Some feminine observations about deaconesses (aka deaconettes)

Did you all know that, a few years ago, the question of deaconettes was put to the International Theological Commission (under the aegis of the CDF)?  Yes, indeed!  HERE The Commission has no teaching authority. However, they did come down against the notion.

At the time it was reported:

The general secretary of the International Theological Commission, Father Georges Cottier, O.P., has responded to certain questions about the Commission’s study of the diaconate raised by the October 8th issue of La Croix. Fr. Cottier stated that the Commission’s study has not concluded that the possibility that women could be ordained to the diaconate remains open, as asserted by La Croix, but rather tends to support the exclusion of this possibility. [The short translation of this is, “No”.  The longer translation is, “Nooooooooo!”]

The Commission of theologians, even if it has not the role of pronouncing with the authority, which is characteristic of the Magisterium, presented two important indications which emerge from study of the matter. In the first place, the Commission observed that the deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the early Church cannot simply be assimilated to ordained deacons. In support of this conclusion, Fr. Cottier noted that both the rite of institution and the functions exercised by deaconesses distinguished them from ordained deacons. [Diaconate doesn’t apply in the same way to women as it does to men.  Men were ordained with a sacrament.]

Furthermore, Fr. Cottier noted that the Commission’s study reaffirmed the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The distinction between the ministry of bishops and priests, on the one hand, and that of deacons, on the other hand, is nonetheless embraced within the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders.


So, for what it is worth, the ITC came down against this.

I wonder what was lacking in the “commission” that is the ITC?  After all, these were experts in the field, right?  It was a “commission”, right?  It studied this question, right?

Recently we saw two well-organized Synods take bites at the same apple.  Is that what we are going to see now?

“But Father! But Father!”, you fishy-smelling, print-besmeared Fishwrap types are slavering, “‘Ha! Ha!’ on you!  Pope Francis understands.  He is, after all, the first Pope who smiled!  Heeee.  We should create committees after committees after committees, with lots of authority!  Eventually, one of them will get it right and that one will be the only one that counts!  That’s how Vatican II did it… with committees.  That’s how we’ll do it now… with committees!  The Spirit of Vatican II wanted women to be ordained, right?  But you don’t get that because YOU HATE VATICAN II!”

To which I respond, “I really like this paragraph from the ITC’s explanation:

The deaconesses were named before the sub-deacon who, in his turn, received a cheirotonia like the deacon (CA 8, 21), while the virgins and widows could not be “ordained” (8, 24-25). The Constitutiones insist that the deaconesses should have no liturgical function (3, 9, 1-2), but should devote themselves to their function in the community which was “service to the women” (CA 3, 16, 1) and as intermediaries between women and the bishop. It is still stated that they represent the Holy Spirit, but they “do nothing without the deacon” (CA 2, 26, 6). They should stand at the women’s entrances in the assemblies (2, 57, 10). Their functions are summed up as follows: “The deaconess does not bless, and she does not fulfil any of the things that priests and deacons do, but she looks after the doors and attends the priests during the baptism of women, for the sake of decency” (CA 8, 28, 6).

“She looks after the doors”… sort of like ecclesial bouncers.  But wait, there was an order of doorkeepers, men, who did that: porters.  So, I suppose the deaconettes helped with the women who were pests or making trouble.

I received the following on deaconettes from a very smart, Churchy-trained, American woman friend. She gives a pretty good summary but with my patented emphases and comments :

Deaconesses could not possibly have been considered ‘ordained’ as the part of the seven grades of order, since they did not follow the cursus honorum: there were no ostiariae, lectrices, exorcist-esses [exorcistines?  exorcistettes?], acolyte-esses, [acolytettes] subdeaconesses (though there is a mention of these among the Copts). If anything, ‘diakonissa’ was a honorary title, [just as ‘episkopa’ was for the mother of the Pope in the famous mosaic in Rome] since one was jettisoned into the office without any known previous office or ‘order’ (all the more so if one were married to a man who became a deacon and his wife came by the title that way). There were instances of presbyters and bishops being suddenly chosen from among men (‘per saltum’) but it was certainly not the norm.  [Jerome scorned Ambrose on that account: “Heri catechumenus, hodie pontifex; heri in amphitheatro, hodie in ecclesia; uespere in circo, mane in altari; dudum fautor strionum, nunc uirginum consecrator: num ignorabat apostolus tergiuersationes nostras et argumentorum ineptias nesciebat?”]

