Re-reading Martimort on Deaconesses. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

7Deacons4In once wonderfully Catholic Austria, the silly season is in swing.  The new bishop of Innsbruck, Most Rev. Hermann Glettler, said that he supports the ordination of women to the diaconate (which is impossible) and Holy Communion for the divorce and remarried (which in 99.99% of cases would be sacrilege).  There is a story in this bishop’s notions at the UK’s best Catholic weekly the Catholic Herald (which sports my weekly column in the print and online digital editions – subscribe HERE).

This business of the ordination of women to the diaconate is swirling around, more than it should be, because a while back His Holiness of Our Lord Pope Francis appointed a study group to look at the historical data about female deacons in the early Church.  I suspect that they won’t turn up much more than has already been turned up.  The historical studies made will inevitably result in dead ends: there isn’t much available and what there is is sketchy.  Furthermore, the question does not rest on some ancient practice of a perhaps heretical sect or on variations of practices in the East, etc. It now rests on Vatican II’s Lumen gentium, which says that the diaconate, priesthood and episcopate are three grades of one sacrament of Holy Orders, even though only priests and bishops are sacerdotes in the strict sense.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it succinctly:

1554 “The divinely instituted ecclesiastical ministry is exercised in different degrees by those who even from ancient times have been called bishops, priests, and deacons.”32 Catholic doctrine, expressed in the liturgy, the Magisterium, and the constant practice of the Church, recognizes that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate . The diaconate is intended to help and serve them. For this reason the term sacerdos in current usage denotes bishops and priests but not deacons. Yet Catholic doctrine teaches that the degrees of priestly participation (episcopate and presbyterate) and the degree of service (diaconate) are all three conferred by a sacramental act called “ordination,” that is, by the sacrament of Holy Orders….

This, by itself, pretty much closes the discussion.  The Sacrament of Orders is one sacrament in three grades.  Only men can be ordained to Holy Orders.  Ergo, women cannot be ordained to the diaconate, even though there is a distinction between diaconate and priesthood.  It’s not hard.

When the Pope appointed that study group, I dusted off my copy of the best thing written to date about women and the diaconate, Deaconesses: An Historical Study by Aime G. Martimort (French 1982 & English – Ignatius Press, 1986).  This is this most important, easily obtainable book on the topic in English.  I’ve occasionally picked it up and spot read in it, bit by bit, ever since.



Martimort goes through just about everything.  Of course his scholarship is limited to his date of 1982.  However, there isn’t all that much more to explore.  Even if research has turned up more, I am left deeply impressed by Martimort’s conclusion… his literal conclusion on the last page of the text.  Here it is, with my usual emphases and comments:

In the end, in my opinion, the conclusion that must impose itself at the termination of a historical study such as ours, conducted in accordance with the requirements of modern scholarship, is that theologians must strictly guard against trying to prove hypotheses dependent upon only a part of the documentation available, a part taken out of context at that. The complexity of the facts about deaconesses and the proper context of these facts prove to be quite extraordinary. There exists a significant danger of distorting both the facts and the texts whenever one is dealing with them secondhand. It is also very difficult to avoid falling into anachronisms when trying to resolve the problems of the present by reference to the solutions appropriate to a past that is long gone.  [An example of anachronism would be to assume that deaconettes did in ancient times what permanent deacons do now.]

For the fact is that the ancient institution of deaconesses, even in its own time, was encumbered with not a few ambiguities, as we have seen. In my opinion, if the restoration of the institution of deaconesses were indeed to be sought after so many centuries, such a restoration itself could only be fraught with ambiguity.  [NOTA BENE!] The real importance and efficaciousness of the role of women in the Church has always been vividly perceived in the consciousness of the hierarchy and of the faithful as much more broad than the historical role that deaconesses in fact played. [BOOM! Did you get that?] And perhaps a proposal based on an “archeological” institution might even obscure the fact that the call to serve the Church is urgently addressed today to all women, especially in the area of the transmission of Faith and works of charity.  [Teaching, nursing, etc.  We could come up with other important ways to serve the Church, traditionally carried out by women in an exemplary and edifying way.]

What has Martimort done in this conclusion?  He says that

1) we really don’t know enough about deaconesses, and
2) what we do know is ambiguous, and
3) that focusing with such attention on something so elusive and fraught with problems is detrimental to recognition of the terrific contributions which we know for a certainty women can and do offer to the Church and the world.

Bottom line: Promoting ordained diaconate for women, as that Austrian bishop and others do, does women and the whole Church a disservice.  It distracts from and even denigrates the tremendous and urgently needed service which women have historically perfected and lovingly contributed.

The moderation queue is ON.

