The Female Diaconate: Issues East and West—Part 2

The First Deaconesses by Kostas Xenopoulos

Does ordaining women to the diaconate automatically mean that women could be ordained to the Priesthood (i.e. the Presbyterate)?  This is the question that often looms in the background of any discussion regarding the revival of the female diaconate.  Last month, I began to look at some of the issues surrounding the question of reviving this ministry in both the Christian West (in particular, the Roman Catholic Church) and the East (the Eastern Orthodox Church). (You can read the post here ).  I reviewed some of the history of the female diaconate, the calls for the revival of this ministry, the duties of the historical deacon/deaconess, what an ordination means, as well as the place of the diaconate in higher orders of ministry (i.e. Bishop-Presbyter-Deacon).  I ended the post by acknowledging that, for some, the stumbling block to ordaining women to the diaconate is the presumption that they could then be ordained to the Priesthood.  So, lets talk about this question.

Does ordaining women to the diaconate automatically mean that women could be ordained to the Priesthood (i.e. the Presbyterate)?

In the Roman Catholic world, various church documents have addressed the issue with papal approval.  In 1976, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith drafted a document that came to be known as Inter Insigniores (“Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood.”)  It gives six main arguments against the ordination of women to the priesthood (and here I use the summary provided by Phyllis Zagano)—the Church’s Constant Tradition (of ordaining only men to the priesthood), the Attitude of Christ (who chose only male apostles), the Practice of the Apostles (who did not include women in their number), the Permanent Value of the Attitude of Christ and the Apostles (establishing a permanent norm), the Ministerial Priesthood in the Light of the Mystery of Christ (i.e. the priest must bear a “natural resemblance” to Christ), and the Ministerial Priesthood Illustrated by the Mystery of the Church (i.e. contemporary issues of gender equality are irrelevant.)[1] In 1994, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed these reasons for not ordaining women to the Priesthood in his communique, “Apostolic Letter on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone,”  (i.e. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis). Basically, these arguments can be distilled into two—one argument from history (i.e. Christ only chose male apostles, the apostles only chose other men, and the Church has continued this tradition) and what has become known as the “iconic” argument (i.e. that the priest must bear a resemblance to Christ.)  Although history does not always determine present church polity, the first argument deserves serious consideration for those faiths that take their history and tradition seriously.  However, I find the second argument to be rather specious.  How does one “naturally resemble” Jesus Christ—a Jewish male of first century Palestine?  Does one also have to share the same skin color, heritage, religion, and biological sex to properly image Christ?  What about more intrinsic factors such as character and/or behavior?   It seems overly reductive to use biological sex as the only operative criterion.  Furthermore, the tradition does not support the idea that only men image Christ.  If it did, this would have grave soteriological consequences for the other half of humanity; to paraphrase Gregory of Nazianzus, what is not assumed is not saved.

As is typical in the Orthodox world, there is no ecumenical consensus on the ordination of women to “the Priesthood,” although it is assumed that such a proposition is “impossible.”  Many of the reasons for forbidding the ordination of women to this order are similar to the arguments previewed above—the tradition of the Church of only ordaining males to this ministry and the ability to image Christ in his “maleness.”  In addition, other arguments include the typological distinction of Christ as the new Adam and Mary, the Theotokos, as the new Eve and since the Theotokos did not exercise a sacramental priestly function during her lifetime, women (by extrapolation) cannot do so.  In general, this latter argument has mostly fallen out of use in academic debate on this question.  However, the former arguments share the same or similar weight as in Roman Catholic dialogue on the issue.

I posit that those who fear that ordaining women to the diaconate will automatically lead to ordaining women as priests, ironically, do not accept the arguments put forth by both Traditions for their exclusion.

I posit that those who fear that ordaining women to the diaconate will automatically lead to ordaining women as priests, ironically, do not accept the arguments put forth by both Traditions for their exclusion.  If they did, they would be more comfortable with the idea of women in the diaconate as a terminal degree of priesthood for women.  Now, I am not arguing for the ordination of women to the presbytery in this post. I see that as a separate question from the diaconate. However, I do not think we have to wait until there is definitive understanding of human anthropology and its implications for this question.  I do want to emphasize that the diaconate is a separate ministry that is related to, but not synonymous with, the sacerdotal ministry of the priest and bishop.  It is a ministry that connects our liturgical celebration with the liturgy of our lives more particularly through the Word and through charity.  It may take hundreds of years to fully articulate a theology of the presbytery (that the Church receives fully) and decide whether it has an inherent “male” character to it or not and/or if the weight of Tradition is determinative and binding.  However, in the mean time, there is much work to be done to strengthen the Body of Christ and spread the Gospel message.  There is no reason not to revive the female diaconate now to meet the ministerial needs of the Church and our witness to the world.


Part 3: If women are already doing diaconal work, why should they be ordained to do so?

Part 4: How could a revived female diaconate help the work of the Church and its mission to the world?

[1] Phyllis Zagano, Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (New York: Crossroad Publishing), 49.

One comment

  1. from the RC side of the pew: yes Teva, you have unpacked the specious RC argument against a female sacerdotal ministry. Our misogynistic hierarchs argue that women cannot be “in persona Christi capitis”, which is an epic rhetorical fail. Christ is Pantocrator; their argument processes from human Jesus, not the Divine Christ.

    Historian Gary Macy provides much historical evidence of female ordination in the West. When the Western hierarchy stands against female ordination, they stand on St. Dominic’s theology, while patently and conveniently ignoring that he was one of the first to reclaim Mary of Magdala as apostolarum apostolara, even proclaiming her as the patron saint of the Order of Preachers. He claimed her, a woman, as the first preacher, which is one of the ordained diaconal functions (hold the tension that there was NO ordination of anyone at that time; she was SIMPLY the first human being personally told to “go and tell” by Christ). We can posit that she was a presbyter, but there is more than ample evidence in the Written Word that she served not only as the first preacher of the Good News of the Resurrection, but she also was in service to the sacred altar of the Incarnate Word, both of which are the functions of an ordained deacon.

    Blessings as we journey from both sides of the pew!

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