Not for the first time the Catholic world is abuzz with the news that Francis may create a commission to study the role of female deacons in the Catholic Church. During an audience with the heads of women’s religious orders he said, “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this as well,” even adding that women might participate in the consultations on this topic. People wonder: Is this the first step on the path to women priests?
Francis’s statement was made because one of the participants in the conference observed that women had served as deacons in the early Church and asked him: “Why not have an official commission that might study the question?” Francis responded that he had discussed women in the early church with a “good, wise professor” and that he was still unsure about what these female deacons did. “Did they have ordination or no?” he asked. “What was the role of the deaconess in that time?”
To many it might come as a surprise that there were any female deacons at all, but they are out there. The apostle Paul mentions one female deacon, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans. He calls another woman, Junia, an apostle, and it’s clear from the greetings he sends to women like Chloe that there were influential women in the early Church.
In fact, in the early Church, Paul’s most famous acolyte was a young woman named Thecla. Thecla abandoned her fiance, dressed as a man, and went out to spread the gospel. She narrowly escaped martyrdom at the hands of some ravenous seals and was protected in the arena by a sisterhood of lionesses. Most important, she baptized herself in the pool of seals.
We know that there were other important female visionaries in the Church who served as leaders. Many of them were associated with a heretical sect known as the Montanists but others, like St. Perpetua, are regarded as saints to this day. As Brown University professor Nicola Denzey Lewis has shown in her book The Bone Gatherers, late antique aristocratic women played an especially important role in establishing shrines dedicated to martyrs and overseeing the veneration of the dead. All of this suggests that women held leadership roles in the early Church.
The key question for Francis is: Were deaconesses clergy in the way that they are today? Did ancient people mean the same thing by “deacon” that modern Catholics do? The strongest evidence for deaconesses comes from a late fourth-century Syrian document known as the Apostolic Constitutions. It contains instructions for the ordination of a deaconess by a bishop. The fact that they are ordained suggests that deaconesses are part of the clergy, but against this we have to put the statement made by a member of the Council of Nicaea in 325 c.e. that deaconesses “have no imposition of hands [that is to say they weren’t formally ordained by a bishop and thus they were] numbered only among the laity.”
The “historic openness” of the Church to female deacons is important because many Church teachings about the priesthood are based on the precedent set by Jesus. The reason why only men can serve as priests is not only because, as Francis said this week, the priest serves “in persona Christi” and as an “icon of the apostles” (for which gender is important), but also because Jesus only selected 12 men as apostles. If it turned out that Jesus selected women as apostles, let’s say Mary Magdalene, then that particular argument for the necessity of an all-male priesthood would be substantially eroded.
Francis is correct that we don’t know exactly what female deaconesses did. We know that in some places they were ordained through the imposition of hands. And a number of fourth-century texts (at least one of which prohibits female priests) suggest that their primary role was in ministering to other women. We have no evidence to suggest that they presided over the mass or performed other priestly roles. The trouble is that most things about the early Church are obscure. Skeptics argue that the Church is only selectively attentive to the obscure origins of many of her beliefs, practices, and structures.
If women were to be ordained as deacons, they would be permitted to give homilies in Church, their voices being heard as a central part of the mass in ways they never have been before (at least not for centuries). It might seem that women are inching further toward ordination and preparing to storm the altar. But even if Francis’s commission allows for the possibility of women becoming deacons, we should not assume that ordination is the next step. As Jamie Manson has written, Francis’s language on women is very much in keeping with traditional Church teaching.
For Francis the idea of women as deacons is found in the New Testament, but Church tradition does not maintain that women ever (legitimately) performed priestly roles. The ecclesial glass ceiling would still be intact. If the Church ordains female deacons it will be a historic step forward but it will also be a return to the past.