From a reader…
One of our Diocesan (Salt Lake City) Priests [Msgr. M. Francis Mannion] wrote an op-ed for our local Diocese Newspaper entitled “Some Items That Caught My Attention Recently”. In this piece, (HERE) he talks about how the Eastern Rite has ordained numerous Deaconesses (Africa). He then goes on to opine how he agrees with women Deacons and see this move by our Eastern friends as a boon and boost to the cause for women Deacons in the Roman Rite.
First, is it true that women have been ordained in the Eastern Church Rite as Deaconesses?
If so, is there merit to it lending support to the same in our beloved Rite?
Let’s drill down in what the good Monsignor posted concerning deaconesses (aka deaconettes).
What did Msgr. Mannion publish? He has several topics, but eventually gets down to the issue of deaconettes. He wrote (with my numbers):
On Deaconesses:  The Catholic Church is always concerned never to do anything that would offend the theology and practice of the Orthodox Churches.  On the matter of the ordination of deaconesses, however, the Orthodox Churches might be ahead of us.
 Recently, the Patriarch of Alexandria appointed six deaconesses.  The Patriarch is no minor ecclesiastic; he is, in fact, the head of the entire Orthodox Church in Africa.
 The move follows years of discussion within the various branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstate the office of women deacons.  Closer to home, this comes at a time when the Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas is studying the matter.
As one who favors the institution of the diaconate for women in the Catholic Church, I think the decision of the Patriarch of Alexandria should give a boost to the current Vatican study about the diaconate for Catholic women.
There is not a single sentence in what Msgr. Mannion wrote that is correct.
Let’s break it down… in a moment
Some of you might be saying, “Who?” Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Society’s journal, Antiphon, which I really like. He founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000. So, he is is considered to have some chops. However, he took a position against Benedict XVI and Summorum Pontificum. HERE
That aside, let’s drill into Msgr. Mannion’s claims about deaconettes and Orthodoxy.
First sentence: “The Catholic Church is always concerned never to do anything that would offend the theology and practice of the Orthodox Churches.”
No, the Catholic Church isn’t concerned never to do anything that would offend, etc. Is he kidding? True, the Catholic Church would prefer not to offend the theology and practice of the Orthodox Churches, but, no, the Catholic Church does not let that preference stop it from contradicting Orthodox Church theology and practice.
For example, the Catholic Church continues to elect Popes who claim universal jurisdiction (Lumen gentium 22; CCC 882: “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered”, a claim that the Orthodox Churches reject out of hand. Might I add that Pope Francis has not shown himself reluctant to exercise this power?
Other examples are the infallible proclamations of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which the Orthodox Churches reject completely.
So, no. WRONG. Let’s move on.
Second sentence: “On the matter of the ordination of deaconesses, however, the Orthodox Churches might be ahead of us.”
Apart from the assumption in this statement that ordination of deaconettees would represent some kind of theological progress, the statement errs by implying that all of the many Orthodox Churches ordain women to the diaconate. In fact, only 1 out of 14 does.
This is not a matter of what the Roman Catholic Church does versus what the Orthodox Churches do. But if the Roman Catholic Church were to ordain women to the diaconate, then the Catholic Church and the vast majority (and certainly the largest) of Orthodox Churches would be at odds!
“Recently, the Patriarch of Alexandria appointed six deaconesses.”
Technically speaking, this statement can be read as true. But it is also somewhat incomplete and could be misleading.
Firstly, there are three Patriarchs of Alexandria, two “Orthodox” and one Catholic. Msgr. Mannion referred to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa. However, there is also a Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and a Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, the latter of whom is in communion with the Pope of Rome.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria today numbers only 300,000 members, mostly in Egypt and East Africa, though its jurisdiction includes the entire African continent. The Coptic Orthodox Church claims millions of followers.
Folks, there are American Catholic dioceses with more members than some Orthodox Churches, for example the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, just to put matters in perspective. It doesn’t take an ecclesiologist to recognize that in Eastern Orthodoxy it is certainly easier for a Synod of a small autocephalous Church to arrive at a major decision that involves significant change than it would be, say, for the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece, or the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, let alone for a Pan-Orthodox Council. It’s a matter of scale.
The other troubling detail is Monsignor’s word “appointed”.
We are told by Mannion that the Patriarch “appointed” six deaconesses. So, were these women “appointed” or were they “ordained”? That’s unclear. Some reports of the ceremony claim that the Patriarch “blessed” the women, a technical term which introduces a distinction that is NOT without a difference.
In antiquity there is a difference between the “ordination” of deaconettes and the “blessing” of deaconettes. The different understandings of the nature and intent of the ritual act and the specific functions it authorized remains today a matter of scholarly debate.
Nor does the use of the title “deaconess” add clarity. It is not prima facie apparent whether a claim is being made that the women were sacramentally ordained to holy orders or, instead, instituted into a public ecclesial ministry that does not entail a sacrament, an ordination, or an order.
It is also not clear how the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria and All Africa understands the relation between these six “deaconesses”, on the one hand, and ordained male deacons within its Church. Nor is it clear how the 13 other autocephalous Orthodox Churches understand the ecclesial status of these women. They are an anomaly within Orthodoxy. Most likely they could not exercise their ministry outside of their own autocephalous Orthodox Church.
So it is patently false to claim, as Msgr. Mannion does, that the Orthodox Churches recognize the ordination of women to the diaconate.
“The Patriarch is no minor ecclesiastic; he is, in fact, the head of the entire Orthodox Church in Africa.”
This, again, is erroneous to the point of being risible.
First of all, there is no such thing as “the entire Orthodox Church in Africa”. The Coptic Orthodox Church in Africa claims to be Orthodox as much as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The two Churches trace their divergence back to the sixth century schism that finalized the break between the Chalcedonian (Melkite or Greek) patriarchs or popes and the the Non-Chalcedonian (Coptic) patriarchs or popes. There are estimated to be between 10 and 14 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt alone, and hundreds of thousands elsewhere in Africa (though these are not called Copts because they are not Egyptian). And let’s be clear: the Coptic Orthodox Christians are NOT the subjects of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, which, as I said before, has about 300,000 members total. Moreover, there are millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians currently living in Ethiopia. Hence, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria is in no way the head of the entire Orthodox Church in Africa; in fact, he is the leader of the smallest.
None of the others ordain women to the diaconate.
Ergo… WRONG. Moving on.
Fifth and Sixth sentences:
“The move follows years of discussion within the various branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstate the office of women deacons. Closer to home, this comes at a time when the Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas is studying the matter.”
This statement is true. But … it misleads by making it appear that the issue is a more important one for the Orthodox Churches than it really is.
Ordination of women deaconettes was nowhere near the agenda of the Pan-Orthodox Council held in June 2016 in Crete. Discussions between bishops and theologians in the Orthodox Church rarely have the kind of official significance that they can have in the Roman Catholic Church because of vast differences in ecclesiology and Church governance. Hence, the actions of individual bishops within any Orthodox Church has far less significance than an action of a bishop within the Roman Catholic Church, because of the relation of the Catholic bishop to the Pope (papal primacy).
Need I say… WRONG?
So much for Msgr. Mannion’s support of deaconettes in the Catholic Church based on this Orthodox aberration.
Finally, don’t be confused about “Eastern” Churches. There is no attempt in any of the Eastern Catholic Churches to ordain women to the diaconate. Nor could there be, given the current state of the question.
I hope this helps.