WOMEN CAN BE PRIESTSheader

Responsive image

HOME

REASONS

DEFY THE POPE?!

DEBATE

MENU

Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Letter to Women

Chapter 18.

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,

Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition.

By John Wijngaards

Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.

© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

The reality of Women Deacons

Traditional theologians who reject the ordination of women dismiss the phenomenon of  the ‘deaconesses’ as irrelevant for a number of reasons:

¨      “Church Councils forbade the ordination of women as deacons.”

¨      “Women deacons did not assist at the eucharist as male deacons did.”

¨      “The ordination of deaconesses was only a blessing, not a real sacrament.”

¨      “Women deacons were only a fringe phenomenon of local and temporary significance.”

 

 It is these objections that we will now inspect.

Church Councils forbade it  .    .    .    ?

            The Council of Nicea (325 AD) is often quoted to prove that the ordination of women was not considered sacramental by the early Church: “With regard to the deaconesses who hold this position we remind [church leaders] that they possess no ordination [= cheirotonia], but are to be reckoned among the laity in every respect” (canon 19). But what does the passage really mean?

 

            The decree in question deals with the followers of Paul of Samosata, a heresy which the First Council of Nicea sought to counter. The Council lays down rules on how they should be received back into the Church.

“With regard to Paulicians who take refuge in the Catholic Church, it has been decided that they definitely need to be [re]baptized. If, however, some of them have previously functioned as priests, if they seem to be immaculate and irreprehensible, they need to be baptized and ordained by a bishop of the Catholic Church. In this way one must also deal with the deaconesses or with anyone in an ecclesiastical office. With regard to the deaconesses who hold this position we remind [church leaders] that they possess no ordination [= cheirotonia], but are to be reckoned among the laity in every respect.”[324]

The Council basically declared all the Paulician sacraments invalid: baptism, priesthood and diaconate.  The reason was Paul of Samosata’s refusal to accept Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God, and all sacraments are imparted in Jesus’ name. The Council particularly rejected the Paulician women’s diaconate since it was not given through ordination [cheirotonia] as the Catholic diaconate was. However, the Council did not reject women deacons as such.[325]

 

Another favourite quote is canon 26 of the ‘Council of Orange’ (441 AD): “Altogether no women deacons are to be ordained. If some already exist, let them bend their heads to the blessing given to the [lay] people.”[326]  This, however, was not a universal council of the Church, but a local synod in Gaul, involving only a few dioceses. The prohibition demonstrates opposition to the women’s diaconate in parts of the Western Church. At the same time it attests to the fact that women deacons were ordained elsewhere.

 

In fact, two general Councils of the Church explicitly acknowledge the existence of women deacons. They lay down a minimum age in the same breath as they lay down minimum ages for priests and male deacons.

¨      Chalcedon (451 AD). “A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if, after she has had hands laid on her and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she and the man united to her shall be anathematized.”[327]

¨      Trullo (692 AD). “Let the canon of our holy God-bearing Fathers be confirmed in this particular also; that a priest be not ordained before he is thirty years of age, even if he be a very worthy man, but let him be kept back. For our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized and began to teach when he was thirty. In like manner let no deacon be ordained before he is twenty-five, nor a deaconess before she is forty.”[328]

A different ministry    .    .   .   ?

Male deacons were ordained to serve at the altar, we are told. Their ministry was eucharistic and therefore male deacons were ordained sacramentally. Women deacons, however, only performed subsidiary tasks. The ordaining bishop did not intend to ordain them to a sacramental ministry.[329]

 

Differences in the day-to-day division of work do not prove there was a separate diaconate, however. Many officials in the Curia in Rome, for example, have been ordained as bishops and archbishops for diplomatic reasons. They work mostly in administration. Though the use of ordination for organizational purposes is ethically questionable, it does not make such an ordination to the episcopate less valid than that of pastoral bishops. The diaconal/priestly/episcopal status is determined by the ordination rite, not by subsequent work. It was pastoral prudence that inspired church leaders to employ women deacons differently. Women serving the bishop in the sanctuary, which was screened off from the people during the holiest of moments, might invite the suspicion of impropriety. Moreover, women also had to battle with the prejudice of presumed ritual uncleanness during their monthly periods. But it is wrong to infer from this that, therefore, a woman deacon was ordained to a lower form of diaconate than a man.

