Australia’s Plenary Council First Assembly Proposals from Small Groups and Individuals Members have recently been released. There were a number of proposals that specifically named, promoted and sought to extend the role of deacons in the Australian Church. These were:
- Question 3 (Small group report): Culturally prepare deacons for ministry in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
- Question 4 (Proposals in interventions): Consider the ministry of deacons as intermediaries; bridging gaps within and between the Church and the world.
- Question 6 and 7 (Areas for consideration small groups): Learn from deacons in the Melkite Church participating in, and facilitating, worship.
- Question 6 (Proposals 19 and 20): Deacons as ordained ministers are entrusted with preaching the gospel in liturgy. But this may be shared with men and women who are formed for a Ministry of Preaching.
- Question 9 (Proposal 48): Reintroduce women deacons to further the mission of gospel proclamation and pastoral service to the world.
- Question 9 (Proposal 49): Reaffirm the all-male diaconate and priesthood.
- Question 9 (Areas for consideration small groups): Expert advice found that canon law supported the ordination of women to the diaconate.
- Question 10 (Small group report): Call, form and support ordained ministries including deacons (though the dot points seem only to relate to priests apart from “The requirements of the permanent diaconate need specific attention.”).
- Question 13 (Small group proposals note): Expert opinion sought on ordaining women to the diaconate to expand governance.
- Question 14 (Small group proposals): Continue to examine Pope Francis’ study into the possibility of a female diaconate.
It was noted that not everyone agreed with these small group proposals. However, given the number of times that the diaconate, and the female diaconate in particular, was mentioned, it might be worth fleshing out some of these proposals.
One person who has already done much thinking in the area of women in the diaconate is Deacon Adrian Gomez of the Broken Bay Diocese. He was part of the Joyful and Hope-Filled Servant Community Discernment and Writing Group, and, 2 years ago, put together this proposal for the Plenary Council.
Proposal for Plenary Council on Women Deacons / Lay Ecclesial Women
Dcn. Adrian Gomez BA(hons) BTh GradDipEd MTh MTheol Youth Ministry Coordinator, St Leo’s Catholic College Auditor, Marriage Tribunal of Broken Bay Diocese Chaplain, Catholic Youth Ministry Broken Bay
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon (διάκονος) of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”
– St Paul, Letter to the Romans 16:1-2
Historical Background on Women Deacons
There is no historical doubt that there were women deacons/deaconesses in the first millennia in both the Eastern and Western churches.1 In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul refers to Phoebe as a “deacon,” indicating the foundations in scripture of this ministry. Historically there was great variation in the ministry exercised by women deacons through time and place and they often fulfilled different ministries to male deacons.2 In the early Church in the West women deacons assisted with baptisms and ministered to women. In some areas they may have been related to the orders of virgins and widows. Monastic female deacons in the East received the stole as a symbol of their office at ordination, which took place inside the sanctuary. In the West Abbesses were sometimes ordained as deacons. In the Apostolic Constitutions (c.400) directly following the instructions for the ordination of deacons, there is a description and prayer for the ordination of a deaconess:
“O bishop, you shall lay your hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses, and shall say: O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who replenished with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Huldah … do Thou now also look down upon this Your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Your Holy Spirit … that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her.” (Book VIII, 19-20)3
There is ongoing discussion regarding the historical difference between women deacons and deaconesses, as these titles varied across time and place. In some areas, it seems that “deaconess” may have referred to the wife of a deacon while at other times it meant an ordained woman deacon.4 This paper will use the term “women deacons” rather than “deaconesses” to be clear that the focus is not on the wives of deacons but on women ordained to the diaconate.
