Francis and the Deaconesses… aka Deaconettes

First, today I saw a piece at Breitbart that Pope Francis popularity has dropped.  HERE

That said, I have received links to various articles saying that the Pope has considered establishing a commission to study the issue of the ordination of woman as deaconesses…. (aka deaconettes -it’s easier to pronounce).

Studying is one thing and doing is another.

That said, I saw something telling in the Fishwrap account (aka National Schismatic Reporter).

The pope responded that he had spoken about the matter once some years ago with a “good, wise professor” who had studied the use of female deacons in the early centuries of the church. Francis said it remained unclear to him what role such deacons had.

“What were these female deacons?” the pontiff recalled asking the professor. “Did they have ordination or no?”

“It was a bit obscure,” said Francis. “What was the role of the deaconess in that time?”

“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked aloud. “I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”

“I accept,” the pope said later. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”

First, I haven’t seen news that a commission exists. Maybe I missed something.


Next, this also means that the Pope has not been talking to the people who are in favor of the ordination of women! He hasn’t been paying attention to the advocates of deaconettes. Instead, he has been talking to those who find the question obscure and muddy.

Of course that is what this issue is: obscure and muddy. It is not at all likely that greater clarity will be gained from such a commission. Were there more out there to know… in serious, scholarly sources, that is… someone would have written it. Also, those with whom Francis speaks would have been able to point to it. Such a commission won’t consider half-baked propaganda, after all.
Meanwhile, the serious scholarship that exists says: they were not ordained in a sacramental sense, as deacons were and are.  Also, not every idea that the Church tried was a good one: many were dropped – like deaconettes.  Moreover, nothing about this will happen for quite a while, I suspect.

Read Deaconesses: An Historical Study by Aime G Martimort. UK HERE

I might write more on this later, but for now that’s enough. Right now this is much ado about nothing.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. APX says:

    Maybe, like with wymyn prysts, the Pope at the end of this, will definitively declare that the church has no authority to ordain women to the deaconate.

  2. Glennonite says:

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that the ancient female-deacon practice was due to the need of aiding women who were being baptized by immersion, nothing in regards to aiding in the liturgy of the Mass. No?

  3. mharden says:

    “In 2002, the International Theological Commission concluded a five-year study of the question of women deacons, initiated at the request of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and reported that the deaconesses of the early Church were not analogous to the ordained deacons of today, either in their role in the Christian community or in how they were commissioned.”

  4. Bthompson says:

    I didn’t realize the deaconess this was obscure or muddy. I’m no scholar, and there might be a detail or nuance I don’t understand, but aside from people I’ve encountered who had an agenda for or against priestesses, every piece of information I’ve ever encountered on the matter was pretty clear that deaconesses were not sacramentally ordained nor numbered among the clergy.

  5. Lavrans says:

    Having read (endured?) the piece at the Fishwrap, in the same Q&A session, His Holiness squashed the idea of women giving homilies at Mass because they cannot stand in personae Christi. This seems to squash the idea of Holy Orders for women, which we all know is impossible. The Sacrament is one – it cannot be broken up. Deacons, priests, and bishops receive the Sacrament to lesser and greater degrees, with bishops receiving the fullness of it. A “deaconess” would not be part of Orders and therefore would not have any other liturgical function aside from those offered (extraordinarily) to lay persons. Given that no one baptizes naked adult women anymore (I hope), they really would not have any role different than what lay people already do (helping the poor, social work, etc). This is a useless pursuit driven solely by those seeking (impossible) ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopacy.

  6. torch621 says:

    I have Facebook acquaintances that are either losing their minds or loudly announcing that they will leave the Church and go back to their old lives over this. Your postings are a breath of fresh air. Thank you for your priesthood.

  7. anilwang says:

    “Studying is one thing and doing is another….He hasn’t been paying attention to the advocates of deaconesses. Instead, he has been talking to those who find the question obscure and muddy.”