 

The ordination rite of the woman deacon itself contradicts this since she was handed a chalice, as the man was. The ordination prayers dedicated women deacons, as much as their male colleagues, to the ‘ministry’ (the Greek word is leitourgia) in God’s Holy Temple. Moreover, we know from ancient church laws in Syria that women deacons assisted at the altar when there were no male deacons, and that they took communion to the sick.[330]  “With permission of the bishop, the deaconess may pour wine and water into the chalice.”[331]

 

One of the main tasks of the woman deacon was to assist at the baptism of women catechumens. It was the woman deacon who instructed them before baptism, “teaching unskilled and rural women with clear and sound words, both as to how to respond to the questions put by the baptizer at the moment of baptism and how to live after the reception of baptism.”[332] The woman deacon also assisted at the baptism itself.

 

At the entrance to the baptistry, the officiating bishop or priest would anoint the catechumens with a sign of the cross on the forehead, saying a prayer such as: “I anoint you with the oil of gladness which overcomes all violence of the enemy and by which you will be protected in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Then the woman deacon would take the catechumens into the baptistry itself. There she would strip them of all their clothes and ornaments. The woman deacon would then anoint them with the oil of catechumens over every part of their body.

 

          It is clear that both the stripping and anointing were total. “The person to be baptised is stripped naked . . . All silver and gold ornaments, and clothes, are taken off . . . Anoint that person on his breast, his arms, his stomach, his back, in the middle of both hands, etc.”  “The deacon removes from the catechumen all clothes, ornaments, earrings and whatever they wear  . . .  He pours the oil for anointing into the cup of his hands and rubs it on the whole body of the catechumen, also in between the fingers of his hands and the toes of his feet, and his limbs, and his front and his back..”[333]

 

          It is obvious that the anointing of women demanded the service of women deacons. “Ordain a deaconess who is faithful and holy for the ministrations towards women. For sometimes he [the bishop] cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the women, on account of unbelievers. You must therefore send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities; and first in the baptism of women, the deacon shall anoint only their forehead with the holy oil, and after him the deaconess shall anoint them: for there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men.”[334]

 

From the ancient rituals we can more or less reconstruct what happened next. Ancient baptistries were like small ponds, with steps leading into the water. The deaconess led the (female) catechumen down the steps, from the west to the east, so that the catechumen faced east. In the middle the font was about 3 feet deep. According to some sources, the bishop or priest (the baptizer) had also descended into the font. This person then immersed the catechumen three times, saying a formula such as: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The baptizer then handed the newly baptized person to the deacon or deaconess, who brought them up the steps, dried them with a towel and helped them put on a white dress. This is a possible interpretation of the ancient instruction:

“After that, either thou, o bishop, or a presbyter that is under you, shall in the solemn form name over them the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, and shall dip them in the water; and let a deacon receive the man, and a deaconess the woman, that so the conferring of this inviolable seal may take place with a becoming decency. And after that, let the bishop anoint those that are baptized with ointment.”[335]

It is also possible, and even likely, that the immersion itself was done by the deacon or the deaconess while the baptismal formula was spoken either by them or by the bishop or priest who stood outside the baptistry. The immersion of a female catechumen by the deaconess seems to follow from a number of indications. The expression ‘to receive’ in ‘the deacon shall receive a man’, ‘the deaconess shall receive a woman’ may originally have meant: ‘immerse’. We find the expression in some baptismal rituals. The anxiety that ‘no man should see’ a female catechumen naked and that the conferring of baptism be done ‘with becoming decency’ required that the deaconess did both the anointing and the immersion. Also, the opposition to women ‘baptizing’ among some Latin Fathers in the West, obviously reflected a full involvement of female deacons in other regions of the Church.

          In any case, it is clear that women deacons carried a distinct and equivalent ministry to male deacons.

Only a blessing  .  .  .  ?

In the early Middle Ages theologians were aware of the fact that the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) had fixed a minimum age of 40 years for ‘deaconesses’.  Since the institution of women deacons had ceased to exist in the West for some centuries, they were puzzled as to what this diaconate had meant. Their ignorance of the historical facts is clear in what they write.