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  1. Julia_Augusta says:

    Sigh. Another bishop to add to my already long list of bishops and cardinals to pray for when I say the Rosary. At the rate they’re going with their ridiculous pronouncements, I’ll need a spreadsheet to present to Our Lady.

  2. majuscule says:

    I wonder if anyone is asking the veiling question about deaconesses…?

    Veiling question? Historically, did they wear a headcovering? What was the custom of the day for all women? Did all women cover their heads? Whether it be veil, mantel, hat, wimple or what have you, if we are going to “bring back” deaconesses because of their ancient place in the church, shouldn’t they be required to dress the part?

  3. Antiquorum says:

    I think this deaconess fiasco also plays into the whole modern thinking of women have to do everything men do in order to have value, which is just insulting to women. It pretty much says that you have less value as a woman, unless you do exactly everything a man does. Be a man in order to be a valuable woman. What nonsense.

    A woman doesn’t have less value in the church because she can’t be a deacon or a priest. As a married man with children, I can’t be a priest, does that mean as a man I have less value? No! I have a different, but still valuable vocation that I try to fulfill.

    Equal doesn’t mean everyone has to do the exact same things. As a matter of fact, that’s the opposite of equality.

  4. jhayes says:

    Omnium in mentem (Benedict 2009) clarified that deacons do not act “in the person of Christ the Head” even though they are ordained:

    First, in can. 1008 and can. 1009 of the Code of Canon Law, on the sacrament of Holy Orders, the essential distinction between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood is reaffirmed, while the difference between the episcopate, the presbyterate and the diaconate is made clear. Inasmuch as my venerable Predecessor John Paul II, after consulting the Fathers of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ordered that the text of n. 1581 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church be modified in order better to convey the teaching on deacons found in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium of the Second Vatican Council (n. 29), I have determined that the canonical norm concerning this subject should likewise be adjusted. Consequently, after hearing the view of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, I decree that the words of the aforementioned canons are to be modified as set forth below….

    Art. 1. The text of can. 1008 of the Code of Canon Law is modified so that hereafter it will read:

    “By divine institution, some of the Christian faithful are marked with an indelible character and constituted as sacred ministers by the sacrament of holy orders. They are thus consecrated and deputed so that, each according to his own grade, they may serve the People of God by a new and specific title”;

    Art 2. Henceforth can. 1009 of the Code of Canon Law will have three paragraphs. In the first and the second of these, the text of the canon presently in force are to be retained, whereas the new text of the third paragraph is to be worded so that can. 1009 § 3 will read:

    “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity”.

  5. JabbaPapa says:

    majuscule :

    Veiling question? Historically, did they wear a headcovering?

    Yes, they did.

  6. JabbaPapa says:

    The blatant entryist tactics of such enthusiasts for wymmyn priestesses is of such degree that any genuine and dispassionate thought about whether the deaconesses either could or should be revived, for a renewed version of their historically Traditional ministry of course, not any “women deacons” nonsense, simply cannot be envisaged.

    This isn’t about honestly restoring the deaconesses of old, the vast majority of whom BTW were nuns, and all of them without exception consecrated to strict vows of chastity and abstinence — this is about creating some entirely new never-before-seen “ministry” for lay women for the political and ideological purpose of seeking to destroy the masculine nature of priesthood.

    As such, no Faithful Catholic can possibly support this destructive endeavour.

  7. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Wait. I’m confused.

    Francis appointed a bishop who publicly promotes heresy?

    [I think you’ve been reading here for a long time and you have seen Ed Peters’ excellent posts, in which he describes what “heresy” is. Let’s be a little careful when throwing the word around.]

  8. Pingback: Re-reading Martimort on Deaconesses. Wherein Fr. Z rants. | Fr. Z’s Blog | Deaconjohn1987's Blog

  9. hwriggles4 says:

    Part of the confusion concerning female deacons is some of our Protestant brethren, Lutherans for one, have them. Many Catholics do not realize (fifteen years ago, I didn’t know this either) that many deacons in Protestant denominations use the title of “deacon” or “elder”, “lay pastor” (my fire captain was a lay pastor in a Presbyterian church), or even “chaplain” to those who are involved in the Church, teach programs, counsel, etc. Many of these Protestants do not have formal training like an M.Div.

    I say this because many Catholics are unaware that “deacon” in the permanent sense is a different vocation than a priest. As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, this confused me too, and when I asked what the major differences were between a priest and deacon, I rarely got straight answers.

  10. andyclarag says:

    Why are such candidates chosen? Those who are bishops are supposed to be outstanding in holiness and loyal to Christ and His Church…not in this case…

  11. Precentrix says:

    Also worth reading is Miller’s “The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church”. I don’t need to be a deaconess to be taken seriously; although things are sometimes… discreet and anonymously presented.

