Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Deacons Male and Female

It is ordination season again. And among the many men being ordained will be those being ordained to the permanent diaconate. The order of deacon is one of the three grades in the sacramental hierarchy of Holy Orders. It has existed in the Church since apostolic times. But over the centuries the functions of deacons were gradually assumed by others. In particular, priests increasingly performed more of the activities deacons had performed in the liturgy, even as the priesthood became the culmination of progression per gradum through a series of minor and major orders.  That was the way it was in the Latin Church until the Second Vatican Council provided for the possibility once again of ordaining men as deacons without any intention of their advancing to the priesthood. The reinstitution of the permanent diaconate has been particularly successful in the United States which has at least half of all such ordained permanent deacons in the entire world.

Meanwhile, along with abundant theological and other discussions about the exact meaning of the order of deacon, there has been some resurgent interest in the question of female deacons. And last week Pope Francis himself, in response to a question, suggested the possibility of further study of the subject.

I remember it was a topic that interested me somewhat when I would come to Rome for meetings and stay at the Domus Paulus VI; there was a Syrian theologian there, a good man, who did the critical edition and translation of the hymns of St. Ephrem, the Syrian. And one day I asked him about this, and he explained to me that in the early days of the Church there were some “deaconesses.”

But what are these deaconesses? Were they ordained or not? The Council of Chalcedon (451) speaks about it, but it is somewhat obscure. What was the role of deaconesses at that time? It seems — that man told me, who is dead; he was a good professor, wise, erudite — it seems that the role of the deaconesses was to help with the baptisms of women, the immersion, they were baptizing them, for the sake of decorum; also to anoint the bodies of women in baptism. And also something curious: when there was a marriage trial, because the husband was beating his wife, and she went to the bishop to complain, the deaconesses were charged with looking at the bruises left on the body of the woman from her husband’s beatings and informing the bishop.

This, I remember. There are a number of publications on the diaconate in the Church, but it is unclear what it was like. I think that I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to inform me about the studies on this topic, because I have responded to you based only on what I heard from this priest — who was a scholarly and true researcher — about the permanent diaconate. And also I would like to set up an official commission to study the issue: I think that it will be good for the Church to clarify this point; I agree, and I will speak, to do something of this kind.

In fact, the question has already been studied and considered at considerable length. In 2002, for example, the International Theological Commission published the results of its study of the diaconate, From the Diaknoia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles. (That document was approved in forma specifica and its publication authorized by the Prefect of the CDF, at that time Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.)

The document is somewhat on the long side, but well worth reading. It is a comprehensive treatment of the diaconate at various stages in the history of the Church and of the reestablishment of the permanent diaconate in the 20th century. This study of the diaconate showed that historically "a ministry of deaconesses did indeed exist, and that this developed unevenly in different parts of the Church. It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate." This study also examined "how the Church through her theology and Magisterium has become more conscious of the sacramental reality of Holy Orders and its three grades."

It concluded that the ancient deaconesses "as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised were not purely and simply equivalent to the [male] deacons." And it also stressed "the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other." With those two important points in mind, it concluded that "it pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively" regarding the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate.

Assuming the facts already established and the parameters set by those facts, what might a recreated female diaconal order in the Church actually look like?

Questions of sacramentality aside, it would seem that some form of the ministry of deaconess has survived in at least some Eastern Churches. (The photo above purports to be that of a 19th-century Armenian deaconess in Constantinople.) In the West, it would appear that the ministries originally associated with female deacons are either no longer needed in the Church (because of changes in the way we celebrate the sacraments of initiation) or (as apparently also happened with the ministries of male deacons) have simply been assumed by others (e.g., women Religious, some of whom in the past have at times been associated with the ancient image of deaconess). In the case of male deacons, an order which admittedly had at least recognizably survived into modern times if only as a transitional step to the priesthood, a permanent diaconate was still deemed worth reestablishing in the Church because of the distinctive sacramental character of diaconal ordination. In the different but comparable case of female deacons, could a similar argument be made for reestablishing some such order, one which would perhaps play a somewhat similar but also distinctly different role in the Church's organization?

Just as there is obviously a place for women Religious alongside men Religious, simultaneously sharing in the charism of religious life but also exercising obviously different charisms, can we stretch our imaginations similarly with regard to the diaconate?

In this era which seems so obsessed with minimizing the significance of sexual differentiation, would a distinct female diaconate be too counter-cultural? Whom would that satisfy, and whom would it not? And where would that leave the debate?

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