Press Debate on women deacons

Press Debate

BASIC (2001), pp. 24 – 32


(Irish Times, October 23rd., 2000)

Sir, -I, Phoebe, a friend of Paul and a deacon of the Church at Cenchrae (Rom 16: 1-2) am deeply grieved by the news that the Irish Catholic Bishops are going to exclude women from ordination to the diaconate. So are all the faithful women who were ordained up to the ninth century, according to the same sacramental rites as male deacons (as documented at;).

We female deacons have a place in scripture and a place in tradition: Are we going to be excluded from the Irish Church of the 21st. century?-Yours, etc.,

SOLINE VATINEL, Spokeswoman, BASIC, Avoca Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.


Sir, – Is Soline Vatinel now getting messages from the other side? Phoebe, in whose persona Ms Vatinel most recently presumes to address us (October 23rd), was not a deacon but a servant of the Church at Cenchrae (the Greek for deacon and servant being the same). We must be rather careful when reading the Scriptures to distinguish technical from non technical terms.

There were indeed women in the early Church who were called servitors or diakonissai. These were not ordained but simply instituted in much the same way as ministers of the word and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, male and female, are today. In fact, one of their functions seems to have been the covert bringing of Holy Communion to Christian women living in purdah in imperial and patrician households; another was apparently the rubbing over the body of a newly baptised and confirmed woman the sacred chrism only summarily applied by the bishop for reasons of modesty. With the total Christianisation of the Empire, however, adult baptism disappeared, the clergy could openly move at every level of society and the services of these auxiliary female lay ministers became obsolete.

As a result, both general and regional councils of the Church from Nicaea onward repeatedly discouraged their institution precisely because of the possible confusion of their title with that of ordained deacons. The Acts of the Apostles (6:5) clearly demonstrates that all of the first deacons were male. No Christian who wishes to be faithful to God’s word, here or in Rome, can decide to go beyond the exclusively male candidature, whether priestly or diaconal, set before us in the Bible, since the sexes, though absolutely equal, are simply not interchangeable. Otherwise, why should Scripture condemn homosexuality? – Yours, etc.,

Fr DAVID O’HANLON, CC, Kentstown, Navan, Co. Meath.


(Irish Times, Nov. 3)

Sir, – Father David O’Hanlon (October 27th) manifests the astonishing ignorance about women deacons which still prevails in ecclesiastical circles. When will Church leaders open their eyes and acknowledge the facts?

Ancient Greek and Syriac manuscripts contain ordination rituals for male and female deacons, documenting the Church’s practice from the fourth to the eighth centuries AD. A study of the documents shows that in the Church in the East, centuries before it split with the West, both men and women were admitted to the diaconate through a precisely equivalent sacrament &: ordination. Both men and women candidates were conducted into the sanctuary to face the bishop, who was seated before the altar. Both received the laying on of hands by the bishop, who invoked the Holy Spirit to impart the grace of the ministry of the diaconate, using identical words. Both were vested with a stole as a distinctive sign of their ministry. Both received Communion from the bishop and both were handed the chalice with the precious Blood.

Sacraments are, by definition, sacred signs. In its long history the Church his come to accept two aspects of the sign element in each sacrament: the matter (an object or an action) and the form (the words that are spoken). Where we find these both present, we know that the sacrament has been validly administered. And being precise in details here is no luxury, as the Catholic Church has always insisted.

In the case of Holy Orders, from time immemorial the imposition of hands has been considered as the matter of the sacrament, the invoking of the Spirit on the ordinand as the form. These constitute the essence of the sacramental sign by which everyone knows that this person has been truly ordained. Additional symbols are the conferring of the sacrament during the liturgy of Mass, right in front of the altar, the laying on of the distinctive vestment, and the handing over of an instrument of the ministry, such as a chalice. Through all these external signs the universal Church publicly imparts the sacrament of Holy Orders so that both the recipient and God’s people know the sacrament has been completed. All these sacramental signs were applied to women deacons, just as they were to male deacons.

If the Church ordained women deacons and male deacons with exactly the same sacramental signs, how could anyone say that one – the diaconate of men – is sacramental, and the other—that of women – is not? Do not the severe words of the Council of Trent apply here? «If anyone says that, through sacred ordination, the Holy Spirit is not given, and that therefore the bishop says in vain: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’… let him be anathema.” (Constitution on Holy Orders, Canon 4).

