Priest pushes for women deacons

Fr. Bill Tkachuk at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston, Illinois, is pushing for discussion on the ordination of women to the diaconate – a question which is still open at the level of official teaching. A parishioner, Lynne Mapes-Riordan, has already put herself forward as a candidate.



  1. I find it hard to believe that this issue has not been addressed up to now. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that the answer will be “no”, regardless of what the St. Nicholas Parish Council decides. I cannot see the current climate being favorable towardas allowing the Sacrament of Holy Orders to be given to women, in whatever capacity.

    1. It could be that the answer from Rome is “no.” But keep in mind that Eastern Orthodox bishops have approved the ordination of women as deacons in what is the reception of Holy Orders.

      1. And the Orthodox also permit married Priests. Are you suggesting that the Bishops could approve such an action and act on it without approval from Rome a la The Orthodox? I would hesitate to place my life in certain peril by promising to hold my breath waiting for that to happen…

      2. Jeffrey

        But this Pope would probably hesitate to navigate an decision that would call the validity of certain *Orthodox* orders into question. I can’t see him wanting to be known as a pope who screwed the pooch, as it were, to borrow a phrase from US Navy pilots….

      3. I know that there have been (and currently are?) female deacons in Orthodoxy, but do the Orthodox have any official position on this? I would be very surprised if they did.

      4. F.C.B.

        My understanding is that the Orthodox in some of their meetings have agreed with the position that ordination of Women Deacons is a part of the sacrament of Orders. However they work by consensus and not by anything like Vatican II or Papal decrees. So it is possible that the present consensus in favor of saying that it is part of Orders might disappear.

        Rome would likely run into trouble with the Orthodox by going too quickly on this in any direction, whether they say no to Women Deacons, or yes to Deaconesses who are commissioned but not part of the clery, or yes to Women Deacons (without widespread ordination of Women Deacons among the Orthodox, this could just fuel a backlash among ultra Orthodox again Women Deacons and undo the present consensus).

        Orthodox at the national, diocesan and parish levels don’t have much of a movement for male Deacons so there is not a movement for woman Deacons. I read somewhere that there was a movement in favor of a restored deaconate in Russia some time ago but I don’t know whether that still exists.

      5. This all makes one wonder if perhaps the call for women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church might not receive a more favorable hearing if it were to come from an Eastern, rather than Latin, Rite community.

        That would allow the door to be opened to validly ordained women deacons in the Catholic Church, while still maintaining the men-only discipline of the Latin Rite.

        Given time. . . or is that just wishful thinking?

  2. A good book is Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church by Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald, a women Orthodox theologian and psychologist who frequently represents the Ecumenical Patriarchate and whose book includes a letter (in Greek and English) by the Patriarch Bartholomew.

    She analyzes the liturgical rites as a basis for concluding that these are true sacramental ordinations, not simply blessings or commissions. When asked about the book, Taft said he agreed with her. There is an existing rite for the ordination of Woman Deacons (which Fitzgerald prefers to the word Deaconess). The question is whether or not it is the same as that for a male deacon.

    The rite has been used rarely in the recent past centuries when an Orthodox Bishop has thought that a woman needs to be ordained (often in a monastery). The fact that there is a ritual seems to say an Orthodox bishop can use it. Orthodox bishops have in several conferences reaffirmed that it can be used. However, Orthodox are very traditional, there seems little demand for male let alone women Deacons.

  3. This seems to be a squandering of political capital. It seems obvious to me that the current structures of the hierarchy would answer in the negative to such a request and it seems not impossible the Holy Father would declare definitively that the diaconate is open only to men, thus requiring much more complicated theological and political maneuvering to reverse such a declaration. Why upset the apple cart when the climate does not seem favorable to real change?

    1. In another thread someone suggested opening up the roles of instituted acolyte and instituted reader to women. That seems like a necessary first step to push for, and more realistic.

      1. I would settle for having the roles of Instituted Acolyte and Instituted Reader used for MEN as a first step! There seems to be little interest (for now) in viewing these orders seriously.

      2. I completely agree with Jeffrey Herbert. Pope Paul VI’s Ministeria Quaedam, I think, was a wise attempt to preserve two of the most ancient minor orders and, at the same time, make them relevant under modern conditions by opening the positions to the laity. It’s probably going to remain a dead letter, but I really wish that motu proprio gets a second hearing.

  4. I agree with David Bonofiglio. Apart from giving the trad-bloggers an easy target to ‘fisk’ it’s hard to see this resulting in any sort of discussion or learning. Roma locuta est, and all that.

