What are the Catholic Church’s reasons for not allowing women to be permanent deaconesses? Deaconesses seem much more justifiable both scripturally and by early Tradition. Are different arguments used against them, or the same (ie that the Twelve were all men)?
This is a good question, and after responding, I realized it was probably one that other Christians struggle with. After all, doesn’t St. Paul describe Phoebe as a “deaconess” in Romans 16:1? So here are the basics of what you need to know.
- The Apostles restricted the diaconate to men only: The office of deacon is created in Acts 6:1-6. And the Apostles give clear instructions in Acts 6:3 — “brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” The seven chosen are all men: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas (Acts 6:5). That’s not a coincidence.
- Scripture is clear that the diaconate is male-only: In addition to the above, St. Paul lays out the requirements for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, and says things like “Deacons likewise must be men of dignity…” (1 Timothy 3:8). If God wanted (or permitted) women to serve as deacons, then 1 Timothy 3 is wrong: it’s not required for deacons to be men of dignity: they can be women of dignity, also. Obviously, we can’t conclude that Scripture was wrong, so it must be the push for a female diaconate that’s wrong.
- The Greek word for deacon isn’t always a clerical title: The Greek word here literally means servant or server. That’s because the first job of the deacons involved the daily distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1). So when St. Paul refers to Phoebe as a diakonos, he might be calling her a deaconess of God, but he might also be calling her a servant of God.
- There were deaconesses in the early Church: Whatever St. Paul may have meant in Romans 16:1, there’s no question that there were women referred to as deaconesses in the early Church. They were tasked with things like women’s adult Baptisms (since Baptisms at that time were done in the nude). But what’s also clear is that they had different requirements than the requirements for deacons, and were considered part of the laity (see below). Once these sex-specific roles were no longer needed, the job of deaconess disappeared.
- The Council of Nicea ended any controversy: Canon 19 of the First Council of Nicea (the same Council giving us the Nicene Creed), said in relevant part: “Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity.” That’s incredibly clear. But just in case it wasn’t, the Church addressed this issue in later Ecumenical and regional Councils, as well.
Given all of this, we should recognize that the “deaconesses” were laywomen who served as servants of God, and assisted the clergy. Holy women? Absolutely. Female deacons? Absolutely not.
Proponents of women’s ordination to the diaconate pit themselves against the Apostles’ clear instructions in Acts 6:3, St. Paul’s description of the qualifications needed to become a deacon in 1 Timothy 3, and the explicit teaching of the First Council of Nicea. But if the Apostles, St. Paul, Scripture, and the Council of Nicea are wrong on this point, why trust them on any point? Why bother keeping First Timothy in Scripture, or praying the Nicene Creed?
If you want the Christianity of the Apostles, that includes a male-only diaconate. If you want something else, there are bigger problems then women’s ordination that need to be addressed.