AND — we forget that there were many ‘orders’: not just minor orders, but the order of virgins, widows, energumens, catechumens, ‘fossores’, [grave-diggers!] penitents — into which people were enrolled (‘ordained’ into an ‘order’ or an ‘office’ — like cantors) usually by a prayer and a blessing and/or imposition of hands. Even our modern form of the Sacrament of Penance retains the vestige of the imposition of hands, as in the rubrics the priest is of course to raise his hand toward the penitent as he recites the formula of absolution. [I don’t do that hand-imposition thing, but it is in the book.  I call that the law-suit bit of the modern rite.] We also forget we had two kinds of deaconesses — wives of deacons who were called ‘deaconess’ as an honorific, though no doubt she helped her husband in his ministry, and deaconesses in their own right, as it were, usually older women (and usually widows) who assisted with total immersion baptism for (unclothed) female catechumens, and full-body anointing/chrismation (or at least a woman’s forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, breast, hands and feet), as well as keeping the women’s side of the assembly in line and visiting sick women and girls. Being ‘ordained’ into one of the ‘orders’ — even with the prayer and the imposition of hands — did not mean Ordination to Holy Orders.

But I think that’s not what this current idea is about, eh?

No, that is not what this is about.

Although… that brings up an interest thought.  WERE the ordination of women to be approved, even though they didn’t have any sacramental ministry or liturgical role in the ancient Church, I bet we would suddenly see a huge increase in Pontifical Masses in the older, traditional rite!  I foresee massive expeditures – not for the poor, but for glorious vestments in gold and silk, the sort that haven’t been produced for over a century.  It would suddenly be discovered that splendid lace albs are actually not evil after all.  I can see now the consultants pouring in from the AME and the Anglicans to offer their help.  And pause to consider the fantastic new head gear possibilities!

Birettas? Pffft.

It would be a new age!

Now… I have a more important task.  I get to work on the new red dalmatics – vestments for deacons which just arrived from Gammarelli.  HERE There are four dalmatics for the priests and or deacons and one super light silk dalmatic for the bishop.  These vestments will never be worn by a woman.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    “I’ve been to all the parks in all the cities
    And I have seen no statues to committees”

    – G. K. Chesterton

  2. cwillia1 says:

    Of course we need deaconesses. How else can we restore full immersion of naked adults?

    [And what could possible go wrong with that?]

  3. mo7 says:

    Of all the things the Church needs to do – this is the penultimate one, women priests being dead last.

  4. MarkJ says:

    Ive got it! Deaconesses could have the special function of washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday!

  5. RobertK says:

    I think the Holy Father needs to put his resources into finding ways to attract men into the priesthood. Rather than getting more women involved. Especially parishes that are Novus Ordo only parishes. as well as orders that only teach the Novus Ordo (ex:: Franciscans, Jesuits, MSC, etcc). More men are joining traditional orders and societies. The ones that teach and promote the Extraordinary Form. Unfortunately though most Roman catholic parishes, and religious orders are Novus Ordo only, and that is where the problem exists. Mot enough men want to be part of that religious life. They want the traditional Roman Catholic Church. and not a Novus Ordo parish with “Deaconettes”. Hopefully Cardinal Mueller will tell it like it is!.

  6. Maltese says:

    Instead of the Ark of Salvation, is the Church seguing into the Ark of Inclusion? My mom taught me my faith, and wears the pants in the family–even bossing my dad around (which isn’t necessarily good in every situation.) But she would never, ever, even dream of wanting to be a Deacon, but would be a great Mother Superior (and I know a Mother Superior at the Little Sisters who the priest supplicates to.) Why are we so desperate to put women in men’s roles, and vice versa?

  7. CPT TOM says:

    In the world of Satire News:

    Pope To Commission Study To Find More Ways He Can Confuse People:

  8. Traductora says:

    Just a comment from a linguistic point of view…one of the observations is that the deaconesses may have been wives of the deacons, and this is very possible. In many languages (including Spanish) the wife of the dignitary was referred to by the feminine version of his title: Alcalde (Mayor) and his wife “la Alcadesa,” which we would once have translated as Mayoresse but would now translate as Mayor. However, she had no duties, no official standing, and was simply Mrs. Mayor. I would suspect that the deaconesses, whose duties were purely practical, were basically Mrs. Deacon.

