meets 850 female superiors general at the Vatican (CNS)

Last month, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ, took to the pages of L’Osservatore Romano to reiterate and clarify the position of the Church regarding the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.

His comments were unsolicited and came out of the blue. Why did the archbishop (soon to be a cardinal) feel the need to reaffirm such a well-known teaching, set out with magisterial authority by St John Paul II in 1994? And why now?

To some commentators it looked like a veiled rebuke to the hugely influential Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, who had remarked to Die Presse in an Eastertide interview: “Ordination [of women] is a question that surely can only be settled by a Council. A pope cannot decide this by himself. This is too large a question for it to be settled from the desk of a pope.”

Cardinal Schönborn’s carefully chosen words referred ostensibly – though not explicitly – to the ordination of women as priests. They could, however, be taken to encompass another question: the ordination of women as deacons, which, as Cardinal Schönborn indicated in the interview, has not been ruled out as impossible. The subject is now back on the Church’s agenda after Pope Francis appointed a commission to study the question in 2016.

The topic is both delicate and complex. The intervention of two such senior Church figures shows that it is also pressing.

In a nutshell, the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, reaffirmed by John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, is that the Church will never confer priestly ordination on women. Even if she wanted to, she cannot. The divine constitution of the Church given by Christ is such that the Church can confer priestly ordination only on men.

In his L’Osservatore essay, the CDF prefect argued that St John Paul had been speaking infallibly when he ruled out women priests on these grounds. Infallibility did not apply only to pronouncements of a council or papal pronouncements made ex cathedra, he explained, but also to the ordinary and universal teaching of the Church.

Archbishop Ladaria wrote: “John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis referred to this [ordinary] infallibility. Thus, he did not declare a new dogma, but with the authority conferred upon him as Peter’s successor, formally confirmed and made explicit, in order to remove all doubt, what is the ordinary and universal magisterium considered throughout the history of the Church as belonging to the deposit of faith.”

So, ordaining women to the priesthood is impossible. But what about the diaconate? And what about those early Christian women known as deaconesses? The Vatican’s International Theological Commission studied the question for two five-year terms starting in the early 1990s.

In 2002 it published a report that concluded: “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.”

The document also said: “It pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.”

In short: whatever the Church used to do with respect to women ordained to service, neither the rites of ordination they received nor the specific kinds of service to which they were ordained were the same as that received by men ordained to the diaconate.

In other words, there was no question that women were ordained to something called “the diaconate” in the early Church. They were. But certain questions remain: what was the nature of that “diaconate” to which they were ordained, and did the ordination have a sacramental character; and could women be ordained to the diaconate as it exists today? In any case, there was no compelling theological reason the authors of the report could discover to foreclose at least the second part of the question definitively.

That is where things stood for 14 years, until Pope Francis appointed a new commission to study the matter further.

The circumstances of that commission’s creation are unusual. In May 2016, Pope Francis fielded a question from a religious Sister participating in a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General of Women Religious.

The question – really three questions – ran: “What prevents the Church from including women among permanent deacons, as was the case in the primitive Church? Why not constitute an official commission to study the matter? Can you give us an example of where you see the possibility of better integration of women and consecrated women in the life of the Church?”

Pope Francis replied: “I would like to constitute an official commission to study the question: I think it will be good for the Church to clarify this point; I agree, and I will speak [to the CDF] in order to do something of this nature.”

The Pope wasted no time. In August 2016, he created just such a commission, composed of 12 experts in pertinent fields: six women and six men, with Archbishop Ladaria presiding.

Everything that follows is pure speculation, but there seem to be four possible paths of response, once Pope Francis receives the results of the study commission:

1. He decides to introduce women to the ordained diaconate alongside men.
2. He decides to restore the ancient “Order of Deaconesses” that was part of ecclesiastical life in the early Church.
3. He decides to say no to any proposal.
4. He decides to say nothing.

The first option seems the least likely. For starters, such a move would fly in the face of the prevailing theological understanding of the “unity of Holy Orders” – the idea that the degrees of Holy Orders are fully possessed by every bishop and articulated in the lower degrees (deacon and priest) by participation – according to which each person receiving Orders must be capable, ceteris paribus, of receiving each higher degree.

It would be difficult to introduce women to the same, doubtlessly sacramental diaconate currently open only to men in a way that would both preserve the unity of Orders and be strictly limited, so the all-male priesthood (not to mention episcopacy) that is undoubtedly part of the divine constitution of the Church would remain intact.

Theologians in Rome suggest that some Catholics in favour of women deacons see it as a “side door” into the priesthood. They also note that Benedict XVI’s 2009 motu proprio Omnium in mentem clarified that deacons do not by virtue of their orders act “in the person of Christ the Head”, but are “empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity”.

It is not easy to grasp the precise intentions behind the modification, but it does have the effect of providing a layer of legal protection and isolation of deacons generally from the higher degrees of Holy Orders.

The second option seems more plausible: restoring the Order of Deaconesses would be a compromise solution. The Order could be treated as one more closely akin to those of widows, virgins and others in the early Church, none of which was ever supposed to have sacramental character. Diocesan bishops would presumably be free to decide whether to restore the Order within their jurisdictions, and if any did, to experiment and determine how best to use them.

The third option, a simple no, seems unlikely, especially since Francis (or any other pope) does not have to say or do anything at all (option four). There is very little apparent reason, moreover, to stir up a hornet’s nest of discontent and disappointment among supporters of women deacons, not to mention the needless hurt a negative answer would cause to people still hopeful of seeing Francis foster new and greater roles for women in Church leadership. Francis, however, has proven willing and even eager to “make a mess”.


Still, it’s worth mentioning that Pope Francis downplayed the prospects for change even before he created the most recent study commission. Responding to a question during an in-flight press conference in June 2016, the Pope said: “There is a president in Argentina who advised presidents of other countries: ‘When you want something not to be resolved, make a commission.’ ”

He went on to register frustration with coverage of the story. “[Journalists] said, ‘The Church opens the door to deaconesses’. Really?” He added: “I am a bit angry because this is not telling the truth of things.”

The situation, admittedly, is more than a little confused. On the one hand, Pope Francis gives the impression that he is simply directing a group of experts to clarify a question of historical and theological interest and import, simply because he said he would.

But journalists can perhaps be forgiven for wondering what comes next, especially since the Pope is known not so much for saying one thing and doing another, but for saying both things – and then doing whatever he chooses to do, whenever he decides to do it.

Christopher Altieri is a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the June 8 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here