When it was announced that the Vatican would open a commission into the question of women deacons, my initial response was unenthusiastic.
agree with Dawn Eden Goldstein’s critique of the problematic
motivations behind the push when she wrote in the New York Times
that some believe “the clerical office means power rather than
As a woman, I feel as disenfranchised by a male priesthood and
holy orders as men are by being unable to bear children. That is to
say, both sexes hold crucial roles in the most important work of
bringing souls to Christ, and we fulfill these roles to know, love and
serve God — not to wield influence.
Still, I was interested to read of the argument from the existence of
deaconesses in the early Church. I admit I was unaware of this
historical position, and given the wildly different interpretations of
its significance I wanted to know more.
New Advent provides a short but
chewy article on deaconesses here.
While the entire article is interesting, I will note three significant
First, deaconesses were women consecrated to serve the needs of
their fellow women in areas inappropriate to men.
Second, they were not
exclusively virgins but also widows, so we know some had experience as
mothers and wives. Third, deaconesses did hold a formal position
recognized by the Church, although distinct from Holy Orders. After
learning more about the unique function of deaconesses, I found that the
question of whether women can or should fulfill roles already held by
men gave way to the more interesting question of whether there is a need
currently unmet in the Church that would be best fulfilled by women. I
believe the answer is certainly yes.
In the early Church, the duties of deaconesses were particularly
focused on service to other women. The most commonly cited case is the
anointing of female catechumens in an age of nude baptism.
Butler examines the question in some detail in her 2015 essay “Women as
Deaconesses,” for the Josephinium Diaconal Review. Sister Butler notes
the clear distinction between the diaconal grade of Holy Orders which
can be held only by men, and the separate order and mission held by
women. While of a different kind, she provides several examples that
show deaconesses were still carrying out important and varied work.
“Extended the church’s ministry to sick and homebound women and
prepared their bodies for burial when they died. She assisted with the
catechetical instruction of women catechumens and their subsequent
formation in the Christian life, and mediated between the women and the
bishop.” [Women as Deaconesses]
In our day and age, few areas of conflict between the Church and the
World are more obvious than women’s issues. The burden of the
challenging demands of Catholic morality fall squarely on the shoulders
of the Church’s female members, who must stand strong in the face of a
world that does not share this morality. Here again women could serve
women in a particular way most suitably carried out by members of the
Many Catholic women face ignorance, ridicule, and even chastisement
from their acquaintances and doctors, because of their use of Natural
Family Planning. Women must often educate themselves with little outside
aid on the practical applications of NFP even in the simplest of
circumstances. Yet beyond the practical, the prudential application of
NFP presents another challenge.
The Church requires just cause for
avoiding pregnancy, but determining the gravity of myriad personal
situations is daunting. NFP is only one area where women face big
decisions without much help. The treatments for many significant women’s
health issues may involve hysterectomy, or other procedures that render
one infertile. These can be entirely licit, however, decision-making
about such treatments is often far from black and white.
Infertility is another area where medical concerns intersect with
moral ones, and where intimate information must be exchanged to receive
thorough advice. In all these situations, doctors may not understand the
moral implications, so women must take full responsibility for
informing themselves. Discussing such intimate and specifically female
matters with a priest can be a very awkward undertaking for both
Besides the aforementioned issues, I have received support in the
postpartum months or comfort following miscarriage from faithful and
generous Catholic women. Other women care for the sick and infirm whose
bodily needs are best met by a member of the same sex.
Sadly, not every
woman is so blessed in their acquaintances. If the deaconess were a
recognized role at the local parish, women would know that here was a
woman ready and willing to come through for them in these times of need.
Imagine if every parish had a holy, wise woman, a wife and mother
with personal experience of the mental and physical trials of marriage
and motherhood, whom women could approach for counsel on these thorny
issues. This woman, as a deaconess, would hold a formal position within
the life of the local church. During formation, she would be educated
in moral theology and magisterial teaching on family life as well as in
practical resources for a variety of women’s concerns.
Of course, the deaconess would need to serve as a sort of physician’s
assistant operating under the authority of a pastor. She would by no
means replace the spiritual care that only a priest can give.
could listen thoughtfully and help women sort through and organize their
thoughts, direct them to useful programs or offer counsel, and direct
them to confession and the sacraments.
St. John Paul II’s spoke
throughout his pontificate, including in his letter to women,
on the unique gifts of femininity, like receptivity, sensitivity and
maternity. These particular affinities make discussion among women of
intimate matters much easier. A maternal figure does not compete with or
devalue the paternal role served by our priests and deacons.
It is the
attempt to place women in a masculine role that is the great problem
with many arguments for women deacons. As in the family, male and female
roles in the Church can be complementary.
Deaconesses of old fulfilled a role required by the times in which
they lived. Our times too present unique challenges to female Catholics.
Perhaps this period in our history requires that women serve women in a
particular and official way within the Church.
The exciting news is
that, whether deaconesses return or not, women don’t need to wait to
begin fulfilling these needs. All over the country and indeed the world
women are teaching NFP, reforming marriage prep, founding crisis
pregnancy centers, developing support programs for postpartum
depression, and reaching out to their friends and family to provide
loving support in the difficult work of being a Catholic woman in a
Still, a dedicated order of women educated, blessed, and
spiritually nourished by the Church and serving in parishes across the
world would be a great gift and service to all their sex.