    I tend to disagree. Replace deaconesses with birth control and you have exactly the same situation as the Humanae Vitae rebellion. If the commission is actually created, the damage will be done regardless of the findings of the commission because it’s an admission that the issue of ordination of women is not settled doctrine.

    One really has to question the purpose of even asking the question. The bulk of parishes I’ve been to, even orthodox parishes resemble a hen yard with one male priest surrounded by several women eucharistic ministers, women lectors, women organists, women ushers, women greeters, women social organizers, women office staff, etc. Women today likely take on more roles than they ever did in the Early Church. Sure you occasionally see a token non-priest male in the liturgical setting, but they are by far the exception.

    That of course is the issue. Studies have shown that children are more likely to stay with the faith, if both parents are active in the faith, but if the father isn’t active in the faith it’s much more likely that the children abandon the faith than if the mother isn’t active. We face a male crisis in the Church, not a women crisis, and unless we can get men to step up and visibly live the faith, the faith is doomed in the West.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    Of course, I think deaconesses are a bad idea and give the wrong impression on the Rite of Ordination, etc.

    BTW, does a pope have to be popular?

  9. David Willis says:

    i acknowledge the sin of despair.
    i understand that we may be in, or entering into, a time of chastisement.
    i have read the words of St. Katherine of Sienna.
    however, i find it very difficult to keep calm, to believe that this stuff is no big deal, and remain serene.

  10. zama202 says:

    I think the headlines made by these comments of the pope will cause more mischief than the results of any commission, because the masses and its media messiahs will never read a commission report. A headline is just enough information for them to handle.

    I think the pontiff – if he really is interested in this issue – should do a little research on the subject before making public statements. After all he can probably review the historical background on deaconesses in a couple of hours at most.


  11. jarthurcrank says:

    As a former Episcopalian/Anglican who left over women’s ordination, I don’t quite think this study is on the order of “nothing to see here/move along.” On the other hand, there was a study on women’s ordination to the priesthood by the Pontifical Biblical Institute which reached the tendentious conclusion that scripture didn’t oppose such a step. And we know that nothing came of it, though the OW supporters trumped it up frequently. It all depends on who is on the commission, the conclusions reached, and what a future pope does with those conclusions.

    As for the non-ordained “deaconesses” that were set apart in the Anglican and Lutheran churches up through the 60s, there is no theological objection per se and many of them did very hard, good work for Christ. Nora Binns and Emily Gardiner Neal of the Episcopal Church are excellent examples. (Neal was automatically “promoted” to deacon though not necessarily by her wishes – – she was opposed to women’s ordination to the priesthood.) But I wonder what the point of doing so is given the fact that there are numerous other similar secular or religious “ministries” (for lack of a better word) for women today. There might be some quasi-liturgical function in a cloistered religious community, but not much more. The only real point would be to try to get the camel’s nose under the tent for ontological impossibilities and the ecclesiastical auto-destruct button. Count me as opposed to this development.

  12. AnnTherese says:

    Ugh. Another commission, more wasted money. The Church needs to focus its spending on real issues that can help humanity. This will not– because women already understand and serve the mission of our Church and do not need ordination to validate them. Women serving the Mission of Jesus are teaching, preaching, healing, blessing, anointing, working with the poor and vulnerable, listening, leading… in the home, workplace, and community– in the real world, which is where we must serve. The diaconate would add nothing for women.

    That said, I deeply appreciate that Francis listens to and respects women and is willing to explore expressed concerns.

  13. Ariseyedead says:

    This can of worms is Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge! Big time!!!!

  14. Akita says:

    This is coming down the Jesuit pipeline of James Martin, SJ FB page. Seems our pope told a group of women religious he will form a commission to study this. Yikes!

  15. Geoffrey says:

    I woke up to hearing this on Catholic radio and wanted to go back to sleep.