    What functions of a deacon are intrinsically restricted to a deacon, i.e. could never be done by a layperson, no matter what delegation he or she received from a priest? A layperson can minister baptism. The minister of the sacrament of matrimony is the couple, with the priest or deacon (or layperson, under appropriate delegation?) as witness. I’m speaking of theology here, not canon law.

    1. Good question. I believe that, in order to fully understand the diaconate, we have to look at the deacon’s “being” versus the deacon’s “doing”. The late Holy Father described the diaconate as the “Church’s ministry of charity, sacramentalized”. Who the deacon is arguably much more important than what the deacon does, although of course no office in the Church is without particular function. The diaconate is the humble ministry of Christ the Servant made present through holy orders, which bishops and priests retain, but in conjunction with other ontological realities and ministerial responsibilities. The deacon is configured to Christ in this manner of servitude, as opposed to, say, in the manner of Christ’s priestly ministry.

      1. Thank you, but could you say more, and especially more about the deacon’s particular “doing”? It’s hard to see how any number of laymen and women, not to mention religious, wouldn’t be orientated toward a similar ministry of service.

    2. A layperson can administer baptism only if a priest or deacon is unavailable and the recipient is in imminent danger of death. A deacon can administer baptism at any time, as well as witness marriage, which a layperson cannot do.

      Neither deacons nor laypeople may anoint the sick or celebrate reconciliation, lamentably. This makes ministry to the dying in countries that do not have many priests difficult and heartbreaking. Luckily even a layperson may give viaticum to the dying (assuming it has been lawfully consecrated, obviously), but many dying Catholics or other Christians do not realize this is possible or do not know the value of this sacrament.

      Still, the deacon’s availability to baptize and marry is a boon to many parishes, to say nothing of his or her commitment to service to the poor and cultural, legitimated (in a word, ordained) ability to represent the church’s healing hand.

      1. As part of their specific ministry of evangelization (evidenced liturgically by their being the proper minister to proclaim the Gospel) and connection to baptism, deacons may also anoint catechumens with the oil blessed specifically for their strengthening as only other ordained ministers may. Kenan Osborne, OFM has a good summary of the argument in favor of deacons being able to also anoint the sick with that other oil blessed by the bishop for strengthening in his The Permanent Diaconate: its history and place in the sacrament of orders (Paulist, 2007).

      2. Thanks for that helpful clarification. I didn’t know Kenan Osborne made such an argument, though it’s theologically reasonable. I remember Bugnini recalled that the Congregation for Rites originally wanted to allow laypersons to perform the pre-baptismal anointing, especially for catechists in mission areas to be able to have a richer celebration of initiation. In the end, though, they were worried that it would “confuse the faithful.”

        I unfortunately think we miss a lot of our beautiful tradition out of fear of confusion.

  5. It has been pointed out for some time that the ‘classical pre-Vatican II ceremony in the Pontifical for the ‘consecration of virgins’ is the ‘relic in the Roman Rite’ of the ‘Order for making Deaconesses’. The present Rite is less obviously so, but if you look carefully, you can still see the ‘traces’ of its origins. There are even images and photos of Carthusian Nuns, among others, wearing stoles — most of the photos taken in the 20th century, the images are much older, but post-Trent.

  6. Jonathan – On the particular “doings” of deacons: Deacons can preach a homily at Mass, lay persons cannot (though if I understand it correctly, under some circumstance, they may read a homily prepared by someone in Holy Orders).

  7. My understanding was the International Theological Commission did not officially rule out female deacons in 2002 but decided, “In light of present historical-theological research,” there is a need for “discernment about what the Lord has established for the church.” And you know who was the pres. of that commission back then? In other words, Non est locuta Roma.

    1. I suspect Rome intends to keep its mouth shut as long as possible, given the problems opening it might raise with the Orthodox. Either way.

      1. Ms. Thomas,
        I invite you to rephrase your contribution in such a way that it may appear at least minimally constructive.

  8. The 1995 Report of an Ad Hoc Committee of the Canon Law Society of America on The Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate (ISBN 0943616719) in addition to providing a good historical overview and a solid though not exhaustive bibliography, concludes that it is not only within the competence of the Church to decide to ordain women to the permanent diaconate (50) which could be accomplished via individual indults to specific episcopal conferences should they seek such but also that this possibility may even be desirable for the United States in the present cultural circumstances and pastoral needs (51).

  9. I might be wrong, but I think the Orthodox Churches have no common position on whether women deacons received the Sacrament of Holy Orders or not. Some Orthodox patriachs thought so, but others do not.