During the Second Vatican Council, some bishops raised the possibility of including women in the restored diaconate but this did not gain traction at that time.5 The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 1977 that the possibility of ordaining women as deacons was “a question that must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas.”6 The opinion that women received sacramental ordination in certain times and places is given by Roger Gryson.7 In response, Aimé Georges Martimort contends they did not.8 Both Gryson and Martimort argue from the same historical evidence, and Martimort agrees the matter is not settled. For example, the ecumenical First Council of Nicaea (325) stated that deaconesses of heretical sects “do not receive any imposition of hands, so that they are in all respects to be numbered among the laity.”9 However, the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) decreed “A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination.”10 Gryson argues that the use of the Greek verb cheirotonein and of the substantive cheirothesia clearly indicate that women deacons were ordained by the laying on of hands. Martimort argues that the “laying on of hands” refers only to a special blessing, although cheirotonein is clearly used with an invocation of the Holy Spirit. The age of forty for a deaconess continues in the Justinian legislation (c.530) where deaconesses are listed among the clergy and like other clerics deaconesses receive an ordination by the “laying on of hands,” they were attached to a Church and were supported by the Church.11
The Vatican’s International Theological Commission studied the question for two five-year terms. The original ITC study (1992-1997) had positive findings on women deacons. However, this was rejected and suppressed by Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He reconstituted an ITC study group with different members to relook at this question from 1997-2002. They 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 1995 the Canon Law Society of America released a study on The Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate, concluding: “In light of these conclusions from its research, the committee has reached the conclusion that ordination of women to the permanent diaconate is possible, and may even be desirable for the United States in the present cultural circumstances.”12
The Australian Plenary Council does not work in a vacuum and must continue to be in communion with Rome and building upon the tradition of the Church. Despite some voices in the Plenary Council Final Report of the Listening Phase calling for women priests, in light of the teachings of Pope St John Paul II this is not an option for the Church in Australia to pursue. However, Pope St John Paul II deliberately left open the question of ordaining women as deacons. In 2009 Pope Benedict changed canon 1009 adding the phrase: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and faculty to act in the person of Christ the head, while deacons are enabled to serve the people of God in the diaconate of the liturgy, the word and charity.” One of the reasons given that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood is that they cannot represent Christ the head. Thus, this canonical clarification that deacons do not act in the person of Christ the head further opens the theological possibility of once again having women deacons. For this to happen, the Pope would need to change canon 1024, which currently states that “a baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.” Pope Francis in 2013 appointed a commission of theologians and historians to study women deacons in the early Church. In May 2019 he told reporters that the 12 members of the commission reached no consensus on whether “there was an ordination with the same form and same aim as the ordination of men.” The Final Report of the Amazonian Synod in 2019 has asked for further study on the possibility of women deacons be carried out (with 137 bishops voting in favour of this paragraph and 30 against).
Personal Reflections on Woman Deacons for the Australian Plenary Council 2020
As I read and reflected on the Final Report of the Plenary Council Listening Phase the possibility of women deacons kept coming to me. I was conscious of resisting reading the Final Report through a single lens, but this felt like an opening up rather than a narrowing down. In so many different areas and topics of the final report the possibility and potential of women deacons called to me. This is about opening up the possibility of ordained ministry to over half of the Catholic population and the incredible unlocking of the gifts of the Spirit that would bring for the building up of the Body of Christ. For my own theme of “A Joyful and Hope-filled Servant Community”, women sacramentally embodying the diaconia (service) of the Church would bear hope and joy to many on the margins. Women who could preach and celebrate baptisms, weddings and funerals would contribute greatly to “A Missionary and Evangelising Church.” Admitting women to the clergy would be a significant step in becoming “An Inclusive, Participatory and Synodal Church.” Women ministering at Mass as well as leading other liturgies would bring the feminine genius into making us a more “Prayerful and Eucharistic Church.” Women in sacramental leadership, with their gifts of nurture and compassion would also contribute to “A Humble, Merciful and Healing Church”. Ordaining women deacons would truly be a great sign of a Church that is “Open to Conversion, Renewal and Reform.” I could also go through each chapter of the Final Report and discuss how women deacons could make a significant contribution in that area. I was ordained a permanent deacon two and a half years ago, and this ministry has been an incredible blessing in my life and, I hope and pray, in the life of my community. It has opened up great opportunities to share my faith, lead others in prayer and through service make the Church present in places of need and distress.
Since becoming a deacon I have had several women reveal to me that they too feel called by the Holy Spirit to the ministry of the diaconate. Following my first celebration of baptism, a mentor of mine from the parish spoke to me of her sadness that she is not able to celebrate baptism, one thing that she feels strongly called to do. I see a member of the Star of the Sea Association for Ecclesial Women, who has exercised great leadership in schools and parishes, as an ideal candidate for the diaconate. So, for me the idea of women deacons is not in the abstract but something I can put faces to. I recently reconnected with an old friend, who now works for Jesuit social services. We were catching up when she blurted out how much she herself felt called to the diaconate. I told her that I was on a Plenary Council Discernment and Writing Group, and that the topic of woman deacons was something I had already personally been reflecting on and praying about. This was a Spirit led encounter. At the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Perth in December I was sitting at the Broken Bay Diocese booth in the Expo Pavilion when a high school student from my diocese came up to me. She started a conversation, telling me that her mother felt a strong calling to the permanent diaconate. I have since made contact with her mother, to discuss this further. Once again, I feel that the Spirit is moving in her life. I invited these women to write a reflection on their own sense of being called to the diaconate and they all said that they would be happy to be contacted to share further on this.
The Second Vatican Council reinstituted the permanent diaconate as a flexible response to the needs of the Church at the discretion of the local conferences of bishops. The renewed diaconate was not simply a restoration of the ancient diaconate. It was a new expression of the ministry.13 While there was a great variety in the historical ministry of women deacons over time and place, it would make sense when ordaining them into the renewed diaconate that they would take on the same ministries as male deacons in the tria munera: in the areas of Word (munus docendi), Liturgy (munus sanctificandi) and Charity/ Administration (munus regendi). Women are already exercising diakonia in the Australian Church; let us restore this ancient order and give them the grace to sacramentally embody Christ the servant.