    Our local “Theology on Tap” was recently going to host a discussion of the topic of “the ordination of women deacons”, believing the matter to be debatable. There were several complaints, even among the clergy, and the topic was abruptly changed to instead discuss the Holy Father’s recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation. I have a feeling today’s comments by the Holy Father will only re-ignite a pointless conversation.

    I am praying that such a commission could finally put the issue to rest, once and for all. However, I believe this has already been done in 2002 by the International Theological Commission:

    “The present historical overview shows that a ministry of deaconesses did indeed exist, and that this developed unevenly in the different parts of the Church. It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate” (International Theological Commission, From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles, chapter II, part IV).

  16. comedyeye says:

    A priest once told me that women deacons were used at baptisms.
    Many people submerged themselves completely naked and in the interest of modesty the women deacons baptized women.

  17. The appointment of commissions to study settled questions tends inevitably to unsettle them. Just as the publicity generated by Paul VI’s appointment of a 1960s commission to study the question of artificial birth control rendered Humanae Vitae effectively DOA in many quarters of Catholic praxis. (Indeed, what other purpose do such study commissions have?)

  18. thomas tucker says:

    Well, we all know the outcome of this already. It’ll be stage-managed just as the Synod on the Family was. I’m not falling for this scam again. Wake me when it’s over.

  19. ThankyouB16 says:

    I find it VERY interesting that the Pope has said that he will get the Curia involved. According to CatholicHerald: “He told the meeting: “I will ask the [Congregation for the] Doctrine of the Faith to tell me if there are studies on this.”” And again, “He said the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments would send the International Union of Superiors General a full explanation of why women could not give a homily at Mass.”

    It seems that the Pope believes in the proper authority and roles of his Congregations? See where I’m going with this… I guess we really should listen to Muller’s interpretation of AL. After all, the Pope himself differs to the CDF on “obscure” and “muddy” issues.

    I only wish the CDF would make an official statement about AL–identical to the refreshingly clear, intellectually rigorous, poetical, uncompromising, and–yes–tenderly merciful
    lecture Muller gave about AL in Spain.

  20. clq24 says:

    I had a conversation with someone about this very topic. She was promoting female deacons whereas I was not. As we were talking I noticed that the same arguments that I have heard women who support female priesthood were being used. I have a feeling that if women are allowed to become deaconesses, it is not going to stop there. While I know that he is only putting a commission together, the progressive side will run with this even after they proved that they were not ordained. This is just an open invite to support their ideology.

  21. SaintJude6 says:

    It is precisely because I am a woman that the idea of women deaconesses scares the bejeebers out of me. Does someone think that the Faith hasn’t been feminized enough? Goodness, women have taken over everything in your typical parish except priest and deacon. And we’ve already got the deacon’s wives stepping into the protestant minister’s wife model, marking their territories in the parish. The people who pushed the married deacons are the same people who are pushing deaconesses, the same that are pushing for womynpriests. And I know too many of the types of women who will be looking to step into the deaconess role: Former Sister They Won’t Let Me Preach, Ms. Men’s Haircut, and Miss/Mrs. You Can’t Argue With Me — I Went to a Jesuit University.

  22. Benedict Joseph says:

    There are no boundaries here. Expect everything.
    The current situation is now far beyond major crisis. Our willingness to consign it any other diagnosis bespeaks our unwillingness to confront it for what it is. There is a deranged and mendacious agenda being wheeled out proudly. Appeals to obedience and respect are enabling nothing less than heresy. The papacy has been hijacked by those who would see the Church of Jesus Christ eviscerated. Deconstructed. Rendered impotent to proclaim the Gospel. If I am incorrect, perhaps it is only a geriatric meltdown.

  23. Wryman says:

    To the dissidents, this announcement means that EVERYTHING is on the table.


  24. JamesM says:

    The pontificate of Papa Zuhlsdorf and his suppression of the Jesuits can’t come soon enough.