 

¨      “There is no doubt that formerly there existed the custom of ordaining deaconesses, that is: readers of the gospels. Because no deaconess was allowed to be ordained before the age of forty and after ordination they were forbidden to marry. But women have no part in the order of the priesthood, nor can they have any.” (Rolandus Bandinelli, 1148 AD)[336]

¨      “In the past some nuns were ordained to be deaconesses, not to holy orders but to some ministry such as to proclaim the Gospel during matins or something similar. At present this does not happen, but without any specific institutions there are still some nuns in some places who read the Gospel  .  .  Deaconesses were ordained, that is: they were elected and established with some solemnity in one or other ministry, which agrees with deacons. Perhaps they sang or read out the Gospel during matins as well as prayer. This ministry and dignity was called the diaconate.”  (Hugucchio 1188)[337]

¨      “Some people have asserted that the male sex is necessary for the lawfulness and not for the validity of the sacrament [of ordination], because even in the Decretals (cap. Mulieres dist. 32; cap. Diaconissam, 27, qu. i) mention is made of deaconesses and priestesses. But deaconess there denotes a woman who shares in some act of a deacon, namely who reads the homilies in the Church; and priestess [presbytera] means a widow, for the word ‘presbyter’ means elder.” (Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274).[338]

¨      “Clearly it was the opinion of certain people that women of old had received Orders. For it states [in the twenty-seventh Cause Question 1 = canon 23 of the Decree of Gratian]: “We have decided that a deaconess should not be ordained before the age of forty”. And in the same Question, “If anyone ravishes or disturbs a deaconess”, and similarly in Distinction thirty-two [of the Decree of Gratian], mention is clearly made of a presbytera [which could mean ‘female priest’ in Latin].  But surely if we pay attention to what is said in Distinction thirty-two, Presbyteram, etc., it is shown there that widows and older women, and matrons were called presbyteras; and from this it is gathered that the women who shared with the deacons in reading the homily were called deaconesses. They received some kind of blessing. Therefore in no way should it be believed that there were ever women promoted to sacred orders according to the canons [=laws of the Church].”  (Bonaventure, 1217-1274)[339]

 

It is obvious that the medieval theologians in the West were simply ignorant of the facts surrounding women deacons. Their assessment of the women’s diaconate carries no value. If they had known the ordination rite, they would have changed their mind.

A fringe phenomenon?

Literary sources have left us ample records of deaconesses in different parts of the Byzantine Empire. We know quite a few deaconesses by name, often because of their connections with Church leaders. They represent thousands whose names remain hidden, like those of male priests and deacons.

 

Olympias in Constantinople had been ordained by Bishop Nektarios. She was a friend of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and later of St. John Chrysostom whom she greatly helped during his conflict with the emperor and his exile. At her time, Constantinople’s main cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, counted among its clergy 6o priests, 100 male deacons and 40 women deacons. She died in 418 AD.

 

Theodoret of Cyrus (466 AD) tells the story of a deaconess in Antioch who instructed and converted the son of a pagan priest in the Christian faith. Out of propriety, or perhaps for safety reasons, she is known as ‘Anonyma’. This was the period of the persecutions under Emperor Julian (361-363 AD). After fully preparing the young man for baptism, she helped him escape from his father’s house so that he could join the Christian community in a safer locality.

 

Radegunde, a Thuringian princess from southern Gaul and wife of the Frankish king Clothaire I, fled from her palace in 550 AD and was ordained a deacon by Bishop Medardus of Noyon. She founded a ‘free’ convent in Poitiers -- free that is from episcopal or political interference, and evangelised the surrounding area.

 

From the correspondence of the Fathers of the Church we know Procula and Pentadia, to whom St. Chrysostom wrote letters. Salvina who later became a deaconess in Constantinople,  wrote letters to St. Jerome. Bishop of Antioch Severus mentions the deaconess Anastasia in his letters. The deaconess Macrina was the sister of St. Basil the Great. She had a close friend who was also a deaconess: Lampadia. The deaconess Theosebia was the wife of the Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory of Nyssa. The Orthodox calendar of saints includes 22 women deacons who are mentioned by name, as well as the seven women deacons who were martyred with Bishop Abdjesus in fifth-century Persia.[340]

The names of deaconesses have also been preserved on tomb stones. At least 28 have been identified. Here are some typical examples:

¨      Sophia of Jerusalem (4th cent. AD?). The Greek inscription reads: “Here lies the servant and virgin of Christ, the deacon [!], the second Phoebe [Rom 16,1], who passed away in peace on the 21st day of March . . . May the Lord God . . .”.

¨      Theodora of Gaul carried this latin inscription on her tomb: “Here rests in peace and of good remembrance Theodora the deaconess who lived about 48 years and died on 22 July 539.”

