Sunday, September 23, 2012


I have no hard-and-set opinion on this question, and naturally tend to err on the side of caution. However, I do have a few thoughts that I'll air here. 

The first thing I'll point out is that whether deaconesses are the Sacrament of Holy Orders or just a sacramental comparable, perhaps, to minor orders or something like that…is really an abstract debate. 

Given that deacons have no “new” sacramental powers that can't also be delegated to the laity (baptisms and witnessing marriage)…this question will never affect the validity of any Sacraments, so it is of no practical effect. 

So someone claiming it will never happen is, in some sense, making a completely non-falsifiable declaration, because it is merely equivalent to saying “No woman will ever receive the indelible character of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in any of its three grades” which is an invisible reality. 

It doesn’t mean, however, that a ceremony (possibly even involving a laying on of hands) won't ever be approved (with similar language to a deacon’s ordination) to create something called a “deaconess” again. It just means that the speaker is of the opinion that this would be a sacramental rather than the Sacrament of Holy Orders. 

But, as the Catholic Encyclopedia article on sacramentals says, they “are named sacramentals because of the resemblance between their rites and those of the sacraments properly so-called.” 

So “it will never happen” is a non-falsifiable claim. Because even if something “looking like” an ordination of deaconesses occurred, supporters of this opinion could just say, “Yes, but that’s just a sacramental resembling Holy Orders, like the minor orders, but not the Sacrament proper; just as it also was in the early church.” 

Don’t expect most lay people, however, (nor the Eastern churches) to grant much importance to this theoretical theo-ontological distinction, however! Especially when there wouldn’t have to be any difference practically speaking.

This, of course, could lead to a slippery slope (pushing for priestesses, etc) that could invalidate Sacraments. This is why I tend to think, whether they are the Sacrament or merely a sacramental, any sort of restored deaconesses should likely be limited to monasteries of cloistered nuns.

As for the theoretical question itself, I think the essential unity of the three grades of Holy Orders is the strongest argument against deaconesses being the Sacrament proper. However, I had a thought the other day that it might be possible to argue that the exclusion of females from the higher two grades of Orders might be "accidental" to the essence of the Sacrament itself. Which is to say, it could be argued that the essential unity between the three grades of Orders is simple the character. On the other hand, the fact that priests can celebrate Mass and absolve and anoint and confirm and that bishops can ordain and, also, have the magisterial something that is different between the three grades (since deacons can't do any of that, and bishops have roles simple presbyters don't) and therefore can't be called part of their essential unity. 

Therefore, though we know that females are incompatible with the higher two grades for sure, the question of whether they are incompatible with the lowest grade depends on why they are incompatible with the higher grades. If it is because the female sex is incompatible with the essential character itself, then the unity of the Sacrament would exclude them from the diaconate. If, however, what excludes them is simply that they are incompatible with the adjunct features of Sacramental powers, especially of acting in persona Christi at the eucharistic consecration...then female deacons would not necessarily threaten the essential unity of the Sacrament anymore than the fact that priests can celebrate Mass even though deacons can't, or that bishops can ordain even though the lower two grades can't. Under such an argument, women would not be considered ontologically incompatible with Holy Orders in itself (as souls are not male and female) but nevertheless would be necessarily invalid recipients of the higher two grades for reasons of something (acting in persona Christi) that is necessarily and intrinsically adjunct to those grades of the character.

Either way, I think the very fact that the topic is being discussed so much lately is interesting and means something is afoot. Those pushing for women priests have been vocal for decades, but do seem pretty much marginalized at this point, at least in terms of influence over the institutional Church. But I think it is indicative of some sort of "moment" in the Church that this more moderate proposal is now being floated, and that even conservatives like Ed Peters are admitting that "Ordinatio says nothing, however [...] about ordaining women to diaconate nor, strictly speaking, does it address (at least not definitively) ontological questions about female ordination. In that regard, discussion may continue" even while personally being disinclined to the idea.

What will come of this moment remains to be seen. Perhaps a firm assertion that it is impossible. Perhaps a declaration that it is. Or perhaps a restoration in cloisters of deaconesses, with a corresponding declaration that "Whether this is a Sacrament or a sacramental is a matter for speculative theology, as it has no practical effect either way." Or perhaps just greater administrative roles for women even while reserving Sacramental or liturgical roles to males. Who knows.


Robert said...

I know from previous post you are wary about deaconesses for others than cloistered nuns. Is this just a practical consideration, simply because bishops, priests, and laity screwed VII so bad something like deaconesses would be even worse? Or is there something else that would limit deaconesses from ministering in more public setting?

A Sinner said...

