ASK FATHER: If women can’t be priests, can they be deacons?

From a reader…


I know women can’t become priests, but…can they become deacons?

The thought never entered my mind before, but upon gathering some resources for a friend who had asked why women cannot become priests, I found a video – “Why Women Can’t Be Ordained Priests” by Breaking in the Habit. It’s the first video I’ve ever listened to from the channel, so no idea as to how orthodox they are or not, but while they confirmed women cannot become priests, the friar/brother(?) made some claims about the possibility of one day women possibly being ordained deacons.

As a woman, I’m not personally in favor of this idea – I don’t understand the desire to have women be able to do EVERYTHING men can do, and visa versa – but it brought up an interesting question, and I wanted your thoughts on it.

I’ve dealt with this before.  Sadly, it keeps cropping up.

Women cannot be ordained to the diaconate.  The Franciscan in the video is wrong about the possibility of ordination of female deacons.  He correctly states that priesthood and diaconate are different.  He correctly states that the Church is explicit about the impossibility of ordaining women as priests.  But he then errs then in concluding that it is therefore possible for women to be ordained to the diaconate.

Just because there is no explicit document about diaconate, like Ordinatio sacerdotalis is explicit about priesthoodthat doesn’t mean that we can legitimately conclude that women can be ordained to the diaconate.  That’s a sort of “no news is good news” argument, which is a fallacy.  No news means no news.   It could in fact be that there a great many really bad things happening that are simply not being reported.  All we can conclude from the lack of a document about diaconate is that there isn’t a document about the diaconate.

Women cannot be ordained to any of the sacred Orders.  Lumen gentium28 reasserts that the Sacrament of Orders has three divinely established ministries. Since two (the priestly levels of bishop and priest) cannot be conferred on women, then neither can the third, diaconate.  The three are, as Lumen gentium describes, intimately related.

Because Orders is one sacrament and not three, women can’t be ordained.

The always invalid attempt to ordain a woman to any of the sacred orders incurs, by the very fact of the attempt, an excommunication. HERE  This is one of the rare instances of automatic or latae sententiae excommunication.  This sort of excommunication is applied for very grave sins.  It’s right up there with desecration of the Eucharist and the direct violation of the Seal of Confession. It is followed up with an explicit, declared excommunication.  The lifting of the excommunication is reserved to the Holy See alone.

The purpose of the censure is to bring the people back to their senses and to repentance and reconciliation as well as to let the faithful know that the sin must never be emulated (thus, to avoid scandal).

Some will say that, because Francis appointed a couple of committees to study the topic of female diaconate from historical and theological viewpoints, it must be possible.  No.  The fact that committees study questions doesn’t imply that it is possible.  It implies that the members are studying the topic.  The committees had/have zero authority to declare anything.

Some will say that there were female deacons (aka deaconesses or, more pleasantly “deaconettes”) in some places in the ancient Church.

Firstly, the practice was isolated and varying.  In fact, we don’t know what they were, though in general they were involved mostly with women, for obvious reasons.

Next, the practice quickly faded out, which sure means something.  Among other things, that suggests that engaging deaconettes was not of divine origin (as is the Sacrament of Orders).

Moreover, it is without question that when someone pushes for the ordination of women to the diaconate, the real objective is priesthood.  They can deny it all they want, but that’s what’s really going on.

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) [US HERE – UK HERE]

Martimort explains that there isn’t any reliable evidence for their early practice.  Moreover, they were explicitly forbidden from the 5th century onward.  In the 12th c. there was discussion of deaconettes in strict cloisters, but reading on in Martimort we find that even that seems dodgy.  Martimort concludes:

“Even though it is not always easy to fix the exact date of its desuetude in the various churches, it does seem pretty clear that, by the end of the tenth or eleventh centuries, deaconesses had pretty much disappeared in the East, even though the memory of them continued, anachronistically, to be revived in the recopying of liturgical books, and – in a defective and imprecise fashion – in the tradition of canonists.”

A former professor of mine in Rome, Fr. Giles Pelland, SJ explains:

In order to speak of a “tradition” or “practice” of the Church, it is not enough to point out a certain number of cases spread over a period of four or five centuries. One would have to show, insofar as one can, that these cases correspond to a practice accepted by the Church at the time. Otherwise, we would only have the opinion of a theologian (however prestigious), or information about a local tradition at a certain moment in its history—which obviously does not have the same weight.  (L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, February 2, 2000, p. 9, quoted in the legendary “Five Cardinals Book”.)

In a nutshell, it is possible to find any number of isolated incidents of this or that aberrant practice in the ancient Church.

We see this in our own day.  Just because some group does or says X today doesn’t mean that it is – or was – accepted Catholic practice or teaching.  A serious problem arises when you try to found your arguments on those isolated aberrant practices as if they were accepted.

Oh… yes… there’s this.  From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1570 Deacons share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (“character”) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the “deacon” or servant of all. Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.