  25. danielinnola says:

    Call my faith weak if you will, but if this Pope opens this Pandoras box.. Im out. I think i probably wont be alone in this. I will either end up at the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church. Or i will answer some obscure voice out of my familys past and join the society of Friends (quakers) I once heard Fr Benedict Groeschel say if he were not a Catholic that is the only group he would consider.. To sit in complete silence and listen for the voice of God. Sounds tempting compared to this cacophony of conflicting and confused voices coming from the top ranks of our clergy.. I ask you all to please pray for me. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. 1 Corinthians 14:33 -KJV

  26. Father K says:

    Glennonite and comedyeye yes that is right. E.g. have you seen the baptism scene in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding?’ Mutatis mutandis and you will see the logic!

  27. JabbaPapa says:

    As far as I am aware, having read the texts of some local Councils of Antiquity on the subject as well as the more general Ancient canons given by the See of Rome, the only real differences between a Deaconess and a nun or other consecrated virgin or widow attached to the service of a Parish are that :

    1) the Deaconesses were ordinary ministers of teaching

    2) they could act as ordinary witnesses of Holy Matrimony and could even conduct its celebration (outside the Mass)

    3) they were ordinary ministers of Baptism to the exact same degree as Deacons are

    OTOH they took no part whatsoever in the Sacrifice of the Mass, except peripherally perhaps in the Choir and whatnot.

    Objectively, I think it’s a question that the Church has been thinking about since Vatican II, but I would expect this matter to take the “normal” amount of time to resolve ; which is about 150-200 years, so perhaps the Church may decree something new on the matter in the 22nd Century ?

    I’ve met only one nun who did everything the Deaconesses of old did, except the three above-mentioned ministries that belonged to the Deaconesses ; she would be a fantastic Deaconess, if it were still possible, but even so, in practice there is exactly no need at all for her to provide any of them in any real terms.

    There could arguably be an emerging need for Deaconesses in those Middle Eastern and African countries that seek to impose drastic enforcement of laws preventing the society of women with men outside of their family ; given that one traditional role that the Deaconesses played was precisely to provide those Ministries to women in those situations.

    Bottom line — the Deaconesses were not (nor are they in the Eastern Church, where they were recently re-instituted) “women deacons” as in the Anglican “church”.

  28. Devo35 says:

    Is one mess at a time too much to ask for?

  29. un-ionized says:

    Glennonite, yes, and they were also charged with care of the poor, especially widows, in a time and place when it was improper for men to visit women in private.

  30. Elizabeth D says:

    I would never, ever believe in a woman who was claimed to have any degree of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

    I am DELIGHTED that someone here mentions that Francis gave a clear NO about women homilists, and cited a theological reason rather than just “Church law says so” (he himself regards Church laws as often flexible). Seems like many who want “women deacons” want that mainly because they want women to give homilies at Mass. The Dominican sisters here in Bishop Morlino’s diocese have done that anyway for years even though they know it is against Church law.

    Pope Francis has commented on repeated occasions to the effect that clericalizing women is not the answer. I really don’t see him as being attracted to the idea of women clerics or as thinking it is probable.

    Cardinal Muller’s views on women decacons are well known. He doesn’t believe the deaconesses were sacramental, or that the Church has any authority to sacramentally ordain women deacons. I’m sure that Cardinal Muller would be happy to spearhead a commission to clarify this point.

  31. JamesM says:

    I read someone make the point earlier that this has kind of taken the focus away from amoris laetitia.

  32. mburn16 says:

    Its not *entirely* true to say that it would confer no new abilities on women. The big one would be the capacity to preach at Mass, which is a privilege long desired by a great many people of both sexes.

  33. Father K says:

    danielinnola. No, no, please don’t have a moment’s worry about this. The pope cannot change Catholic doctrine…he may change Catholic practice, and as we have seen with the benefit of hindsight, the outcome is not always felicitous: even a saint like Pius V could be said to have put his foot in it occasionally.

  34. JabbaPapa says:

    Geoffrey, your link is very informative, thank you.