Well, besides a slippery slope fear, I tend to err on the side of tradition, and tend to think Paul's "women should not speak over a man" should mean something. Mainly that women shouldn't take on a role when any men other than a priest is present.

You could introduce deaconesses to the diocesan church slowly, but it would still have to be done in a "traditional" manner. For example, start with deaconesses who are consecrated virgins attached to the Cathedral. Or who are the head of a chapter of canonesses at a chapter church.

Either way, I wouldn't have them reading the Gospel or holding the chalice or giving homilies outside cloistered monasteries. They'd exist, in the outside world, to minister to women, be the wives of married clerics, engage in charitable works, be housekeepers for the celibate clergy, etc etc

jordan/sortacatholic said...

I am pro-women deacons, but I don't think that now is the right time to consider this development. The ordination of married men to the secular priesthood as well as the abolition of the seminary system is far more important. The deplorable and toxic psychosexual and emotional health of the celibate clergy caste is of most urgent attention.

A Sinner, you're a medievalist. Maybe you could answer this question. How is the consecration of an abbess different than the consecration of a bishop? I realize that the former is a sacramental and the latter a sacrament. Still, a medieval abbess, like an abbot, exercised some episcopal prerogatives. Abbesses also wore mitres, carried croziers, and (in some orders) even wore sacerdotal vestments such as a maniple. I understand that a technical distinction exists. Still, abbesses in medieval western Europe exercised notable ecclesiastical and temporal power.

A Sinner said...

You might ask the same question about the blessing of Abbots in general who are not bishops, and yet receive pontificals.

It's an interesting development in both cases, male and female.

Richard M. Sawicki said...

In my (perhaps ignorant) opinion...

I think the ontological nature of the three grades of Holy Orders is the essential jumping off point for this whole debate.

Bishops are ordained to the Apostolic Office, the nature of which requires both masculinity and celibacy.

Presbyters are ordained to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar as an "alter Christus", the nature of which requires masculinity, (although not necessarily celibacy - that being a disciplinary consideration according to one's ritual church).

Deacons are ordained to the offices of servant and minister, neither of which, to my perhaps deficient knowledge, requires either masculinity or celibacy.

A Permanent Deacon is not on the road to sacerdotal ordination, so some (again...some) impediments to serving as a priest are irrelevant to the diaconal question.

As a Catholic, I submit to whatever the Magisterium hands down. However, until that same Magisterium definitively declares that DIACONAL ordination is closed to women (based on all necessary recourse to Sacred Tradition, Sacramental Theology, etc.,) and that all Catholics are duty bound to assent to that Magisterial pronouncement, I would say that the issue is far from a cut and dried one.

Gaudete in Domino Semper!

Anonymous said...

Here is an interview with the new head of the CDF Archbishop Muller on the question of deaconesses:

Here are two of the questions asked and his answers to them:

Q: Is it possible to separate the diaconate of women from the priesthood of women?

Müller: No — because of the unity of the sacrament of orders, which has been underlined in the deliberations of the Theological Commission; it cannot be measured with a different yardstick. Then it would be a real discrimination of woman if she is considered as apt for the diaconate, but not for the presbyterate or episcopacy.

The unity of the sacrament would be torn at its root if, the diaconate as ministry of service, was opposed to the presbyterate as ministry of government, and from this would be deduced that woman, as opposed to man, has a greater affinity to serve and because of this would be apt for the diaconate but not for the presbyterate.

However, the apostolic ministry all together is a service in the three degrees in which it is exercised.

The Church does not ordain women, not because they are lacking some spiritual gift or natural talent, but because — as in the sacrament of marriage — the sexual difference and of the relation between man and woman contains in itself a symbolism that presents and represents in itself a prior condition to express the salvific dimension of the relation of Christ and the Church.

If the deacon, with the bishop and presbyter, starting from the radical unity of the three degrees of the orders, acts from Christ, head and Spouse of the Church, in favor of the Church, it is obvious that only a man can represent this relation of Christ with the Church.

And in reverse, it is equally obvious that God could only take his human nature from a woman and, because of this, womankind has in the order of grace — because of the internal reference of nature and grace — an unmistakable, fundamental, and in no way merely accidental importance.

Q: Are there binding doctrinal declarations regarding the question of the feminine diaconate?

Müller: The liturgical and theological tradition of the Church uses unanimous language. It is a binding and irreversible teaching of the Church on this matter, which is guaranteed by the ordinary and general magisterium of the Church, but which can be confirmed again with greater authority if the doctrinal tradition of the Church continues to be presented in an adulterated manner, for the purpose of forcing the evolution of a specific direction.

I am amazed at the lack of historical knowledge of some, and the absence of the meaning of faith; if it wasn´t like this, they would know that it has never been possible and never will be to place the Church, precisely, in the central ambit of her doctrine and liturgy, in contradiction with sacred Scripture and her own Tradition.