The Church will not get out of its present state of confusion if medieval prejudice against women remains unchallenged. Yours, etc.,

JOHN WIJNGAARDS, High Street, Rickmansworth,

Hertfordshire, England.


(Irish Times, November 9th.)

Sir, – Pope John Paul II has definitively turned his back on ordaining women even to the extent of allowing married ex-Anglican ministers to become priests, chiefly because they, too, are opposed to the ordination of women. Women, he insists, should have equal rights with men everywhere, except in the Church. Why? Because Jesus was a man; therefore, only men can represent Him at the altar.

The Pope proves too much. If women cannot represent Christ, how can they be Christians? How can they put on Christ in baptism? How can they be part of the Body of Christ or belong to the kingdom of priests? When Jesus said, “If one of you is hungry, I am hungry”, was he referring only to hungry men? Moreover, how can Christ save women if he cannot, as a male, represent them?

In the 21st. Century, due to a gynaephobia that has been plain throughout history, women still count for nothing in a men-only Vatican. Surely no Christian should seem to back an institution that promotes this form of apartheid. More and more women feel as alienated as black Africans did when signs on toilets, buses, entrances to buildings said, “Whites Only”.

How can Catholic parents give financial support to a religious institution that in its cult shows explicit contempt for women? How encourage their children, especially girls, to take part in rites that implicitly demean half of the world? How foster in their sons a vocation to an outdated patriarchal ministry? Alfred Adler said that ranking one half of humanity over the other poisons all human relationships.

Today, few people can support an organisation – political party, business association, golf club, etc. – that excludes women on the basis of gender. This is why, some time ago, I decided in conscience I could no longer attend Mass celebrated exclusively by males. I am among an ever-growing number of practising, non-Catholics. We support the community, but not its male chauvinist regime.

I myself am on a Eucharistic hunger-strike until the Church succeeds in making Rome change its anti Women prejudice parading as theology. If this means dying without the last rites and Viaticum, I will simply join the millions who already die priestless because of the Pope’s insistence on only male celibates being ordained. For me, it is a small price to pay to support Catholic women who are unjustly excluded from the seventh sacrament, namely, ordination to all the ministries in the Church: deacon, priest’ bishop and pope.

Yours, etc.,

PETER DE ROSA, Ashford, Co. Wicklow.


(Irish Times, Nov. 13th.)

Sir, – John Wijngaards (November 3rd) demonstrates nothing more than that he believes there is evidence to suggest that women were in the past commissioned for ministry in the Church. This is hardly news. They still are. However, he fails to identify conclusive proof of female ordination, which is not the same. I fear that there is more to ordination than laying on of hands, invocation of the Holy Spirit and even the excellent ritual panoply described by Mr. Wijngaards. Indeed, I cannot think of any of the seven sacraments which does not in some way involve imposition of hands and epiclesis – as do very many non-sacramental blessings. Mr. Wijngaards cannot base his claim on this.

An essential element in every sacrament is the intention to do what the Church intends to be done. Mr. Wijngaards’ assertions of peripheral ordination of women deacons, even were they true, would in fact merely prove that the Great Church of Nicaea as a whole did not ordain women deacons. The Church cannot be held to account for breakaway activities of which she herself disapproves. Women ‘ordained” by Montanist Christians in the third century were repudiated by the Catholic Church because it has never been her intention to go beyond what Christ himself did.

Despite laying on of hands and calling down the Spirit, those women and men ordained in the Anglican tradition today are not accepted either because, in addition to the rupture in apostolic succession with Elizabeth I’s appointment of the unordained layman Matthew Parker to Canterbury, candidates are not explicitly conferred with the pre-Reformation priesthood but with a novel office previously uninherited and unintended by the Church.

There were indeed deaconessesin the early Church. These, however, were not ordained in the modern sense of the word any more than were their contemporaries in the “order” of widows. Nor is a deaconess the counterpart of a deacon any more than an abbess is of an abbot (although perhaps the fact that abbesses carried croziers and gave blessings will convince Mr. Wijngaards that they were bishops). Deaconesses were lay helpers, no doubt formally instituted and blessed, but not members of the clergy. Their existence testifies to the richness and continuity of the Church throughout the ages for deaconesses are still around today; we now call them extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. Yours, etc.,

Rev DAVID O’HANLON CC, Parochial House,

Kentstown, Co Meath.


