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Two Simple Reasons why Female Deacons are not Possible

On May 12th, 2016, pope Francis received a group of women religious who, during their meeting, posed to him this question; “What prevents the Church from including women among permanent deacons, as was the case in the primitive Church? Why not constitute an official commission to study the matter?” The pope, gracious as he is, responded in the affirmative; he accepted the proposal stating “it would do good for the church to clarify this point.”

This seemed to upset many faithful Catholics, who felt that pope Francis was capitulating to the pressures of the modern feminist ideology. However, it is important to note that nothing pope Francis did was incongruous with Church practice. In fact, this is precisely what the Church has always done. The Church rarely takes the initiative herself to settle matters definitively. Rather, She responds according to the needs and errors of the day. When, for example, the heresy of Arianism spread throughout the East in the 3rd century, the council of Nicaea was called to settle the matter once and for all, which it did by solemnly declaring it a heresy. So it is a good thing that the pope called a commission to study the issue, because it is a first step that will lead to a more definitive judgment on the matter. And it may indirectly help women to understand more clearly their role within the Church as mothers, sisters, and daughters.

With that said, however, we must also explain the theological reasons why this judgment will come down on one side, and not the other. I will try to be as clear as possible, so that these points can be articulated in everyday conversation.

1. Holy Orders is one sacrament, not three separate sacraments.

a. Deacons, priests, and bishops all share in the same one sacrament of Orders, just to differing degrees (or grades); deacons share in it to one degree, priests a fuller degree, and bishops receive the fullness of this sacrament.

b. Given a., it has also been infallibly defined by the Church that women cannot be priests (The Church has always taught this. And pope John Paul II settled the matter infallibly by defining it ex cathedra in 1994, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

c. Therefore, given a. and b., it would be theologically incongruent for one grade of a sacrament to be reserved only for men, while the another to admit women.

Objection: But the Church permits married deacons but not married priests. This proves that the Church can make exceptions for deacons, but not for priests. Why can’t the Church do the same with gender? Why can’t it permit female deacons, while still reserving the priesthood to men only?
Response:  The discipline of priestly celibacy is just that, a discipline. It can change—although it will not likely. In other words, there is nothing about celibacy/marriage that fundamentally changes the essential component of the sacrament. Men are always men, regardless of whether they are married or celibate. To put it in more theological terms, marriage/celibacy is just an accidental quality of being, whereas gender is not (This is why gender cannot change, no matter what a person feels, or what body-parts may be surgically altered). A man will always be a man from birth; and a woman will always be a woman from birth, because gender is an essential property of being human—it is in our DNA so to speak—and it therefore is an essential element of the sacrament of Orders. This is why the Church infallibly reserves the priesthood only to men, but leaves the question of married priests open to the matter of discipline.

Furthermore, if the Church permitted female deacons, then it would beg the question, “Why stop at deacons? Why not priests as well? What is there fundamentally different between deacons and priests that would admit women to the former but not the latter?” And the answer to this question, of course, is nothing. There is nothing fundamentally different between a deacon and a priest, because they both share in the same sacrament (just to differing grades). There is thus no theological argument that would prevent women from becoming priests as well (or bishops for that matter), should the Church permit female deacons. This is not just a matter of discipline, like celibacy, but goes to the very core of the nature of the sacrament itself.

2. The word “deaconess” in the primitive Church is a different word that what it means today.

Just because the words “deaconess” and “priestess” were used in the early Church, does not mean that they were deacons and priests according to the technical use of the word today (Deacon in Greek means “service,” which could have refereed to anyone who helped in the Church. But today, it is a much more specific word which refers to a grade of Orders). In its ancient use, it likely referred to women who shared in some of the duties real of real deacons, such as, for example, the baptism of female converts. The evidence for this is substantial. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas refutes this very misconception in his Summa, 1)Saint Thomas Aquinas writes, “Some, however, have asserted that the male sex is necessary for the lawfulness and not for the validity of the sacrament, because even in the Decretals…mention is made of deaconesses and priestesses. But deaconess there denotes a woman who shares in some act of a deacon, namely who reads the homilies in the Church; and priestess [presbytera] means a widow, for the word ‘presbyter’ means elder.” and the Council of Nicaea also plainly confirms this as well. 2)As the Council of Nicaea states, “And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity” —canon 19

Furthermore, it is an error to use the primitive Church as a “gold standard.”

For the sake of argument, let us concede the point for a moment. Let us assume that the word “deaconess” in the primitive Church does in fact refer to the sacrament and not just a ministry. Does this mean that the practice should be reinstated today? Well, not so fast. The early Church also required 7 years penance for certain sins before being readmitted back into the Church. But should this practice also be reinstated today?

To hold the primitive Church up as a standard, as if it were a purer or unadulterated form of Christianity, is in fact an error that the Church has condemned (known as primitivism), because it rejects the Church is a living organism which grows and develops in its understanding of truth over time. It is like, for example, an adult wanting to reverse time and become a teenager again; it’s a rejection of all the knowledge and experience that he has learned in his adulthood. Ultimately, the burden of proof is on the opposing side, because they are the one’s pushing for this change. They must not only clear substantial theological hurdles, but also establish a historical precedence not only in the primitive Church, but also a repeated pattern throughout history (for that is what tradition is, an unbroken continuity throughout time).

Regardless of the theological and historical problems, there is an even deeper issue that must also be addressed in this debate; it has to do with those who are pushing for this change in the first place. One must consider that the women who are pressuring for this change, are also the same women who tend to dissent from Church teaching. This is a significant consideration in itself. Ultimately, the Church, in her wisdom, will see this. She knows that this push is based on a faulty ideology, one which reduces equality to a matter of function, and indirectly rejects femininity itself (read more in this this article, point #6). I believe the Church, in her love for these souls, will use the opportunity not to capitulate to their pressures, but to help instruct these older women on the “feminine genius,” to help show them that equality is not doing what men do, but recognizing, cherishing, and developing the natural strengths of woman (which, I am sorry to say, our Catholic leaders have not done a very good job at).

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References   [ + ]

1. Saint Thomas Aquinas writes, “Some, however, have asserted that the male sex is necessary for the lawfulness and not for the validity of the sacrament, because even in the Decretals…mention is made of deaconesses and priestesses. But deaconess there denotes a woman who shares in some act of a deacon, namely who reads the homilies in the Church; and priestess [presbytera] means a widow, for the word ‘presbyter’ means elder.”
2. As the Council of Nicaea states, “And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity” —canon 19

One Response

  1. andrea
    andrea at |

    i agree that the church, and men in general, are compelled in the spirit of truth and love and reconciliation with women’s past and present ongoing oppression and subordination both inside and outside church practice and teaching to recognize, cherish, and develop the natural strengths of woman– and these women are asking her to do just that in considering their more public and teaching, sacramental role. i am having a hard time as a new catholic understanding how women’s voices and spiritual gifts, as generally they are indeed more apt descriptions of jesus’ own heart and teachings as embodied throughout the gospel, yet are never going to be able to be heard and expressed through a woman giving a homily. the natural spiritual gifts and spirituality given in abundance to women as a whole compel me to desire this, and to see the need for women’s voices and leadership to take a much larger role in the church, as it is also desperately needed in the world in the public realm, not just in the private.

    Reply

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