Athanasia of Delphi in Greece (5th cent.): “The most devout deaconess Athanasia, established deaconess by his holiness bishop Pantamianos after she had lived a blameless life. He erected this tomb on the place where her honoured [body ?] lies. If soneone else dares to open this tomb in which the deaconess has been buried, may he receive the fate of Judas, who betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ . . . Nothing less the clerics who were found gathered . . ”

¨      The deaconess Eneon at Jerusalem had ministered to the sick: “Tomb of Eneon, daughter of Neoiketis, deaconess in this hospital.”[341]

 

Not scriptural?

The Church has known deaconesses right from the apostolic age.  Paul mentions “Phoebe, our sister, who is a servant (diakonos) of the Church at Cenchreae. She has often been a helper both to myself and to many others”.[342]  Did the word diakonos applied to Phoebe carry with it the sense of a precise ministerial function which it would have later where women were concerned? We do not know for certain, even though diakonos did soon become a well circumscribed function in the Church.[343] Also, Clement of Alexandria (150 - 215 AD) puts the women’s ministry right back to apostolic times. “The apostles, giving themselves without respite to the work of evangelism as befitted their ministry, took with them women, not as wives but as sisters to share in their ministry to women living at home: by their agency the teaching of the Lord reached the women’s quarters without arousing suspicion”.[344]

 

This early diaconate of women is confirmed by a classical passage in 1 Timothy that is often overlooked:

“Deacons must be men of grave behaviour; they must be examined and if found blameless may afterwards serve as deacons. The women must be of grave behaviour, not slanderers, temperate, in every respect faithful. Deacons must be married only once.”[345]

The whole passage is about those serving in the diaconate, both men and women. Cardinal Daniélou who defended the sacramental nature of the women’s diaconate writes as follows: “The word ‘deacon’ is here [ in 1 Timothy 3,8-12] used in its technical sense. It also seems clear that by ‘the women’ in question, who are clearly distinguished from the wives of the deacons while the description of them is parallel to that of the deacons, we must understand women deacons. It indicates a ministry which formed part of the ordained ministry itself.”[346] This is confirmed by the fact that Pliny the Younger in 112 AD reports on the presence of two women deacons in a Christian community in Asia Minor.[347]

Readings from Women Priests web site

 

Texts from Church Councils:

* the Council of Nicea

* the Council of Chalcedon

* the Council of Trullo

 

Tasks of women deacons

* role at baptism

* apostolate in the parish

* service at the altar

* supervisory roles

 

http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/can_nic1.asp

http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/can_chal.asp

http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/can_trul.asp

 

 

http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_bap.asp

http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_apo.asp

http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_alt.asp

http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_dis.asp

 

 

 

 

[324] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV; Council of Nicea, can. 19.

[325]  About Paul of Samosata, see: Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VII 27-31; G. Bardy, Paul de Samosate, Paris 1929; H. de Riedmatten, Les Actes du procès de Paul de Samosate, Fribourg 1952;  G. Kretschmar, Studiën zur frühchristlichen Trinitätstheologie, Tübingen 1956; G. Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria, Princeton 1961.

[326] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV; Council of Orange, can. 26.

[327]  Council of Calchedon, canon 15.

[328]  Also known as the Quinisext Council. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV, Council of Trullo, canon 14.

[329]  Aimé Georges Martimot, Les Diaconesses. Essai historique, Rome 1982, p. 155.

[330]  The Testament of Our Lord (5th cent.), I § 19, 40; J. Cooper and A. Maclean (ed.), Edinburgh 1902; James of Edessa (6th cent.), Canonical Resolutions, § 24; A.Lamy, De Syrorum Fide et Disciplina, Louvain 1859, p. 127.

[331]  John Telo (9th cent.), Canonical Resolutions § 36 & 38; Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis, vol.II, ‘De Monophysitis’ § 10.

[332]  Ancient rule in the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua, ch. 12. Deaconesses had ceased to exist in the West at the time of the Statuta’s redaction. So ‘widows or nuns’ was substituted for ‘deaconesses’ in the text.

[333] An ancient Copt Ritual from Egypt; H.Denzinger, Ritus Orientalium, vol.I, Würzburg 1863, pp. 192-214; see also Ritual of Jacob of Edessa , pp. 279-288.

[334]  Apostolic Constitutions 3,15  (4th cent.).

[335]  Apostolic Constitutions 3,16.

[336] Stromata, Causa 15, qu. 3, beg.

[337] Summa, Causa 27, quaestio 1, chapter 23

[338] Summa Theologica Suppl. qu. 39 art. 1.

[339]  From Commentarium in IV Libros Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi, Div. XXV, art. II, qu. 1, § m-n.