A Sinner said...

"Bishops are ordained to the Apostolic Office, the nature of which requires both masculinity and celibacy."

Hm. I dunno. Even Paul speaks of bishops having a wife. I wouldn't ever lift the tradition of drawing bishops only from the celibate clergy, but it wouldn't seem to be required for sacramental validity in the same way as the male sex.

"Here is an interview with the new head of the CDF Archbishop Muller on the question of deaconesses"

Well, we all know what the current conservatives in the Church think. Yet they have, deliberately even, not made a final definitive statement here.

"The unity of the sacrament would be torn at its root if, the diaconate as ministry of service, was opposed to the presbyterate as ministry of government, and from this would be deduced that woman, as opposed to man, has a greater affinity to serve and because of this would be apt for the diaconate but not for the presbyterate."

That's not a great argument. It just means that she has less of an affinity to say "This is my body" according to a nuptial symbolism whereby the priests (but not deacons) act in persona christi at Mass.

If the differential in sacramental powers does not tear at the unity, I'm not sure why sex differences would.

"If the deacon, with the bishop and presbyter, starting from the radical unity of the three degrees of the orders, acts from Christ, head and Spouse of the Church, in favor of the Church, it is obvious that only a man can represent this relation of Christ with the Church."

This is true if that is the nature of the deacon's service. If it is specifically nuptial. But then, deacon's DON'T say "This is my body...given for you" like priests.

I think we need to wait for a specific determination that the service of the Deacon in the Sacrament of Holy Orders is specifically nuptial.

Even is so, however, the argument is rather silly because you could have a sacramental called "Deaconess" (like they did in the past and still do in the east) that could look EXACTLY (externally) what it would look like IF it WERE a Sacrament proper, just without the invisible indelible character postulated.

As for "ordinary magisterium"...Ed Peters isn't under this impression, and neither was Ratzinger! If I remember correctly, some document that came out before he became Pope concluded that the female diaconate was "unlikely" and perhaps rash, but also left the door open a tiny bit.

In the face of questioning, though, they're obviously closing ranks.

Again, I have no firm conclusion either way, and wouldn't be surprised to see some "Christ the Bridegroom" argument related to all three grades of orders and their unity exclude it. But I'm not closing my mind totally until they tell me to.

Anonymous said...

(I don't think blogger accepted my response, so I apologize if I created a duplicate)

I think I understand what you mean when you say, "If the differential in sacramental powers does not tear at the unity, I'm not sure why sex differences would."

Still, some of the responsibilities of ordained deacons appear suitable only for men. Specifically, they at times read the Gospel and preach upon it. Yet St. Paul writes, "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence" (1 Timothy 2:12).

Do you think it is possible to piece together an argument for the unity of Holy Orders (episcopate, presbyterate, diaconate) based on the faculty of preaching the gospel, rather than that of saying Mass (which the diaconate clearly does not do)?


A Sinner said...

For one, I'm not sure who says/sings the Gospel or preaches, liturgically, is a matter of Revelation. There is no "validity" at stake. Still, one might argue that this is intrinsically sinful (though is the inclusion of a Gospel reading in liturgy actually a matter of Public Revelation??)

As for Paul saying women should not raise their voices over men in church...I sympathize (though it raises some SERIOUS questions about female readers in the Novus Ordo!)

However, as I think I pointed out earlier: look at, say, the context of a cloistered monastery of nuns.

This is where I would imagine deaconesses being restored, if anywhere (whether they are a Sacrament or merely a sacramental). If there is no male present other than the priest (who is already "over" the nuns) it seems like Paul's statement wouldn't be a problem. In contexts where it is all females present or, at least, where there are no males present whom a female speaker could be seen as "outranking" doesn't seem as much of an issue (and, indeed, we know how much power mitred Abbesses had in the Middle Ages, etc!)

There is, of course, the example of Carthusian nuns, for example:

"he Carthusian nuns have retained the privilege of the consecration of virgins, which they have inherited from the nuns of Prébayon. The consecration, which is given four years after the vows are taken, can only be conferred by the diocesan. The rite differs but slightly from that given in the Pontifical. The nun is invested with a crown, ring, stole and maniple, the last being worn on the right arm. These ornaments the nun only wears again on the day of her monastic jubilee, and after her death on her bier. It is a consecrated nun who sings the Epistle at the conventual Mass, though without wearing the maniple. At Matins, if no priest be present, a nun assumes the stole and reads the Gospel."

Nominally Catholic said...

We should ordain elephants to ministerial roles in church -- they are so large, gentle, and peaceful and already mostly celibate.