There is rumor that the pope is forming a commission on reestablishing women deacons. I have to admit, I’m a bit torn on the subject. Within the Church, I’m all for deaconesses, whether officially ordained or not. In the earliest days of the Church, women performed ecclesiastical duties. Women baptized women entering the church, they led prayer, and they provided worship space. Phoebe was one of the first deacons, in fact, she’s the only person given that title in the Bible. She is introduced by Paul as a deaconess, an emissary of Rome, who is instructed to share his letter with the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2). Priscilla, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis are also listed as women working for the Church, and they are commended by Paul (who, you know, is commonly regarded as a backwards sexist in some modern circles).
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, it was stated that women shouldn’t receive the laying of hands as a deaconess until age 40, “and then only after searching examination.” I think the age limit shows that deaconesses were probably widows but certainly women with leadership and some life experience. The “laying of hands” isn’t clear if they were specially-blessed laity or actually ordained. So that is a matter that the Church will have to still decide. The role of deaconess stopped in the West in the 13th century, although Orthodox churches continued it. If the diaconate were be opened to women again, there is a ritual on the books (so to speak) for ordaining deaconesses from the 10th century, and their role would be the same as what is laid out in the Second Vatican Council’s reestablishment of the permanent diaconate for men. So there is some sort of precedent, although the Church would have to determine if a deaconess actually receives Holy Orders or is just an elevated lay role. In either case, I’d like to see the role of deaconess in the Church, in the tradition of Phoebe.
But I worry about the message others might take from deaconesses. Like the “spirit of Vatican II,” this could get out of hand for the uninformed. Within the Catholic community, both far right and far left will go nuts. There will be cries of Pope Francis going off the rails. The radical socialist out to upend the Church. And the implementation could be disastrous, (like, 1970s religious music bad)— an adrenaline shot to the “spirit of Vatican II.” Women joining to prove a point, not because of a calling. Photo ops all about girl power and fighting the patriarchy.
Outside the Catholic community, you can already see the headlines: “Vatican finally accepts women.” “Catholic Church changes position, gets with the times.” It would be broadcast as the Church capitulating to the zeitgeist, to overturning its beliefs, to changing for the sake of staying relevant. News of such a change would overlook the history and doctrine and just focus on the visual: a woman in an alb overseeing a Catholic wedding. It would cause people to complain that the Church is willing to forego its beliefs for popularity while at the same time people would complain that it’s not doing enough.
And for the people who want the Catholic Church to morph into whatever they desire, it will be regarded as a victory. Today, women deacons; tomorrow, women priests! And gay weddings! And abortion on demand! They will think they have gained something from all this. They will push for women in the priesthood even harder. Because to them there is no difference in a deacon and a priest. Because to them there is no difference between anything, ever. All is relative. Ontological truths or morality or divine mandates are secondary to current culture wars. The Church is their tool for social adequation instead of a vessel of God’s grace.
At this point, there has only been the suggestion that a commission might seek clarification. That’s a lot of ifs and a lot of boring bureaucracy. We’re not the East; we like to minutely define our doctrine, in our legalistic, Roman way. Slow, steady, and wordy. According to Catholic News Service, “Pope Francis had said his understanding was that the women described as deaconesses in the Bible were not ordained like permanent deacons are. Mainly, he said, it appeared that they assisted with the baptism by immersion of other women and with the anointing of women. However, he said, ‘I will ask the (Congregation for the) Doctrine of the Faith to tell me if there are studies on this.’” Of course, deciding that no, women can’t be ordained deacons will also cause a media frenzy about the big, bad Catholic Church whose stances won’t fall in line with 2016 America.