    This in particular : “In the Middle Ages, the nursing and teaching religious orders of nuns fulfilled in practise the functions of diakonia without, however, being ordained for this ministry. The title, with no corresponding ministry, was given to women who were instituted as widows or abbesses. Right up until the thirteenth century, abbesses were sometimes called deaconesses. … has helped me to understand some odd 13th-15th Century references to “deaconesses” that appeared to contradict the disappearance of the order centuries earlier. It’s bothered me for years !!! :-)

  35. Polycarpio says:

    If you are opposed to female deacons, you should probably not be overly concerned. Despite his reputation for surprises, Pope Francis is quite predictable where he shows his hand about where he stands on an issue, and this is one of them. He has consistently stated that he is against “clericalism”, including the temptation in some quarters to “clericalize” women. In fact, he raised that concern in response to this suggestion today. This concern has previously led him to reject the idea of creating women cardinals. If you need further assurance, just read what feminists think about Francis’ various statements about women’s role in the Church, and it will soon become glaringly clear that the risk of Francis upsetting the apple cart in this respect is pretty darn low. In fact, I suspect that his “openness” and listening posture today was a bit of window dressing to prevent a mutiny from the leftward flank.

  36. Ave Crux says:

    Mharden: thank you for the benefit of your research.

    And so shouldn’t someone make Pope Francis aware the question was already addressed and resolved?

    Or is this another instance of Modernists wanting at all costs to destroy the Church brick by brick, leaving nothing unturned until the Church is no longer recognizable as Catholic.

    We will wake up and find we have all become Protestants one tenet at a time.

    Even though the question was previously addressed and resolved, the Modernists – as we have come to see – will not rest and will come back again and again to get what they want, just as they did with Amoris Laetitia.

  37. Geoffrey says:

    How about one of these women asking the Holy Father to establish a commission to study the re-establishment of the Order of Widows?

    [Do I hear an “Amen!”? Something both possible and good!]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  38. Kathleen10 says:

    Easy peasy lemon squeezy. You set it up so questions from dissidents are asked in a public forum.
    Then, you act as if, hmm, such an interesting question, no one has asked that before, how bright you are for asking it! You know, we really should study the effect of moonbeams on prayer, perhaps there is a connection, and we should study it, yes, definitely, we will set up a commission to study it!
    Then you hand pick people whose feelings on moonbeams and prayer are already established, so you know what conclusions they are going to reach in advance, thereby allowing you to publicly conclude you have heard from the Moonbeam Commission, and results are conclusive. Of course, they knew it and you knew it, so the findings are no surprise to anyone.

  39. Akita says:

    You are correct, Grampa.

  40. Ave Crux says:

    Just read this email from a Diocesan Priest sent to another Catholic blog; apparently it’s infallibly defined – so how can there be a Commission to discuss it?
    “Pope Francis is spoiling for a crisis in the Church  and a papacy of unprecedented proportion if he tries to countermand Pope St. John Paul’s infallible pronouncement on women and the sacrament of Holy Orders, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Heaven help us as the Pope stands on the precipice of formal heresy.” 
    Another Francis-inspired crisis in the making….

    It appears he feels is his prerogative to put anything up for grabs as Pope.

  41. Ben Yanke says:

    I highly doubt he’ll open a commission to reopen the minor orders anytime soon…

  42. Tricia says:

    A wise priest once told me it’s best not to practice brinkmanship…seeing how far you can get to the edge without falling off. This appears to be what the Holy Father engages in. How much of a platform can he give heretics without crossing the line?

    I find myself repeating often to myself these days that the Lord promised us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.

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  44. JabbaPapa says:

    I once looked with some focus and detail into the (as it turned out) rather obscure and arcane question of whether the Deaconesses of old were “ordained” or merely “instituted”.

    At first glance, the arguments in each direction seemed equally balanced.

    Nevertheless, I eventually came to the same conclusion as the CDF did in its more general study of the History of the Diaconate in general — that they were ordained [Ummm.]; but three major caveats also emerged from my study.

