There is a long history of women in the diaconate, starting with St Phoebe, named in Romans 16:1-2. A verse in 1 Timothy 3:11 also refers to the qualifications of women deacons.1 At the time, all ministries in the church were in development, and there were no clear structures or offices, such as the bishop/priest/deacon (and lay minister) model we have now. However, while women played key apostolic, ministerial, administrative and financial roles in the very early church, in time, limits were placed upon their public ministries.
Nevertheless, between the 1st and 12th centuries of the Christian Era, historians have found numerous references to women named as deacons or deaconesses from church documents, laws, letters, biographies, tombstones, and artwork. The roles of such women in both the Eastern and Western Churches were varied, and depended on the circumstances. Liturgical roles for women deacons included performing baptisms and proclaiming the gospel.2 However, such particulars are secondary to the current conversation, as the restoration of the permanent diaconate for men was in no way a restoration of a previous historical form.3 Rather, the principle that women deacons existed in an official, stable capacity is significant. Ordination rites for women deacons have been preserved, in which the sacramental character is “indisputable” and “the matter and form of the ordination are identical for men and women, and express the bishop’s intention to ordain a true minister.”4
Much valuable evidence is available to us now. In one such work, Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek reference women in the diaconate up to the sixth century. The many sources include letters from John Chrysostum, the early Church Father, to the deacon Amproukla and “those [fem.] with her.”5 There is also “Marthana, a holy deaconess” mentioned by Egeria of the famous Holy Land pilgrimage of the early fifth century.6 Of early Church texts, the Didascalia Apostolorum – early third century – assumes and describes female deacons as “the type of the Holy Spirit”, while presbyters are “the type of our apostles”.7 The secular emperor Theodosius prescribed that deaconesses be admitted over the age of sixty in 390,8 but at the Councils of Chalcedon in 451 and Trullan in 694, the minimum age for deaconesses to be ordained was declared to be forty.9 Another work, by Gary Macy, also identifies evidence of ordained women in the Catholic Church. It includes the dramatic story of the sixth century Queen Radegund, who fled her husband the king to become a deaconess and the twelfth century theologian, Peter Abelard, who defended the ancient order of deaconess.10 These are just some of the more well-known names and examples.
At the same time, not only women deacons, but permanent male deacons, were becoming almost extinct. Although the famed St Francis of Assisi – 13th century – was only ordained a deacon, for other men it became a transitional order, preliminary to the priesthood. The conversation started to change in the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Hannes Kramer, a social worker, was a key player as he formed a ‘diaconal circle’ of men and women who served the needy in the style of a restored permanent order.11 As Vatican II approached, hundreds of bishops called for the diaconate to be revived, and finally Lumen Gentium introduced the restoration of the permanent diaconate for men to the Latin Church.12 This order is also currently open to women in the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Orthodox Church of Greece; the Catholic Church recognises the validity of the sacraments and orders of these churches.13
Increasingly, the conversation has grown around the further restoration of this ministerial order to women in the Roman Catholic Church. In 2002, the International Theological Commission published From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles. The text dedicates 17 paragraphs to the historical ministry of women in the diaconate and declares that the teaching office of the Church has yet to decide on women deacons for the future.14 In 1983 and 2009, St Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI made an important clarification to Canon Law, enshrining the distinction between the orders of the presbyterate and the diaconate.15 This allows the discussion of women in the diaconate to take place without reference to other orders or roles. There have been four recent papal commissions to investigate women in the diaconate. The current one has been meeting in Rome, prompted by an overwhelming call from the Synod on the Amazon. We pray for its work, and for the discernment among the whole Church today.
For further reading: http://catholicwomendeacons.org/explore/explore-historydetails
1 Scholars think that it is more likely that ‘women deacons’ are referenced here rather than ‘wives of deacons’. The wives of bishops or elders are not mentioned. Wild, Robert A., “The Pastoral Letters” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Burns and Oates: London, 1989), 897.
2 Gary Macy, “Women Deacons: History,” in Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2011), 25-26.
3 International Theological Commission, From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles (2002), 62.
4 Texts of Ordination Rites for Women Deacons”, Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, https://www.womendeacons.org/discussion-ordination-rites/.
5 Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 56-58.
6 Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church, 75-77.
7 Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church, 181-197.
8 Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church, 200-201.
9 Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church, 205-206, 224-226.
10 Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 68-69, 93-95 (Kindle edition).
11 William T. Ditewig, 101 Questions and Answers on Deacons (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2004), 20.
12 Lumen Gentium (1964), #29.
13 Phyllis Zagano, Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate (Mulgrave, Victoria: Garratt Publishing, 2012), 19-29.
14 International Theological Commission, From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles (2002).
15 Pope Benedict XVI, Motu Proprio, Several Amendments to the Code of Canon Law (2009).