So, deacons are ordained for various roles, including preaching.  However,

We read in 1 Cor 14:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

How would that work out for deaconettes?

We can grant that Paul is writing to the Corinthians of his day, but that seems to be a pretty general principle, not meant for his time only and that place only.  Women cannot preach in the “churches”.  Ekklesia here surely means the assembly of Christians for worship, not just any gathering of Christians. Speaking here would then mean the vocal prayer and explanation of the Faith and exhortation to the Christian life: preaching.

In any event, no, there never have been truly, sacramentally ordained women deacons.  There aren’t any now, and there never will be any.  It’s impossible.  It seems to me so impossible that a group attempting such a thing probably would not be a real Church, in the sense that the Church intends by the word, laid out in Dominus Iesus.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Not says:

    A lot of confusion comes from Novus Ordo Lay Deacons, who can be married men. I don’t deny these good holy men have faith and devotion. Traditionally the role of Subdeacon and Deacon is part of the ascension to the Priesthood, which is clearly part of the rubrics in the TLM. Maybe,I am a conspiratorialist, okay I am. I think this lay Deacon thing was a set up for women priest.
    Altar girls, women doing the readings, women “Eucharistic” ministers.

  2. George the Last says:

    Reading his Wikipedia page and the footnotes included, the Franciscan in question intentionally chose to have all the lay persons involved in his ordination be women. There is nothing wrong with that, but it does, to me, indicate an inclination to believe the “women have been oppressed by the Church and need to be saved from that oppression” stream of thought. I could be wrong, as it is a deduction on my part.

  3. Jim Dorchak says:

    When people say this, I kind of hear, If women can not be men can’t we ignore that they are women and call them men so we all feel better?
    Which is sad.
    I had a sister who, in the middle of a divorce, kept claiming… don’t I have the right to be happy? (for her happy lived down the street for 25 years of her marriage).

    Which for me the answer to both questions is NO. A resounding NO!
    I do not think God meant for us to ALWAYS be happy? It is just not natural or normal. Think about it, if we never have pain then how can we really know what Joy truly is?

    I think that the world we live in is very caught up in feelings and not reality. I do not live my life based on feelings. I live on my responsibilities to God and Family. My joy or happiness comes from realizing both. Just saying.

  4. ThePapalCount says:

    With reference to the comments by NOT just above he makes a glaring error. There is no such thing as a lay deacon. A deacon is an ordained minister of the church – a deacon is a deacon. While some deacons go on to become priests others do not. Their ministry as a deacon is considered permanent. But, a deacon is not a layman but a member of the ordained clergy — they are all clerics. And so whether permanent or transitional they are are clerics and equally deacons.
    Permanent deacons are found in scripture – from the first century. The Apostles chose men to be deacons and to perform certain responsibilities for the community. St Stephen and St Lawrence are among these first “permanent” deacons. While this practice waned in the west it did not in the east. The Second Vatican Council restored this order fully to the life of the church. As “recently” as the mid 1800s Cardinal Consalvi in Rome, the papal secretary of state, was not a bishop or a priest but an ordained “permanent” deacon.
    But, a deacon is a cleric, a member of the clergy, not a layman.

  5. Son of Saint Alphonsus says:

    Dear NOT,

    Saint Francis of Assisi was a permanent deacon.

  6. Dear Son of St. A.,

    Actually, the concept of “permanent deacon” did not exist in the 13th century. It exists today because married men are ordained deacons and so are “permanently” deacons, at least until their wives pass on, because they would have to be celibate to be ordained priest.

    In the middle ages, it was common for many men to stop at some point in simple / solemn orders process and not go on. Some were just tonsured as clerics and never ordained at all. In my study of the composition of the staffing of 13th century parish churches, it is usual to find a deacon and a subdeacon as well as a priest or two. And there were usually also a couple lectors and acolytes. I never found any porters or exorcists, however. Francis was tonsured in 1209, and then ordained a porter, exorcist, lector, acolyte, subdeacon, and deacon, all in, most likely, 1218 or 1219.

    In spite of much speculation, there is no contemporary evidence to explain why he was ordained a deacon and why not, in addition, a priest. “Humility” is often given as the reason, but that is just conjecture.

  7. Midwest St. Michael says:

    Dear Son of Saint Alphonsus,

    St. Stephen, Protomartyr, was too, yes?

  8. TonyO says:

    Here’s a theory. If I am wrong, I should like to be corrected.

    Just because there is no explicit document about diaconate, like Ordinatio sacerdotalis is explicit about priesthood, that doesn’t mean that we can legitimately conclude that women can be ordained to the diaconate.

    Actually, I wonder whether we are overlooking something, and THERE IS a document that is explicit.

    Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

    “What?” you say? How could we all have missed that?