    1) First, the Church’s understanding of the word “ordain” has actually changed significantly during the 1000 years since the Order of Deaconesses ceased to exist. 1000 years ago, it was used to refer to ANY act attaching a person to an Order, including the completely non-clerical ones — so that one could be “ordained” into a Lay Order even !!! This has been clarified multiple times in the following centuries, but it remains the greatest source of confusion in the question of whether the Deaconesses were ordained or not.

    2) The Order of Deaconesses was nevertheless an ancient equivalent of the old “minor Orders”, where “ordination” rather than “institution” provided entry into the Order — except that the minor Orders were abolished, generating even more confusion to our own contemporary POV regarding the Deaconesses in particular, given that they were never technically a minor Order — the notion of minor Orders did not exist 1000 years ago [Huh?] — although had the Order survived, it’s most likely they would have been.

    3) Probably most importantly though, the form of the Ordination of the Deaconesses was different to the form of Ordination of the Deacons ; the Deaconesses constituted a non-priestly Order, even though they were considered as “clerics” (the ancient canons are actually very clear on this one particular point, surprising as that may seem from a 21st century POV), whereas the Deacons are a priestly Order, even though they are not priests. The Deacons are ordained for a Service to the Altar and to the Faithful, whereas the Deaconesses were ordained for a Service to the Faithful only. Both forms of the Diaconal Service were however defined as “clerical”. Technically there was however only one Order of the Diaconate, to which both the Deacons and Deaconesses belonged [I think that’s wrong.] — possibly for mainly practical reasons, because the Deaconesses only ever existed in extremely small numbers (which is of course precisely why historical sources concerning them exist in such minute quantity) — but the Order was constituted of two separate branches, Deacons and Deaconesses, whereby the two branches held certain things in common, but were still understood as being separate.

    So I agree, with the CDF’s earlier historical study, that the Deaconesses were ordained, not only because as that document shows they received the laying on of hands which has since those times been clarified as a distinctive feature of ordination versus institution (they were also anointed, which the CDF document does not mention), [laying on of hands has not, does not, in all cases indicate ordination] but also because my own studies showed that the Deacons and Deaconesses were in one single Order of the Diaconate, albeit in two rather diverse Forms and in two partially diverse, partially shared Ministries. [I don’t think that’s right.] The Deaconesses exercised their own Ministry for their Bishop, perhaps attached to a Parish, or towards a Community of Nuns ; and as needs repeating probably systematically for the avoidance of any doubt or confusion, NOT towards the Altar.

  45. JabbaPapa says:

    Huh — St Francis of Assisi was a Deacon.

    I suppose this does entail some sort of spiritual dimension to the Pope’s actions here, given his particular veneration and admiration for that Saint.

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  47. JabbaPapa says:

    Father Z, I don’t think that I have a complete understanding of this particularly arcane question, especially given that the Ancient sources are at least partly contradictory. Your hesitations mirror my own.

    I can only present my understanding of the sources as I read and analysed them. There are no dogmatic declarations from the Magisterium regarding these difficulties, so that a multiplicity of analyses can exist simultaneously within the Catholicity. Which is itself an anomaly given the ancientness of the basic questions.

    I think the one formal error of the CDF document on the Diaconate is to have attempted to present certain questions relating to the Diaconesses as “settled”, when they haven’t been — their particular Ministry simply faded from practice, but was never formally destituted.

    Clearly the difference in our understanding of Ordination as it existed in the 11th Century and as it exists in the 21st (differences in understanding, I mean, not in the Sacramental Nature as such) are very confusing, in our considerations of a particular Ministry that has not existed for a thousand years, so that I think that only a Pope or an Ecumenical Council could actually provide any fully Authoritative instruction regarding any related difficulties.

  48. jeanne says:

    I do not recall hearing about Nuns or Sisters, back in the days of deaconesses. Could it be that the office of Deaconness morfed into what we now know as nuns/sisters/ women religious?

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