  12. Andreas says:

    Many thanks for making note of our new Bishop’s thoughts, Father Z. In light of his comments, it is also interesting to note Bishop Glettler’s approach to modern Church architecture and art. The website ( gives viewers some idea as to how, during his tenure as Priest of St. Andrä in Graz, Austria, Bishop Glettler re-decorated his once beautiful Baroque church.

  13. MaureenTheTemp says:

    Sigh. Mary did not hold any public office, didn’t hold down a job or run a business. She did not have any formal spiritual authority of any kind. All she had, all she wanted, was to do God’s will. And she did God’s will, perfectly, humbly, obediently. That made her the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, Queen of the Angels, Mother of God – we don’t have enough titles to express her glory. Mary’s example shows God’s ways are not our ways, and following His will in humility will give us everything we could ever want and more than we could ask for. A hunger for titles and authority comes from pride. My assumption is if God wanted me to be a deacon, He would have made me a man.

  14. TonyO says:

    Why are such candidates chosen? Those who are bishops are supposed to be outstanding in holiness and loyal to Christ and His Church…not in this case…

    andyclarag, you have touched on a most telling point. For decades now, the process of vetting and selecting for new bishops has been badly broken, and we desperately need it fixed if the Church is going to recover. I dream that the way we will be able to tell when we have a truly fantastic pope in place is that about the 3rd day in the job, he will stop the whole process and re-write it. (And while re-writing it, will pick priests who love the EF Mass for almost all elevations to the bishopric.)

  15. thomas tucker says:

    So, I was in Rome last week and listened to one of the members of the commission investigating the role of deaconesses (who shall remain nameless) explain that they had discovered evidence that deaconneses were allowed to be at the altar and commune themselves but that it was not a path to ordination. That’s what was said, for what it’s worth. [“not a path to ordination”]

  16. AnnTherese says:

    “It distracts from and even denigrates the tremendous and urgently needed service which women have historically perfected and lovingly contributed.” I don’t see why this would be true. Women could be deacons and teachers, deacons and nurses, deacons and parents— just like men can be. It would ADD to the service of the Church, not take away from it.

    That said, I don’t think deacons— male or female —are necessary, but rather, just another layer of hierarchy.


  18. Ben Kenobi says:

    @Ann. That last line says it all. “just like men can be”. That is the point and that is the line that is being drawn. I was a member of the Church of England. What happened to all the faithful who had lived in accordance with what Christ taught left. To a man. All the women and families that had contributed to the life of the church vanished. Sure you had those who were willing to continue on, and now you have more women than men who are signing on to become an Anglican minister.

    What happened to everything else? It’s pretty much gone. Father didn’t have the benefit of hindsight in 1981. We do. Let’s not make the same mistake that the Anglicans made. I’ve already lost one church. I would not like to lose another.

  19. LarryW2LJ says:

    When I read about things like this, I am reminded of “the need to re-invent the wheel.” Catholicism has endured for close to 2,000 years now. Yes, we’ve gone through periods where we humans have done our best to mess it up, but by the Grace of God, it has endured. By the Promise of God, through the Holy Spirit, it will endure – even with the current cycle of humans once again, “Trying to re-invent the wheel”. When will we learn (the Church as a whole, I know there are many out there who already know) that we can’t improve upon Divine Design?

  20. JabbaPapa says:

    thomas tucker :

    So, I was in Rome last week and listened to one of the members of the commission investigating the role of deaconesses (who shall remain nameless) explain that they had discovered evidence that deaconneses were allowed to be at the altar and commune themselves but that it was not a path to ordination.

    I would imagine that the determination of where a deaconess would be located in her church during the Holy Mass would likely have been quite variable locally.

    One sees similar variations today in where nuns may be located during the Mass, including of course because of whatever limitations or possibilities may exist materially in each church — for example, does the church have a full choir installed near the altar (as is quite common in churches attached to a monastery or convent) or not ? Though of course those variations also depend on the particular ministry that a particular nun nowadays, so I would imagine a deaconess in Antiquity also, is actually engaged in at the parish.

    A deaconess performing a ministry of teaching for the parish children would I imagine have attended Mass alongside those children, one dedicated to ministry for the women to attend with the women, and so on and so forth.

    And no doubt a deaconess with a beautiful singing voice would have attended Mass at the choir, near the altar.

  21. stuartal79 says:

    Thomas Tucker, not a path to ordination to the deaconate or the priesthood? What does commune themselves mean?

  22. JabbaPapa says:

    stuartal79 :

    What does commune themselves mean?

    Poorly expressed I’d guess.

    I would assume he meant that they took Communion, in those cases, from the priest directly at the altar — as a deacon does today — rather than taking it with the Lay Faithful at the foot of the altar or at the altar rail.

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