21 September 2023, The Tablet

Synodal discernment and women in the diaconate

Synodal discernment and women in the diaconate

To argue against restoring women to the diaconate is to argue against diaconal ministry itself. (Image shows detail of women featured in a medieval mosaic.)
Giorgio G / Alamy

The People of God have asked. The Synod may answer. What about women deacons?

The Instrumentum Laboris states, “Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?”

Persons and pressure groups on both sides of the issue are making their opinions known. But opinion is not fact, and lobbying is not discernment.

The Synod on Synodality is an exercise in discernment and true discernment depends on the tripartite formula “See, Judge, Act”. The first requires facts. The second requires prayer. The third requires consensus.

So, the process begins with facts. While some interpretations differ, the facts about women deacons are well known and accepted by scholars. These must be considered in the light of the Holy Spirit. Then, and only then, can consensus be sought.

The five points below are critical to the discernment of whether the Church can restore women to the diaconate.


Women ministered as deacons

Without question, women ministered as deacons in the early Church, at least through the twelfth century. The enormous amount of evidence begins with Saint Paul introducing Phoebe as “deacon of the Church at Cenchreae”. (Rom. 16:1-2) While no one claims Phoebe was sacramentally ordained, she is understood to have served in an equivalent ministry to that of the seven with masculine names called by the Apostles in Acts, none of whom is called “deacon”. (Acts 6:1-7). Multiple sources attest that, from time to time and place to place, women assisted with the baptism and chrismation of women, were responsible for the catechesis of women and children, carried the Eucharist to and anointed ill women, cared for parishes, managed social services, and performed diaconal altar service.


Women were ordained to these ministries

It is impossible to state that every diaconal ministry was undertaken by every women deacon whom history memorialises with liturgical and epigraphical evidence. There are several extant liturgical ceremonies for ordaining deacons; at least one is meant to be used for both male and female deacons. Five liturgies are held by the Vatican Library and others are in libraries and monasteries throughout Europe and elsewhere. The women were ordained as deacons by their bishops within the sanctuary during Mass, in the presence of the clergy through the imposition of hands by the invocation of the Holy Spirit; they self-communicated from the chalice; the bishop placed the stole around their necks and, importantly, they were named deacons.


The diaconate is not the priesthood

As Church practice developed and grew, the diaconate was essentially subsumed into the priesthood. By the twelfth century virtually no one was ordained as deacon unless he was to be ordained as priest. First, men were tonsured and so became clerics. They then progressed through the steps or stages leading toward priesthood: porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, and finally priest. The practice, known as the cursus honorem (course of honour), existed until soon after the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed, “At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed ‘not unto the priesthood but unto a ministry of service.’” (Lumen Gentium, 29). Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam (1972) suppressed the practice of tonsure, the so-called minor orders, and the sub-diaconate, replacing them with the lay ministries of lector and acolyte. Today, the ordinary means of entering the clerical state is by ordination to the diaconate. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI codified Pope John Paul II’s modification of n. 1581 the Catechism of the Catholic Church, so that Canon 1009.3 of the Code of Canon Law reads: "Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity".


Orthodox Churches are recovering the tradition

Orthodoxy has a clear tradition of women deacons – “deaconess” is their preferred term – and there is significant discussion within the Orthodox Churches about recovering the tradition. For example, an essay by liturgical scholar Cipriano Vagaggini, OSB. Cam. published in Orientalia Christiana Periodica demonstrates the deep history of ordaining women deacons in the East. The common argument against his and other’s research is that the women were not “ordained” only “blessed” and this confusion has spread to analysis of Western liturgical evidence. Still, the liturgies for ordaining men and women as deacons are identical or nearly so, with the primary distinction often being the names of the saints invoked (Phoebe or Stephen, for example) and the pronouns used.


The Church needs the diaconal ministry of women

To argue against restoring women to the diaconate is to argue against diaconal ministry itself. While the roles of women and men differed in the early church, there is nothing barring women from undertaking all the tasks and duties of deacons today. The diaconal ministry of the liturgy, the word, and charity need not be restricted. In 2021, Pope Francis ruled that women may be installed to the lay ministries of lector and acolyte, each required prior to diaconal ordination. Women are already trained as preachers, but without ordination they cannot preach the homily during Mass. Women already trained in canon law cannot be single judges in canonical proceedings because they are not clerics. Worldwide, women perform the majority of charitable works, often with outside funding and separately from diocesan and parish structures. As Vatican Two stated about men “who actually carry out the functions of the deacon’s office,” “it is only right to strengthen them by the imposition of hands.” (Ad Gentes, 16)

Ordaining women to the one order of deacon would send a great message to the Church and the world beyond, that women can indeed image Christ the Risen Lord, that women are made in the image and likeness of God.

The important thing is for the members of the Synod, and the whole Church, to prayerfully discern the facts of this or any other question before them in the light of the Holy Spirit and in the belief that God will not deny the Church what it needs.


Phyllis Zagano was a member of the 2016-2018 Papal Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women. She holds a research appointment at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York and her most recent book is Just Church: Catholic Social Teaching, Synodality, and Women (Paulist, 2023).


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