by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
One has to question why the idea of ordaining female deacons has come up in certain small language discussion groups at the Synod when everyone is supposed to be focused on the role of the traditional family. Some observers regard this proposal as a way for advocates of women's ordination to the minsterial priesthoof to get one foot in the door.
Of course, there are those Synod participants who would immediately deny that this is their real objective. They would probably say that a diaconate for women would be a return to an ancient practice in the early Church, as well as a contemporary way to highlight and indeed increase the role of women in the life of the Catholic Church.
Regardless of the motivation for this topic's introduction into the Synod conversation and since it has come up a few times, let's take a look at the issue. Simply put: There are serious problems with this proposal from an historical and theological perspective.
Yes, it is true that there were for a time, as mentioned in the Epistle to the Romans and a scattering of early Christian writings (e.g., Apostolic Constitutions of Hippolytus of Rome), women who were called "deacons." However, their role was principally that of assisting female converts to Christianity undress in a modest way for full baptismal immersion (Greek verb "baptizein," means "to immerse," which is still the primary manner of baptizing children and adults in the Eastern Rites). This form of "diakonia" (Greek New Testament word for "service") was in no way related to the ministerial priesthood.
The Order of Deacon, however, well established in the the Apostolic Tradition (as both the Churches of East and West can attest) is, ordinarily speaking (permanent diaconate notwithstanding), an intended necessary step toward ordination to the ministerial priesthood.
While deacons are clearly not ordained unto the ministerial priesthood, they do function in close proximity to the bishop and the priest in roles that go far beyond anything that female deacons performed in the early Church. The deacon is an ordinary minister of Baptism and Holy Communion. He proclaims the Gospel at Holy Mass and may preach a liturgical homily immediately after the Gospel. The deacon can preside at weddings and funerals, as well as bless the faithful within the context of liturgical celebrations.
On the other hand, he cannot perform actions reserved to the ministerial priesthood: celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, hearing confessions, and anointing the sick. Nor can deacons confirm, while priests of the Latin Rite may confirm with proper delegation of a bishop (all priests of the Eastern Churches can confirm). For the sake of clarity, we should note that neither deacons nor priests may ordain. This power is reserved to bishops as successors of the Apostles.
If we should admit women to the diaconate because there happened to be female deacons here and there in the early Church, then (logically) the Church would also be compelled to consider the historical evidence which reveals that some priests in the early Church were occasionally permitted to lay hands and ordain though they themselves had not been consecrated bishops. Indeed, many things happened in the early Church that haven't happened since, and there are both convincing practical and theological reasons why this is the case. Antiquarianism is not a Christian virtue. We need to be careful not to fall into the trap of manipulating the history of the Church in order to filter through politically-charged "ideologies" not based on sound theological principles.
The female deacons of the early Church, instituted through a simple blessing, did not share the same ministry as the ordained deacons -- the ministry traced back to those first seven men (e.g., St. Stephen the Protomartyr) whom the Apostles ordained through the laying on of hands. It is the liturgical gesture of the laying on of hands on the part of a bishop that is constitutive of ordination -- not only in the early Church but through every age. The Churches of East and West have always reserved this liturgical gesture for the sacred ordination of men and only men to the ministerial ranks of deacon, presbyter and bishop.
How can the Church now abandon this Apostolic Tradition that even, ecumenically speaking, unites the Churches of East and West in order to offer a false sense of security to some feminists who seek not so much the diaconate per se but rather the diaconate as a means of gaining further ground in their drive toward the ministerial priesthood?
Of course, as Pope Francis and several Synod Fathers have pointed out, women can be afforded greater roles in the life of the Church, including acts of Church administration that do not require the jurisdiction linked to Holy Orders. This does not mean, however, that the Church can leap into a theological abyss by admitting women to Holy Orders.
Not admitting women to Holy Orders has nothing to do with misogyny or an under-appreciation of women as integral members of the Catholic Church. Rather, women cannot be admitted to Holy Orders on account of the will of Christ and the Apostolic Tradition.
The Church's hierarchy -- her Magisterium -- does not have the authority to invent Sacred Tradition. It does have the sacred and solemn duty to safeguard that Tradition, lest it be corrupted by innovations never envisioned even by the earliest Christians.