(Irish Times, Nov. 16th.)

Sir, – Rev David O’Hanlon’s autocratatic pronouncements on the subject of women’s ordination (November 16th), oozing as they invariably are with paternalistic and pedantic superiority and condescension, are invaluable to those of us who favour the admission of women to a renewed ministry.

One might say of the anti-women lobby that with defenders like him, they hardly need opponents.

Despite his pompous protestations the subject obviously remains an open one — or, to borrow! a phrase from another context: “They haven’t gone away, you know!” – Yours, etc.,


Abbey Park, Baldoyle, Dublin 13

Sir, – Like John Wijngaards (November 3rd), I am very conscious of the ignorance about women deacons that prevails in ecclesiastical circles. I am impressed by his statements about documentation concerning the ordination of women deacons in the Church of the East, from the fourth to the eighth centuries, but his letter leaves me with a number of questions. Since the clear teaching about seven sacraments didn’t settle down until the 12th century and later, is it somewhat anachronistic to say that the women who were ordained deacons received the sacrament of Orders?

How apt is it to apply to their ordination the language of matter and form which took shape during and after the years of medieval prejudice against women? How does their ordination connect with the scheme of minor and major orders which was commonplace up to the Second Vatican Council and has now been abandoned? How does it relate with the fact that it took the Church so long a time to teach with full clarity that men deacons receive the sacrament of Holy Orders?

We have been told that the Vatican has commissioned a study of women and the diaconate. I look forward to its findings and to the dialogue that will follow. – Yours,etc.,

Rev. THOMAS LANE, CM, The Presbytery,

Knock, Co Mayo.


(Irish Times, Nov. 17th.)

Sir,- Father David O’Hanlon (November 13th.) rightly points out that the intention of the ordaining bishop is crucial. The intention of ordaining women as real deacons, however, was clearly expressed in the invocation of the holy Spirit which was the ordaining prayer” that accompanied the imposition of hands.

The ancient ritual for ordaining women deacons contained two prayers, both spoken over the ordinand while the bishop imposed hands. The first was:

“Holy and Omnipotent Lord, through the birth of your Only Son our God from a Virgin according to the flesh you have sanctified the female sex. You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maidservant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate, and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit. Preserve her so that she may always perform her ministry (leitourgia) with orthodox faith and irreproachable conduct, according to what is pleasing to you.

The second ordaining prayer was: “Lord, Master, you do not reject women who dedicate themselves to you and who are willing, in a becoming way, to serve your Holy House, but admit them to the order of your ministers. Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maidservant, who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfil in her the grace of the ministry of the diaconate, as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate, whom you had called to the work of the ministry.”

These prayers of ordination are identical, apart from slight changes referring to gender, to the ordination prayers for male deacons. Full ordination texts for male and female deacons as used during the first nine centuries are printed out side by side in, where also more scientific background is provided.

Father O’Hanlon clearly relies on the remarks of some ill informed medieval scholars who believed that the ordination of women deacons was purely a blessing. The evidence from the first nine centuries proves unmistakably that the true sacrament of ordination, involving the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the imposition of hands as defined by the Council of Trent, was given to women.

Father O’Hanlon also does not have the facts right about church councils. The first Council of Nicaea (325 AD) did not disregard women deacons. It merely stated that women deacons who came over from the sect of the Paulinists were not recognised in the Catholic Church as deacons, as is clear from the context. It applied the same restriction also, to Paulinists in other ecclesiastical offices. .

The, Council of Chaleedon (451 AD) declared: “A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under 40 years of age, and then only after a searching examination.

The age limit for male deacons was 25. The ecumenical Council of Constantinople (692 AD) reaffirmed the age limits: “Let the canon of our holy God-bearing Fathers be confirmed in this particular also; that a presbyter be not ordained before he is 30 years of age, even if he be a very worthy man, but let him be kept back. For our Lord Jesus Christ was baptised and began to teach when he was 30. In like manner let no deacon be ordained before he is 25, nor a deaconess before she is 40.”

If women deacons did not receive Holy Orders during the first nine centuries of the Church, then neither did male deacons, priests or bishops. Do we serve the Church better by denying the facts? – Yours, etc.,



Hertfordshire, England.

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