The case against ordaining female deacons
Editor's note: The following is the text of a speech Michael Hichborn, president of the Lepanto Institute, delivered to a group of over 100 faithful Catholics in Albuquerque, New Mexico on June 25, 2018.
July 5, 2018 (Lepanto Institute) – The topic I've been asked to speak on this evening is the proposal that the Church should ordain women to the diaconate. Now...most faithful Catholics who hear such ideas would immediately balk at the notion and dismiss the possibility as the utterance of disaffected heretics seeking to remake the Church in their own image and likeness. Rest assured, your intuition on the matter is absolutely right, but the issue isn't as simple as that. Historically, there have been deaconesses, but what is important here is to explore the nature of what was called a deaconess in the ancient Church and what is being proposed today. So, we're going to divide this topic into two parts. In the first part, we'll discuss the historical context of women as deacons...both in terms of what we know from true history, and what is being discussed on by those proffering the idea that women today should be ordained deacons. And then, we'll take a look at the reason why this is such a hot topic now, and who the organizations are that are pushing women's ordination to the diaconate.
In order to put everything into context, we have to begin with the Scripture passage that seems to open the door to the entire discussion. What I'm going to read to you is from St. Paul's letter to the Romans, Chapter 16, verses 1-5:
And I commend to you Phebe, our sister, who is in the ministry of the church, that is in Cenchrae: That you receive her in the Lord as becometh saints; and that you assist her in whatsoever business she shall have need of you. For she also hath assisted many, and myself also. Salute Prisca and Aquila, my helpers in Christ Jesus, (Who have for my life laid down their own necks: to whom not I only give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles,) And the church which is in their house. Salute Epenetus, my beloved: who is the first-fruits of Asia in Christ.
The key phrase here is "ministry of the Church," because the Greek root of this passage is, "Diakonon," which has caused organizations such as our neighbors here to believe that Phoebe was an ordained deaconess. But nothing could be further from the truth. Fr. George Leo Haydock, in his commentaries on Scripture explains:
Phœbe, who is in the ministry, or employed in the ministry, as women, called diaconissæ, used to be, privately instructing catechumens, assisting particularly at the baptizing of women, distributing charities, etc.
In other words, Phoebe was very much like a nun. Not an ordained minister, but a woman who administers in service to the Church. If we look elsewhere in Scripture, we can see the manner in which St. Paul specifically outlined the selection and ordination of male deacons, and he never once provides for the ordination of women to the diaconate. In St. Paul's first letter to Timothy, he outlines the character requisites for men to be selected for the clergy.
A faithful saying: if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. It behoveth therefore a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife, sober, prudent, of good behaviour, chaste, given to hospitality, a teacher, Not given to wine, no striker, but modest, not quarrelsome, not covetous, but One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all chastity. But if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?
Not a neophyte: lest being puffed up with pride, he fall into the judgment of the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony of them who are without: lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Deacons in like manner chaste, not double tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre: Holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved: and so let them minister, having no crime.
The women in like manner chaste, not slanderers, but sober, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife: who rule well their children, and their own houses.
Notice that St. Paul mentions both men and women here, but does NOT mention women with regard to selection for the clergy, in particular for the diaconate. If Phoebe were an ordained deaconess, then the prescription for the selection for ordained deaconesses would have been included here, but it was not.
And quite possibly the most definitive statement on the ordination of deacons to be found in the New Testament is in the beginning of Acts 6:
At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.
These men were not ordained as priests, but were ordained and given the task of carrying out the division of goods. And the Apostles made very clear that men were selected for this. If Phoebe was an ordained deaconess, then this process of selecting and ordaining deacons would not have specified only men, as it does here in Acts.
But the question of deaconesses is not limited to Scripture alone. In the early Church, through the middle ages, there is mention of deaconesses.
The earliest description of the duties of deaconesses, comes from a 3rdcentury, Eastern Church document called the Didascalia Apostolorum. While the duties and responsibilities of male deacons were rather far-reaching, the ministry of deaconesses were limited to working with other women in highly specific ways. Primarily, deaconesses were responsible for preparing female catechumens for baptism by anointing their bodies. Because the early Church conducted these anointings and full immersion baptisms in the nude, it would have been highly inappropriate for male priests and deacons to be involved, hence the duties and responsibilities of deaconesses ministering to women.