    Because most of us read the English. Therein lies the rub: the English is poverty stricken in one critical aspect of verbiage: we have ONLY ONE WORD to describe what is actually DIVERSE in Latin. In the Latin, deacons, priests, and bishops are all ordained, (which corresponds to “Ordinatio”), into Orders, and there are three of those orders. The middle one is called that of “priests”. But in English, the “sacerdotalis” is also translated as “priestly”. Fine, but that covers up a divergence: deacons are not ordained to the middle, “priestly” order, they are ordained to the “diaconal” order.

    The Latin is clearer by having a separate word for the middle order: “presbyterate”. (Yes, that’s English too, but it’s a word virtually unused.) Deacons are ordained to the diaconate. Then later (if they are transitional deacons) they are ordained into the presbyterate. BOTH ordinations are SACERDOTAL ordinations. [Ummmmm….] That is, both ordinations are ordinations in the class of the (three) “sacerdotal” orders. [No. Wrong. Diaconal ordination is not “sacerdotal”. Bishops and priests are sacerdotes. Deacons are not. That doesn’t mean that deacons do not receive the Sacrament of Orders. The Sacrament of Orders is one sacrament, not three. But one of the orders is diaconal and the other two are sacerdotal.]

    Now, let’s look at JPII’s “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.” Here’s the money quote:

    declaramus Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi,

    Got that? “ordinationem sacerdotalem”. The Church has no faculty to ordain women to the sacerdotal orders – ANY of the three sacerdotal orders. Not the priestly sacerdotal order, nor the diaconal sacerdotal order (and, obviously, not that of the bishopric either). None of the sacerdotal orders.

    I think that’s explicit. [It is explicit about the priesthood (priests and bishops). However the reason that women cannot be ordained as deacons is because the Sacrament of Orders is one sacrament and not three. If they cannot receive two of the orders, they cannot receive the third, even though diaconate is not sacerdotal.]

  9. Bthompson says:

    My understanding of the Church’s use of the term sacerdos is quite the reverse of what you’re saying. A sacerdos is a man in the order of presbyters or bishops, who offers the sacrifice, and specifically not a Deacon, who is ordained to service but not sacrificial sacerdotium.

    All that being said, as our host points out, given that Holy Orders is one sacrament in three grades, it is indeed still impossible to ordain a female even to diaconate if it is in principle impossible to ordain her to the other Orders as well.

  10. Senor Quixana says:

    While Pope Francis has made some interesting concessions to the more traditionally minded in his granting of faculties to priests of the LeFebvrist line the issuance of Traditionis custodes puts him in a much less tradition friendly light. On the matter of women deacons (wymyn deaconettes?), he is the most traditional of popes. Knowing the answer from the start, but not wanting to upset and disappoint the petitioners immediately, he sentenced the idea to Death By Commission. (Perhaps it is Death By Ommission [of Attention.]) It allows the petitioners to cling to a bit of hope while adjusting themselves to the inevitable disappointment. When the commission submits a report it gets a smaller headline than the immediate issuance of an adverse decision and even then there is no adverse decision because the report is received and given to someone to file away for a “study period,” the lenght of which is until the petitioners are bored and moved on to other things or have obtained a more definitive response from the Churches heavenly administration, instead of the earthly one.

    This is the more traditional and ancient form of a “blue ribbon panel” used in US Government for things POTUS must pretend to care about even with a preordained conclusion.

    Viva Francis, the Traditionalist!

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  13. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Deaconesses did female-oriented things. Some of them had more “status,” like running orphanages or xenodochia/guesthouses. or being a superior for canonesses or nuns. Some of them had less status, like running the cleaning crew in church, or helping the female catechumens get into and out of the baptismal font.

    But they never read the Gospel at Mass, held the chalice at Mass, or any of that.


  14. HvonBlumenthal says:

    My secretary thinks she ought to be given the same pay as the Secretary of State on the grounds that they are both secretaries.

  15. Adam says:

    In my (married) diaconal formation, we managed to hear all about how women “were deacons in the ancient church” (turns out there was a book coming out by Zagano and Ditewig that one of my pantsuit-wearing female professors knew about I guess) . . . but then crammed in how to do baptismal and marital preparation — and celebration — into one day.

    Lots of poorly formed deacons out there, folks. I took it upon myself to find Fr. Youngtrad and have learned more about serving at the altar in the last year than I did in eight years of formation. Turns out all that “stuff” we do has reasons behind it, even though those reasons have been obfuscated and gutted and purged in the last 60 years.

    I also learned that the more one learns about Mother Church, the more one cannot not be a trad.

  16. Emilio says:

    Just yesterday, on the broadcast of the Ordination of +Guido Marini, the Spanish-language narrator for the Holy See made a confusing statement that the sacrament of Holy Orders was separate and different for bishops and priests, than the one “meant” for deacons. He also said, in Spanish, that the Apostles “invented” the diaconate…a phrasing I found especially troubling. An agenda is most definitely afoot here.

  17. Not says:

    If you read Little Flowers of St. Francis, you will see that he felt unworthy to enter the Priesthood. Reading this book is a truly humbling experience.
    *Little Flowers of St Francis is the only approved book on his life.

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