 

[340] Much more historical information about women deacons in: Anne Jensen, Gottes selbstbewusste Töchter: Frauenemanzipazion im frühen Christentum, Freiburg 1992; Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, Holy Cross, Brookline 1998, esp. pp. 28 - 58.

[341]  K. Arnt, Die Diakonissen der armenischen Kirche in kanonischer Sicht, Vienna 1990; E. Synek, Heilige Frauen der frühen Christenheit, Würzburg 1994; U. Eisen, Ämtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum, Göttingen 1996, esp. pp. 154 - 192.

[342]  Romans 16,1.

[343]  As attested to by St. Ignatius of Antioch (died 110 AD), Trallians 7,2; Smyrnaeans 8,1.

[344]  Stromata 3, 6, §53.

[345]  1 Timothy 3,8-12.

[346]  J. Daniélou, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Leighton Buzzard 1974, p. 14; see also N. Brox, Die Pastoralbriefe, Regensburg 1969, p. 154.

[347]  Letters X,  96,8; G. Lohfink, ‘Weibliche Diakone im Neuen Testament’, in G.Dautzenberg et al. (ed.), Die Frau im Urchristentum, Frankfurt 1983, pp. 332-334.

[324] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV; Council of Nicea, can. 19.

[325]  About Paul of Samosata, see: Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VII 27-31; G. Bardy, Paul de Samosate, Paris 1929; H. de Riedmatten, Les Actes du procès de Paul de Samosate, Fribourg 1952;  G. Kretschmar, Studiën zur frühchristlichen Trinitätstheologie, Tübingen 1956; G. Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria, Princeton 1961.

[326] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV; Council of Orange, can. 26.

[327]  Council of Calchedon, canon 15.

[328]  Also known as the Quinisext Council. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV, Council of Trullo, canon 14.

[329]  Aimé Georges Martimot, Les Diaconesses. Essai historique, Rome 1982, p. 155.

[330]  The Testament of Our Lord (5th cent.), I § 19, 40; J. Cooper and A. Maclean (ed.), Edinburgh 1902; James of Edessa (6th cent.), Canonical Resolutions, § 24; A.Lamy, De Syrorum Fide et Disciplina, Louvain 1859, p. 127.

[331]  John Telo (9th cent.), Canonical Resolutions § 36 & 38; Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis, vol.II, ‘De Monophysitis’ § 10.

[332]  Ancient rule in the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua, ch. 12. Deaconesses had ceased to exist in the West at the time of the Statuta’s redaction. So ‘widows or nuns’ was substituted for ‘deaconesses’ in the text.

[333] An ancient Copt Ritual from Egypt; H.Denzinger, Ritus Orientalium, vol.I, Würzburg 1863, pp. 192-214; see also Ritual of Jacob of Edessa , pp. 279-288.

[334]  Apostolic Constitutions 3,15  (4th cent.).

[335]  Apostolic Constitutions 3,16.

[336] Stromata, Causa 15, qu. 3, beg.

[337] Summa, Causa 27, quaestio 1, chapter 23

[338] Summa Theologica Suppl. qu. 39 art. 1.

[339]  From Commentarium in IV Libros Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi, Div. XXV, art. II, qu. 1, § m-n.

 

[340] Much more historical information about women deacons in: Anne Jensen, Gottes selbstbewusste Töchter: Frauenemanzipazion im frühen Christentum, Freiburg 1992; Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, Holy Cross, Brookline 1998, esp. pp. 28 - 58.

[341]  K. Arnt, Die Diakonissen der armenischen Kirche in kanonischer Sicht, Vienna 1990; E. Synek, Heilige Frauen der frühen Christenheit, Würzburg 1994; U. Eisen, Ämtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum, Göttingen 1996, esp. pp. 154 - 192.

[342]  Romans 16,1.

[343]  As attested to by St. Ignatius of Antioch (died 110 AD), Trallians 7,2; Smyrnaeans 8,1.

[344]  Stromata 3, 6, §53.

[345]  1 Timothy 3,8-12.

[346]  J. Daniélou, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Leighton Buzzard 1974, p. 14; see also N. Brox, Die Pastoralbriefe, Regensburg 1969, p. 154.

[347]  Letters X,  96,8; G. Lohfink, ‘Weibliche Diakone im Neuen Testament’, in G.Dautzenberg et al. (ed.), Die Frau im Urchristentum, Frankfurt 1983, pp. 332-334.

Next Chapter?

Return to Contents page?


Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.


Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.



The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.


Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
Email:
Name:
Surname:
City:
Country:
 
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.