That said...there is a question regarding the ordination of women as deaconesses. The single largest body of work discussing role of deaconesses is the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, or simply called the Apostolic Constitution. The constitutions comprise 8 books that were written over the course of time between 200 and 400 AD.
In these Constitutions, it is very clear that the primary role of deacons and deaconesses was the care of the Church's poor. But what those who propose the ordination of women as deacons like to point to is that The Apostolic Constitutions do mention a kind of ordination with the laying on of hands. Here's what it says:
Concerning a deaconess...: 'Bishop, you shall lay your hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and the deaconesses, and shall say: "O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who did replenish with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Huldah; who did not disdain that your only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple, did ordain women to be keepers of your holy gates, — do you now also look down upon this your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of deaconess, and grant her your Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to your glory, and the praise of your Christ, with whom glory and adoration be to you and the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen."' (Book VIII, Section XIX, XX)
But what the women's ordination crowd of today fails to address is the fact that the described "ordination" is vastly different from the ordination of men as deacons. In the ordination of men to the diaconate, the invocation of the Holy Spirit speaks of a power, which is not mentioned in the rite for women. It says:
fill him with the spirit and with power as thou didst fill Stephen the martyr and follower of the sufferings of thy Christ".
This invocation of power is vitally important because the rite for the deacon also mentions the possibility of advancing in clerical offices, such as priest or bishop, but it makes NO such mention of this type in the rite for deaconesses. The Constitution instructs the bishop to pray that the candidate may be "worthy to discharge acceptably the ministration of a deacon, steadily, unblameably, and without reproof, that thereby he may attain a higher degree.
And just to put to bed any notion that the Apostolic Constitution indicates that the women's ordination as a deaconess constitutes Holy Orders of some sort, Volume 8, number 27 says clearly and definitively, "the deaconess gives no blessing, she fulfills no function of priest or deacon."
So, while it may be said that there was a kind of ordination for women as deaconesses, it was NOT an ordination to a clerical rank, but for the administration of certain duties related to other women. Nothing more.
What's interesting about this is that the First Council of Nicea, held in 325, addressed this very issue of the ordaining of deaconesses. It must be remembered that the canons of a council are to be held as more definitive than the Apostolic Constitution. Canon 19 of the Council of Nicea says:
Similarly, in regard to the deaconesses, as with all who are enrolled in the register, the same procedure is to be observed. We have made mention of the deaconesses, who have been enrolled in this position, although, not having been in any way ordained, they are certainly to be numbered among the laity.
But the Council of Nicea appears not to have completely put the matter to rest, as abuses began to arise. Because of this, it was necessary for this matter to again be addressed in the Council of Nimes, which took place in approximately 396 AD. The second of seven canons established at the Council of Nimes expressly forbids the ordination of women as deaconesses. And 50 years later, at the Council of Orange, the whole question of the ordination of women as deaconesses was definitively closed. It said:
In no way whatsoever should deaconesses ever be ordained. If there already are deaconesses, they should bow their heads beneath the blessing which is given to all the people.
Bear in mind that these councils and these authoritative declarations were made because of the abuses that were taking place in the Church! Imagine that...liturgical and clerical abuse in the Catholic Church, dissenting from the authority of the hierarchy. Who'd have thought THAT was possible?
But let's make one last point on the historical context of deaconesses before we move on.
Organizations like Voice of the Faithful and FutureChurch...both of which are being represented right out in the hallway here for the Association of United States Catholic Priests annual assembly...these organizations have established what they believe the duties of deaconesses would be. In a June 1, 2017 press release, these two organizations called for the ordination of women to the diaconate, saying:
Restoring women deacons – especially in underserved or missionary territories – would mean that women could:
- Preach during Eucharistic celebrations.
- Serve as single judges in annulment proceedings.
- Officiate the Rite of Marriage.
Not only does this not match the historic context of the duties performed by deaconesses in the Church, but it completely contradicts the immutable mandate established by St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy. He says:
A woman must receive instruction silently and under complete control. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet. (1 Timothy 2:12)
Either St. Paul was schizophrenic, a liar, or he meant something completely at odds with what FutureChurch, Voice of the Faithful and other heretical sects are proposing. If Phoebe was an ordained deaconess, with the power and authority to conduct baptisms, funerals, marriage ceremonies, read the Gospels in Mass, and even give sermons, then St. Paul would be permitting her to conduct those very same acts which he condemned in his letter to Timothy.