    Be that as it may, I can’t believe that we have a pope who is such an idiot that he suddenly, when some person (probably prepared in advance) asks him a question, literally puts his finger to his face and says the equivalent of “Wow, man, what a cool idea, I’m going to get the gang together and we’ll work on it!” But while he’s not very smart or well educated, he’s not an idiot, but instead very crafty and he knows how to use things. Also, I’d doubt that this was spontaneous, although it’s not good if it was and not good if it wasn’t.

  9. Fern says:

    But, Father, But Father, don’t you know that if something in put forth enough times people will think that it is alright and go along just to get along. Long sighhhhh.

  10. Patti Day says:

    Why not make a list of the top ten most divisive and repellent topics that could possibly be addressed by our Church and get them on the docket immediately so we don’t have to suffer this death by a thousand cuts.

  11. hwriggles4 says:

    I think Raymond Cardinal Burke was right last year when after the Synod, he wrote about how our Church has been “feminized”. As a boy in the 70s and 80s, I experienced this in the Church that I primarily attended as a youth. I didn’t have very many Catholic leaders who were men (today, I teach CCD and I normally do junior high, because I believe the boys in the class need to see a Catholic man as a role model) other than one Catholic Scoutmaster (I got a better catechesis from the Ad Altare Dei program than I did in a few years of CCD), but I did have some other male role models in my life, including my Protestant dad.

    There are some good priests and laity who are working hard to get more boys and men involved. Last month, I attended a men’s conference where 936 men were present, and Fr. Wade Menezes, CPM gave a great presentation, along with a reverent Mass and other speakers were great too. I applaud priests who put their foot down and don’t allow girls to serve at the altar. I was an altar boy growing up, and when a 10 or 11 year old boy sees three girls on the altar, he thinks it’s a girl thing. I’ve said this like a broken record, but when a priest shows a “manly presence”, both at the altar and around the congregation, boys and men take note and will step up (I’ve been at a few parishes where I’ve seen priests whom I thought were “wimpy” or “effeminate”, and as a man, that persona doesn’t sit well with me – I think other men reading this including Fr. Z will agree).

    That said, on the issue of “female deacons” and “women priests”, women can be strong leaders without being in ordained ministry. I’m in my mid 40’s, and I find more of the progressive wing of the Church these days to be women who are over 55, who were exposed to the confusion of the 60’s and 70’s either as young women in their 20s and 30s during those years. I find the majority of Catholic women who attend Mass regularly and are under 45 have an understanding of “why” the Church teaches what she teaches, and know that they are not being discriminated against.

    Good examples of strong women in the Church: Look at Mother Angelica – she started a radio station and evangelized hundreds of thousands (including the Catholic revert writing this who was poorly catechized as a child in the confusion of the 70s and 80s) much more effectively than the USCCB Communications Committee did. Did you know there was a Sister in the early 1940s who was the construction engineer when St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica (California) was constructed? (That hospital gained fame on Marcus Welby, M.D.). Mother Seton began the Catholic School system in America. These stories need to be told.

  12. Akita says:

    Mo7: penultimate means second to last, so your sentence contradicts itself. Many people erroneously believe “penultimate” means the very last.

  13. Akita says:

    Sorry, retread your sentence and I see you mean deaconesses are indeed penultimate and women priests dead last. Sorry!

  14. IloveJesus says:

    The pendulum swings because abuse needs correction.

    Men, including the Church hierarchy would do well to remember that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

    I’m in no way in favor of altar girls or deaconesses or the inevitable evolution to priestesses.

    Yet, it’s reasonable to ask, “Why are women seeking such power?”

    I cannot speak for those in the religious life, but from my own experience as a home school Mom with many women friends devoted to passing down the truths of the faith to our children, it’s clear these rebellions were born from unappreciation.

    The answer to the cry of the Catholic feminist is reverence and appreciation for the unique function women can perform in the Church.

    My friends who are open to life and seeking to give their children the faith and protect them from the culture are all too often treated like “chattel”.

    Their “devout” husbands enjoy winning apologetics arguments and surfing the web while their wives barely survive the day feeding, changing and educating their beloved offspring… before sex is demanded or guilt tripped.

    Accompaniment needs to take place in the home, where husbands are committed to instructing and disciplining their children and giving their wives the affection and reverence they deserve for the sacrifices they are making, in spite of the fact that no public affirmation strokes their male ego or increase of remuneration is received.

    Yes, sacrifice is the highest form of love, but is abuse, neglect and manipulation to be tolerated?

