Catholic women deacons by 2020

detail of religious icon

Pope Francis now settles into his first full week as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. There is one long-lived, self-inflicted nuisance that he and the Church can and should begin to fix starting this very week. “Begin to fix,” because the remedy is radical, and ought not to be confused with any half-way measure that Francis could implement this afternoon with a pen stroke. Ironically, if and when the change is implemented, many will see it as a half-way measure anyway. They will be wrong.

The Roman Catholic Church should ordain women as permanent deacons by the end of this decade, beginning during Francis’ pontificate. That way, one leader can oversee the reform, if the groundwork begins now. Here’s why women should be ordained as deacons without further avoidable delay.

What is a deacon?

The church ordains three degrees of sacramentally dedicated official: bishops, deacons, and priests. “Priest” means what it does throughout comparative religion: someone who presides at sacrificial rituals. In the Catholic case, those rituals are the church’s sacraments, except (sometimes) for baptism and matrimony. “Bishop” is a kind of priest, to whom is reserved the consecration of other bishops and the sacraments of ordaining and confirmation. As a practical matter, the ultimate temporal executive power of the church currently resides in these two degrees. Pope Francis is a bishop and a priest.

That leaves everything else the church does, except for the five sacraments reserved to those degrees, and the administrative duties discharged by each of them. A deacon is someone who has accepted a lifelong commitment to attend to the everything else, and who has received a sacrament, Holy Orders, taught by the Church to confer on him both sanctifying and actual grace as supernatural assistance in his work.

If specific lists of duties are needed, then you can consult the sourcebook for this topic, which is available for download on the Unlinks page of this blog. Pope Paul VI’s 1967 instruction Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, presents a nicely drafted bureaucratic list of 11 items (Chapter V, paragraph 21, on page 4 of the sourcebook). The kicker is item number 9, “To carry out, in the name of the hierarchy, the duties of charity and of administration as well as works of social assistance.” In other words, everything the church does, other than what is reserved to the other two ordained degrees.

Apart from predictable liturgical functions, deacons might be called upon to do just about anything, from directing church choirs to investigating complaints of sexual abuse by clergy (as the diocese of Portland, Maine has until recently assigned a deacon to handle, a married man who retired from law enforcement). During the Middle Ages, when the church ran the universities, the teachers and administrators were apt to be deacons.

One kind of modern deacon is a man who is studying to be a priest, for whom his service as a deacon is a temporary condition, a step closer to becoming a priest, which is his actual lifelong commitment. Throughout the remainder of this posting, whenever the word deacon is used, we mean a “permanent deacon,” someone who will die in orders as a deacon. The permanent diaconate was part of the early Church, and was revived in the 1960’s after the Second Vatican Council, according to their proceedings as enacted by Paul VI, and as modified by subsequent Popes.

“Deaconesses” there can be tomorrow; women deacons will take longer

The modern restoration of the permanent diaconate coincides with an increase in lay ministry within the church, also in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Lay people, including women, can already do, when the need arises, more or less whatever a deacon can do. (See the discussion and link to the 1997 “Instruction on certain questions…” on page 7 of the sourcebook). Moreover, there already is a familiar category of religious women, nuns, whose commitment has the lifelong and vocational quality that also distinguishes the deacon from the reliable and helpful lay person.

So it is that a new category of religious women could be created instantly, with the title of “deaconess.” This, too, might be sold as a restoration of women’s roles in the early church. Administratively, it could consist of a relaxation of the usual celibacy of nuns, to allow married women to serve, and a provision that the newly minted deaconesses can be routinely attached to dioceses rather than to religious orders.

The formation of deaconesses might eventually be the same training classes as male deacons now take. The need for that training is one reason why any expansion of the real diaconate would take at least a few years to accomplish. But for a Diaconate Lite? The ranks could be populated instantly from the existing corps of experienced and educated nuns and perhaps the wives of current deacons.

Something along these lines was suggested last month by Cardinal Walter Kasper,

Kasper spoke of a “deaconess” role that would be different from the classic deacon but could include pastoral, charitable, catechetical and special liturgical functions. The deaconess would not be designated through the sacrament of orders, but by a blessing.

Missing from Kasper’s proposal is the sacrament of Orders, the one and only sacrament which no woman can now receive. So, that is not the proposal that is being made here. The church teaches that deacons who are men benefit in the performance of their duties from the help of a sacrament. The proposal is that women receive that same assistance, that they become deacons who are women, not something other than deacons with a similar-sounding name and the same workload.

That this, and not some sanitized, blessed but unsacramental estate was the true heritage of women in the earliest church is discussed in the sourcebook.

Canon 1024

The need for training is not the only thing that puts a few years, at least, between Pope Francis’ election and the first modern ordination of a woman as deacon. Canon law would need to be changed, in particular, canon 1024, “A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.”

Whether that change is possible comes down mainly to a finding of whether the canon reflects a rule, which the church can change, or a teaching about the will of God, which the church cannot change. The controversy turns on whether Jesus, in choosing only men to partake of the Last Supper, intended that only men should ever officiate at the rite.

The finer points of this, and the closely related “iconic argument” (that for all the reserved sacraments, ritual demands a priest who resembles Jesus, and does so more than a woman would because of the shared chaste possession of one anatomical feature), exceed a general-interest blog posting. The larger picture, however, is that there has been movement in recent years both to distinguish the diaconate from the other two ordained degrees with respect to the “iconic” issue, see the sourcebook, and also to reserve for priests and bishops the “infallible teaching” status of the male-only practice, see for example, John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, available at

Expert opinion divides on whether the canon can be changed, and even if it can, whether it will be. One canonist’s opinion, from an adverse perspective, is available at

More receptive opinion about this, and discussion of many other issues related to the modern diaconate, can be found at this deacon’s blog,

A closing note about an uncertain deacon, Francis of Assisi

How nice it would be for the timeliness of this post if we could say for certain that the Saint Francis for whom the new Pope is named was a deacon. Many say he was. Alas, that is altogether unclear.

One of the layman Francis’ goals in meeting with Pope Innocent III in 1210 was to secure a lawful status for his public preaching, which was a highly regulated activity in that time. Francis did. The Pope approved the rules for Francis’ order, and Francis and his companions received tonsures, a removal of the hair on the crown of their heads, a recognized traditional mark of religious dedication.

At this point in telling the story, many sources will add “… and Francis was later ordained a deacon.” The basis for this statement appears to be an inference from two facts. Francis never sought to be ordained a priest, and he is depicted in a famous story about him, the Christmas creche sermon, exercising the prerogatives associated with an ordained man: reading the Gospel and preaching the sermon at a mass. That would suggest that he “must have” become a deacon at some point in his career.

Maybe so, but much of what inspires popular devotion to Francis is that he was no stickler for rules. He really might have been ordained a deacon, but there seems to be no direct report of that. Under the circumstances, it’s best to note his ordination as a possibility, but not as an established fact.


Photo credit: Detail of a medieval icon of Saint Stephen, one of the original Jerusalem deacons, preacher and martyr. The source image came from


1 Comment

Filed under Religious beliefs of just folk

One response to “Catholic women deacons by 2020

  1. Read first two paragraphs only. In absolute agreement.

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