But this all begs the question...why is this a topic now? What is the end game? Why do organizations like FutureChurch, the AUSCP, Voice of the Faithful, and others want to see the Church open the way to ordaining women to the diaconate with the authority to read the Gospel, preach sermons, baptize, officiate marriages, conduct grave-side funerary rites, and so forth?
It's because they lost the argument about the possibility of women's priestly ordination and they are looking for another avenue. It's that simple.
In his 1994 Apostolic Letter ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS, Pope John Paul II stated with absolute clarity:
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
As we established earlier, the ordination of a deaconess in the early Church was specifically excluded as a step in the process of priestly ordination. And, since the ordination of a deacon is the first stage of a three-fold ordination (deacon, priest, and bishop) this should have ended the conversation, and for a while, it did. But because Pope John Paul II's declaration only implied the deaconate without specifically mentioning it, the women's ordination movement feels free to continue to push their agenda. Now, the ordination of women to the deaconate is far less than what the women's ordination movement would ever want, so why are they cheering so much about the possibility of women being ordained as deacons now?
In their line of thinking, the ordination of women as deaconesses may be an end-run to a higher post. In short, they seem to think that if women can become ordained deacons, then they could possibly be elevated as cardinals. Why? Because contrary to popular thinking, one does not have to be a priest in order to be a cardinal, and in fact, there is such a thing as cardinal deacons. As absurd as it may sound, this appears to be the thought process. In 2013, Dr. Phyllis Zagano (who is a long-time advocate of the ordination of deaconesses, and was appointed to Pope Francis' Special Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women) made note of an article that cited her work in promoting the ordination of deaconesses to the possibility of women being made Cardinals. Dr. Zagano said:
The huge Spanish daily El Pais even ran a story opining the pope was ready to name women as cardinals, noting that two laymen became cardinals in the 19th century and reminding its readers that the tradition of women ordained as deacons could be restarted at any moment.
Following Dr. Zagano's article, the dissident publication US Catholicexpanded on the idea. Here is how it laid out the case:
Although there have been lay cardinals in the church's past, today canon law states that cardinals have to be ordained. But, the newspaper's Brazil correspondent, Juan Arias, argues, "cardinals don't have to be priests, they can be deacons." Canon 350 of the church's code of canon law specifically lists the possibility of "cardinal deacons."
And so Arias lays out a papal two-step. The opening of the diaconate to women, he asserts, "is one of the reforms that Francis has in mind," although again he gives no indication of how he is reading the pope's mind here. But he quotes the work of Phyllis Zagano, who laid out the case for women deacons in a 2012 interview with U.S. Catholic.
And once that's done, comes Step 2: "Any woman who is appointed deaconess can indeed become a cardinal without having to change canonical law," writes Arias.
So, here's the process. If a woman can be ordained to the diaconate, with all the powers and authority of male deacons, then they can also be made cardinals. If a woman can be a cardinal, they suppose, then a woman could also participate in a conclave to select the next pope. In their twisted way of thinking, this could even open up the way to the possibility of a female pope.
For now, this is a pipe-dream...but it is most certainly THEIR dream! But until that happens, they have some thoughts on other steps that can be taken.
Our neighbors here at the Association of US Catholic Priests, passed a resolution in 2013 in support of the ordination of women as deaconesses.