    Until proper esteem is bestowed upon women, the battle of the sexes will continue…

  15. JabbaPapa says:

    Whatever the merits of the historical arguments — and their multiple points or sources of difficulty and confusion — the real reason why the Deaconesses ceased to exist is simply that there was no real need for them, and as far as I can see that has not changed in the slightest over the course of the last eleven centuries.

  16. hilltop says:

    And this all brings POOR Father Lombardi back to the Papal press office podium for just the most recent episode of WDTPRS, or “What did the Pope REALLY say?”

  17. Michael_Thoma says:

    While this Commission is busy finding obscure unsubstantiated ancient history to support whatever end is already determined, many, like myself are wondering when certain Commissions will be created on why certain Eastern Churches refuse to ordain married men to any order, even when active and willing. In imitation of modern Latin tendencies, some Eastern Churches in Union with Rome have basically eliminated the minor orders, subdiaconate, or diaconate for anyone but those in discernment for priesthood. And although traditionally and historically open to married Eastern men, even the priesthood is eliminated for married men, by some Eastern-in-imitation-of-Latin-Churches-in-union-with-Rome. It’s a shame.

  18. benedetta says:

    We could just add the Deaconesses to the plethora of bumbling, imbalanced, and ill formed officious lay men who seek to exploit people’s weakness, sin, vulnerabilities and imprisonments, for their own profit, gain, lols, institutional programming, and delusions of grandeur who self appoint and style themselves as lay pastors and priests and infiltrate the vacuums left behind by the great progressive wave which destroyed churches and brought vocations down to a grinding halt…Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. This is what happens when sheep are left without a shepherd, in all forms and manifestations. The vultures will swoop in and establish yet more rah rah programs for everyone when really, it’s the liturgy, stupid…and, humility, and self control, and real masculinity which doesn’t profiteer and prey on others’ misfortune for their own grins.

  19. Pingback: Pope Francis Opens Conversation on Deaconesses – Big Pulpit

  20. Pingback: Women deacons: what commentators are saying | CHRONICA

  21. Imrahil says:

    Back in the day, there was once an Emp’ror of Austria (this sounds like a limerick beginning but I don’t know how to proceed, so:)

    There was once an Emperor of Austria (Francis Joseph) who visited a concert (or some such thing). He didn’t like it (not that that would have been only his opinion), and said so, semi-officially. The result was a suicide or attempted suicide by the artist.

    So far so bad. But the Emperor learnt from his mistake.

    In all the fourty or so years that remained of his life and reign, whenever he was at a concert, ball, theater play or any such thing – and there were many in the life of the Court of Vienna – he would always comment afterwards: “It was very nice and a great pleasure to me.” He didn’t change the words.

  22. otsowalo says:

    This, I think, painted a different image than what was published at the fishwrap. I know it’s crux 2.0, but I thought I’d just put it out here…

  23. gloriamary says:

    If I wasn’t already depressed… Anyway, does everyone have their blessed candles? I think the Three Days of Darkness isn’t far off.

    [Keep your chin up. Nothing is going to happen with this.]

  24. JabbaPapa says:

    The report of what Pope Francis actually said as opposed to how the muckraking media reported it is HERE —

    We keep on asking the Holy See to be “more media-savvy” so as to avoid confusions — but does this expectation not also require us to be more “media-savvy” ourselves in the first place, and stop being manipulated by various scare-reports into some false ideas that the Deposit of Faith might somehow be amenable to revisions ???

  25. Papabile says:

    Well, if we restored women deaconesses, maybe we could also restore the sex segregated entrances to the church so they could monitor them again. In fact, maybe we could restore the tradition of segregating the men and women during the Mass.

    I would love to see how these nuns respond to that.

  26. Maltese says:

    I realize some think women once served as deacons (cf. Romans 16:1-2, Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:8,12), but the Greek word used is for “servant.” Origin explains Romans 16:1-2 thus:

    “This text teaches with the authority of the Apostle that even women are instituted deacons in the Church. This is the function which was exercised in the church of Cenchreae by Phoebe, who was the object of high praise and recommendation by Paul . . . And thus this text teaches at the same time two things: that there are, as we have already said, women deacons in the Church, and that women, who by their good works deserve to be praised by the Apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate.”

    However, I don’t think anyone with an understanding of Church history would say that female deacons was a normative practice in the early history of the Church–exactly the opposite. Why even consider the issue when the Church is already experiencing a almost universal apostasy? Will more men (who are sorely lacking in the pews) be attracted to a mass said with a liberal Priest surrounded by a group of radically feminized nun-deaconesses?

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