Instituting Ecclesial Women as a practical step for the Australian Plenary Council
As mentioned above, a theological question that is currently being studied is whether the Church accepts that the ordination of women deacons was sacramental or not. This is a question for the universal Church and cannot be answered by the Plenary Council of Australia. Like the bishops of the Amazon, our Plenary Council could request the Vatican for further study on this topic. Going further they could ask for a re-institution of women deacons, leaving the sacramental nature of the ministry to be discerned over time. These are likely to be long-term and ongoing discussions for the universal Church. However, in the meantime, one practical and pastoral response for the call to involve women in official leadership and ministry within the Church would be for the Plenary Council to develop a model for the institution of lay women as “ecclesial women” with the authorisation to celebrate the sacraments which do not require ordination. This could be encouraged by the Council but be at the discretion of the diocesan bishop, as these ecclesial women would commit themselves to a stable vocation within a diocese in which they promise obedience to their bishop and his successors. The sacraments of baptism and marriage as well as the celebration of funerals outside of Mass do not require ordination for validity. Canonical permissions could be developed by the Plenary Council and sent to the Vatican for approval in order to allow instituted lay ecclesial women to celebrate baptisms, weddings and funerals. There are different approaches the Plenary Council could do this: by providing dispensations (canons 85-93), rescripts (canons 59-75), or maybe even as a competent legislator introducing new customs (canons 23-28). Giving ecclesial women permission to preach should also be looked at. Canon 766 provides permission for lay people to preach in churches, but canon 767 specifies that lay people cannot give homilies. The Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law has given an interpretation that diocesan bishops cannot dispense from c.767 §1– i.e. cannot allow a non-ordained person to give a homily as this is something that flows from sacred orders (cfr. 26 May 1987, in AAS 79 , 1249). The Plenary Council could ask the Vatican whether this interpretation that restricts the authority of diocesan bishops still holds and whether a Plenary Council has the authority to dispense from c.767.
In my own diocese of Broken Bay, a former bishop, David Walker, set up the Mary Star of the Sea Association for Lay Ecclesial Women with the intention of setting up a stable diocesan ministry for women. As can be seen, this was initially set up for celibate women, but Bishop David was considering making it available to married women as well. Dioceses could choose to set up groups of Ecclesial Women in parallel with the current male permanent diaconate, with the women and male deacon candidates undergoing the same formation and having similar roles once completed. Ecclesial women would be officially instituted to empower their leadership in the priestly, prophetic and pastoral ministries (Liturgy, Word and Charity/Administration). Having women in such an official ministerial role will be a powerful way of responding to the sensus fidelium as expressed through the Final Report in a range of ways – in the liturgy, in leadership, greater inclusion, new avenues for evangelisation and outreach, greater opportunities for formation and greater use of the charisms given to the Church by the Holy Spirit. Women involved in an official Church ministry in such a way could also help to renew the Church’s understanding of leadership and ministry, moving us further away from a narrow and dangerous clerical culture. They could also help provide the needed leadership for a range of chaplaincies. Their ministries might include animation of significant diocesan pastoral programs, staffing of key diocesan agencies and promoting important diocesan initiatives.
On the threshold of the new millennium, Pope St John Paul II said:
The unity of the Church is not uniformity, but an organic blending of legitimate diversities. It is the reality of many members joined in a single body, the one Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:12). Therefore the Church of the Third Millennium will need to encourage all the baptized and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the Church‘s life. Together with the ordained ministry, other ministries, whether formally instituted or simply recognized, can flourish for the good of the whole community, sustaining it in all its many needs: from catechesis to liturgy, from education of the young to the widest array of charitable works.14
Two decades on, but with another 980 years to go, I hope that the Plenary Council will take up his vision and challenge! The Plenary Council has the opportunity to appeal to Rome for a re-institution of Women Deacons following further study on this topic. There are so many women already performing the service of diakonia for our Church today. Ordination as deacons would expand their ministry and bring their many gifts and talents into the service of the Church as part of the clergy. In the meantime, the Plenary Council could mandate the development of a program for instituted Ecclesical Women, who would parallel the formation and work of male permanent deacons. This would allow an official stable diocesan ministry for women. There is so much unfulfilled potential for the Church in Australia; may we have the courage to set out into the deep and embrace the future with hope and joy.
Thank you, Adrian!
2 See Associate Professor Mary Coloe “Women in the Church? The time is now.” (17/11/2019) https://ytu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/The-time-is-now-paper1-Mary-Coloe.pdf
4 Gary Macy, “Women Deacons:History” in Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future (Paulist Press, 2011)
5 Gary Macy, “Women Deacons: History”, p.75
7 Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press, 1976.
8 Amié Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, translated by K. D. Whitehead, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1986.
9 “Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils” https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum01.htm
11 “Code of Emperor Justinian I (529-546)”, http://www.womendeacons.org/history/justinian.shtml
13 “Theological Explorations: Women Deacons in the Catholic Church” https://www.futurechurch.org/sites/default/files/Theology-CWD.pdf
14 Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 2000, https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20010106_novo-millennio-ineunte.pdf