Not only does this resolution "promote ongoing discussion" on the ordination of women as deacons, but it takes things a step further. The resolution specifically called for the ordination of women as deacons and a rewriting of Canon law to lift restrictions against the ordination of women. The passed resolution says:
Be it resolved The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP) supports the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate and recommends:
- That the ongoing discussion of the ordination of women to the diaconate continue;
- That the US Catholic Bishops publicly support the restoration of the ancient
practice of ordaining deaconesses; (cf. Constitution of the Holy Apostles, 8. 19-20)
- That the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) request
amendment of canon 1024 which restricts valid sacred ordination to baptized males
But, this support for female deacons is not intended to be an end in itself. Rather, it is a stepping stone to the priestly ordination of women. The AUSCP's Proposal 7 was immediately followed by a resolution for the ordination of women as priestesses:
"Be it resolved that the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP), call for the study of, and an open discussion for the ordination of women and married men to the priesthood." Rationale:
- This is a first necessary step (…study and discussion…)
- The People of God need shepherds
- The people of God need sacraments
Let's review the progression...AUSCP asserts its full-throated support for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate and the removal of restrictions to the ordination of women. Following that, AUSCP proposes "open discussion" on the ordination of women to the priestesshood. In the rationale, it calls "open discussion" a necessary first step toward ordaining women as priestesses. It's worth noting that "open discussion" is never truly about an academic exercise directed toward Truth, but is more in line with the directed dialogue initiated by the serpent in Eden. In other words, just the possibility of having this discussion is necessary for getting what they want...ordained women. But, before there can be a dialogue about the viability of ordaining women as priestesses, there must first be something to talk about and something to show as support for their position. And so, the AUSCP proposed the idea of "priestless parishes."
On its website, the AUSCP has a document titled, "PASTORAL CARE IN AND THROUGH PRIESTLESS PARISHES." The document never specifies deaconesses or priestesses, but when considered in the light of the proposals I just mentioned, the push for "priestless parishes" takes on a much darker tone than even the title suggests.
It's bad enough to consider the proposal for a parish without a priestly pastor. But this proposal suggests an avenue by which deaconesses could take the place of priests as "Pastoral Leaders" of a parish. The proposal suggests that Pastoral Leaders will:
take responsibility for the day to day coordination of parish activities, and take initiative as needed to motivate, to correct, and to affirm persons who work in the parish ministries; and where needed, provide conflict resolution and reconciliation. To be a true pastoral leader he/she must lead worship where appropriate, and likewise break open the Word. In short, he/she would be in the role of pastor, excepting sacramental ministry, and under the supervision of the canonical pastor.
Here's the thing...the current code of Canon Law permits only males to lead in liturgical worship. But...the reasoning goes...if a woman can take on the administrative duties of a deacon, and the priest is stretched too thin, why not allow her to also act in his place while he is away. Ordaining a woman as a deaconess would allow women to read the Gospels, give sermons, and conduct baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Women are already distributing Holy Communion, so why not let them conduct Communion Services in the absence of a priest? The only thing she couldn't do is consecrate.
So, as an answer to the priest shortage crisis, the AUSCP and others propose the ordination of women to the diaconate. The next step is to appoint them as pastoral leaders in "priestless parishes," where a local priest runs around several parishes to conduct an occasional Mass to consecrate enough hosts to last until his next visit. In this capacity, the deaconess/pastoral leader will conduct Communion services without the Mass, looking for all intents and purposes like a priestess without actually being one. And then, if AUSCP (and its cohorts) can get some bishop somewhere to experiment with their proposal for "priestless parishes," implementing ordained deaconesses as Pastoral Leaders, then it can proceed to its second proposal, which is open discussion for the ordination of women as priestesses. At this point, since women would already be doing just about everything else a priest does, with the exception of consecration, the logical next step is "simply" ordaining women to the priestesshood.
The bottom line here is that all of this comes down to the desire for women to be ordained as priestesses. This is NOT a Catholic idea, it never has been, and it never will be. But it is worth noting that, of all the religious ideas that have ever floated around the world throughout history, the notion of a priestess has NEVER been considered in Judaism, in Christianity, or even in Islam. The only place we find priestesses is in pagan worship. This movement is a pagan movement. It is evil, it is dangerous, and it is anti-Catholic. The Church, which is the Bride of Christ, will never have a priestess...but She does have a mother. Our Lady, who is highest in all of God's creation, has already crushed the head of the serpent with its deadly lies. And she has given us the Weapon to fight against the paganizing of our Beloved Church. She asked us at Fatima to pray the Rosary daily for the triumph of Her Immaculate Heart. So, if we are to see the end of the wicked designs of organizations like FutureChurch, AUSCP, Voice of the Faithful and others, we must pray the Rosary for the crushing of their plans and the conversion of their members.
God love you.
Published with permission from the Lepanto Institute.