In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Quebec called upon his fellow Synod Father to reflect on the possibility of allowing for female deacons. Specifically, he said “I think we should really start looking seriously at the possibility of ordaining women deacons because the diaconate in the church’s tradition has been defined as not being ordered toward priesthood but toward ministry…It’s a just question to ask. Shouldn’t we be opening up new venues for ministry of women in the church?” I suspect that the Archbishop is not being entirely genuine in his response. On the one hand, he says that we should “start looking seriously” and on the other it is “just a question to ask.” But since he “just asked,” we can talk about why the Synod Fathers should waste no time on “looking seriously” at it.
One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council was a restoration of the permanent diaconate. But we cannot ignore the fact that it was “re-introduced” into a world that was very different from the world in which it went into hibernation nearly 800 years before. Gone is a sacramental understanding of reality, replaced with one that is entirely functional. Through this paradigm, the deacon is viewed primarily by what he does rather than first and foremost what he is. He might look and act like a Protestant minister through his ministry of preaching and service, but the difference is a sacramental one and not merely a functional one.
Obviously then there is a necessity to explain and develop further a Theology of the Diaconate. The current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Cardinal Müller lays a firm foundation for this in his 2002 book, Priesthood and Diaconate. The former Bishop of Regensburg offers what is an irrefutable argument for why women cannot be deacons–“because Mother said so.”
In order to see the issue properly, we must properly understand the Sacrament of Holy Orders. It is not three separate Sacraments but instead a single sacrament that is separately administered with three successively higher sacramental effects. The criterion for belonging to the sacramental higher orders is whether or not the degree is ordered to the full priestly authority of Christ as given to a Bishop. The priest is given the authority to act in persona Christi while the deacon shares in the priestly action by participation. At the beginning of the 2nd Century we find Ignatius of Antioch already giving expression to the interconnectedness and distinctions among the degrees of Order—“Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the bishops the image of the Father, and the presbyters as the senate of God and the assembly of the apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church.” In continuity with this, the threefold hierarchy of the single sacrament is taught in the Council of Trent and is a theme of Pope Pius XII’s 1947 Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis. In this document, he emphasized the unity of the three degrees of Holy Orders—Diaconate, Priesthood and Episcopacy and was cited as a source for the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Why this unity of a single sacrament is important will be seen in a moment.
In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis John Paul II said 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.” In other words it is an issue solely based on the authority given to the Church. The Church has no authority whatsoever to ordain women. The Church has never said that it will not ordain women only that it cannot.
In order to clear up any confusion and close the discussion once and for all, one of Cardinal Müller’s predecessors as Prefect for the CDF, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) when in the audience of John Paul II confirmed that it was an infallible teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium. Specifically he said:
This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.
Given the Magisterial precedents above, there can be no doubt that Ordinatio Sacedotalis refers to all three degree of the Priesthood given through the Sacrament of Holy Orders and not just to the second degree of what we commonly call priesthood. This question should be considered closed and the attempts by dissenting theologians and priests to find loopholes in definitive Church teachings should move elsewhere.
In all honesty, I find the whole issue particularly puzzling. If someone is a faithful Catholic they know that when the Church speaks infallibly then it speaks for Christ. To continue arguing on this issue is not an argument for deaconesses or priestesses but an argument against the Church as the voice of Christ. We also know that the truths of the faith do not arise from common human experience but they come to us form God’s gracious self-giving. A doctrinal tradition that is grounded in objective revelation must be preserved and monitored by an authority that transcends subjectivity and is capable of real judgment.
Before closing, it is helpful to address the argument that the Early Church had deaconesses. The problem with this argument is that the term diakonein could be used in any or every form of service in the early Christian community. According to the Apostolic Traditions (written around the year 400) the role of the deaconess was to assist with the baptism of women. In the first few centuries baptism was done completely naked. “A deaconess does not bless, but neither does she perform anything else that is done by presbyters [priests] and deacons, but she guards the doors and greatly assists the presbyters, for the sake of decorum, when they are baptizing women.”
Furthermore there is no evidence that these deaconesses were ordained and in fact there is evidence to the contrary. Both the First Council of Nicaea (325) and the Council of Laodicea (360) said that they are not to be ordained but be counted among the laity. Deaconess was simply one of a number of ecclesial ministers.
In conclusion it is worth mentioning that while the Archbishop may consider himself “progressive” and listening to the “Spirit of Vatican II,” his suggestion really represents a step backwards to the clericalism that plagued the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council attempted to lay the groundwork for a theology of the laity that did not view them as somehow second class citizens of the Church. While we still have a long way to go in this regard, we must overcome the habit of defining a lay person as one who is less than a priest and therefore full participation is somehow lessened by a lack of woman’s ordination. Furthermore by treating the possibility of the diaconate as a mere concession to women since they cannot be priests, you are not solving the problem of the so-called inequality between the genders in the Church. You are merely admitting to it and trying to throw women’s ordination proponents a bone. If prelates and priests inside the Church would leave the question closed, perhaps we could get on with the necessary work of understanding more fully what the roles of the laity (both women and men) are within the Church. Quite frankly, if you look around the problem is not the participation of lay women in the life of the Church but lay men that seems to be the larger issue.