    The International Theological Commission essentially said that there is no clear consensus on the historical evidence whether the women were ordained into Holy Orders. While they did not put forward a position whether women could or could not be admitted to the diaconate, they cautioned those who held the position that there were women in the Order of Deacons from history.

  10. It is good to talk about the theology, purpose, and practice of the deaconate and the presbyterate. But it is not the time to make any large scale changes in either.

    Before Vatican II we did not really have a good theology and purpose of the episcopate, and we are currently trying to work out the practice of what Vatican II said about bishops. Likewise before Vatican II we did not have a good theology of baptism and the apostolate and we are currently trying to work out the implications of Vatican II for the laity.

    Vatican II did not break much new ground about the presbyterate or the deaconate.

    As John O’Malley “One Priesthood: Two traditions” and others pointed out in A Concert of Charisms: Ordained Ministry in Religious Life, the diocesan model of the priesthood assumed in much of Vatican II really does not make sense in terms of the historical practice of the presbyterate in religious life.

    Likewise the restored deaconate intended for missionary countries seems to be flourishing more in America. We are only beginning to create a modern deaconate. But lets talk about it, what is and is not working. Experiment about it within the present legislation in various cultures around the world.

    We have our hands full getting bishops to work with regard to liturgical translations, sexual abuse, financial management, parish suppressions, and politics! Could take us decades to make the Vatican II episcopate work.

    Fortunately we laity have great opportunities to work out the Vatican II vision for us. Organizations can only absorb a certain amount of change at a time; Vatican II put a lot on our plate with regard to bishops and laity.

  11. I have read various comments concerning this issue. This is not an issue that will die in the Church. The Pope made a clear, Sacramental distinction in Canon Law a little over a year ago between the priesthood and the diaconate. He made it clear that priests are ordained to act in the person of Christ, and deacons are ordained to act in the service of the community. According to Pope Benedict, priests receive Christ’s own character when ordained, but deacons do not. The reason women are not ordained as priests is because they are not seen as being able to carry the male character of Christ, and his selecting 12 apostles who were all male validates this in the eyes of the Church. But this is not the case in Church history with regard to women deacons. Our own Church has records that documents the ordination of women deacons. Women deacons were not only used for women baptisms; they also served in other administrative and liturgical roles. You should really read “The Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconte published by the Canon Law Society of America in 1995. Much of the history of women deacons is contained in this report.

    Cardinal George appears to be very supportive to the idea of women being ordained to the permanent diaconate, as long as this is not used as a means to the priesthood. I think that the reason why there is a delay in the Roman Catholic Church not approving for women to be ordained is because of so many people pushing for women priests. I think that if these groups that are pushing for women priests would back off, Pope Benedict would have moved forward by now with his idea to install women lectors (currently women serve in this ministry in a “temporary designation” (see applicable Canon in Code of Canon Law). He is not going to move forward with any needed changes with regard to women’s roles in the Church as long as this could be perceived as a springboard to the priesthood. And I can’t say I…

  12. First of all, not to be persnickety, but deacons can’t just run around witnessing marriages and baptizing on their own. They need delegation from the pastor to do so. Now if the deacon is assigned to the parish then obviously that delegation is going to be pretty regular, but it’s not like deacons or priests have the ability to run around dispensing sacraments willy-nilly.

    But this actually betrays a deeper problem. When the diaconate was restored as a permanent order in the Church it was done based mostly on historical research and theological reflection, but without much reference to contemporary Eastern practice. This is kind of a problem because Eastern deacons and Western deacons are very different animals. Western deacons function “on their own” quite a bit, even with permission: weddings, funerals, baptisms, Communion Services, benedictions, etc. Eastern deacons don’t. If you want to get a sense of how profound this problem is, while we (Westerners) view marriage as celebrated by the couple the Easterners do not. They view the nuptial blessing as the really essential bit. But deacons can’t dispense their own blessings in the Eastern Church. So what do you do if you have a good Irish Catholic bride whose father is a permanent deacon but who is marrying a Byzantine boy? You don’t have the father witness the marriage because then, by the groom’s accounting, they aren’t married.

    See, this looks easy; female deacons have been preserved in the East, at least in some quarters, so all we have to do is start ordaining them. But even with men this turns into a pretty screwy mess without too much effort. Of course Eastern and Western practice has always varied some, and each is entitled to their own tradition, but we have to be careful drawing theological conclusions too quickly either from discernible historical data alone on the one hand or contemporary practice on the other. Less still should we presume on the historical practice and introduce innovations without sufficient reflection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *