Conclusions Regarding the Female Diaconate
by Peter Hünermann

The problem whether or not at this time to introduce the female diaconate
into the Church involves a series of separate questions: (1) Dogmatically
speaking, is it possible to confer this order on women? The
response to this question will take Scripture and tradition as its point of
departure. (2) Can the factors which led to the blossoming and demise of
the female diaconate be brought into relief? From this there might ensue
points which are important for a fruitful revival of this female office in
the Church. (3) Assuming its feasibility in light of dogma, should the
reasons for such a reanimation be examined? (4) Should—with an eye to
the second question—something be said about what should determine
the functions of this diaconate and what relationship the holder of this
office would have today to other ministers? These two points are vital
to the healthy development of such an office.

The gospels and other books of the New Testament bear witness to
the immense and irreplaceable role women played in the growth of the
early Church. In the context of a still relatively fluid structure, one where
the distribution of offices and services was not yet fixed, they functioned:
as prophetesses, their charisma being as much one of service and just
as prominent and vigorous as the apostleship and the office of teachers
and evangelists; as proselytes who in the various cities ranked with the
“notables” of the young community and thus took part in its direction;
and as those who undertook missionary and charitable activities. It may
well be said that without this committed female collaboration and its
full recognition by the Church, the spread of Christianity would have
been unthinkable.
It is in the context of such activity on the part of women in the early
Church that Romans 16:1 mentions Phoebe, whose missionary and
charitable work is indicated by the title “deaconess of the church at
Cenchreae.” Because there was still no specific use of the words diakonein
and diakonos in reference to ministry and the office of service in the
Church, it would be false to call this a testimony to the existence of the
female diaconate as a specific office. The formation of official structures
was a whole process still in embryo.
The situation reflected in the pastoral epistles is of considerable
interest. Modern exegetes unanimously hold that these writings are
post-Pauline in character and have the double purpose of showing that
apostolicity was inherent in the structure of the early catholic Church
and of making the retention of this structure a matter of obligation. On
the one hand, the letters speak of an ingrained institution, the order of
widows, with its conditions of admission and formulary of duties, etc.
On the other, they give a directive for women at 1 Timothy 3:11, right
in the middle of a description of the office of diaconate. Is it a question
here of the deacons’ wives or of deaconesses? The reasons for supposing
the former are judged by present-day exegetes to be of questionable
validity. More attractive, they say, is the latter view. The suspicion that
the directive is a later interpolation cannot be adequately supported.
Ultimately stemming from a certain embarrassment in the face of the
text, it is nowadays disregarded by almost all exegetes.
Merely on the basis of the evidence from the New Testament, it is
impossible unambiguously to say whether or not dogma leaves room
for the office of deaconess. A text from Origen, however, seems to me to
be important for an elucidation of all sides of the question. In his commentary
on the Epistle to the Romans he writes of 16:1f.:
This passage shows with apostolic authority that women too were
designated for the Church’s ministry. Paul is commending and greatly
praising Phoebe, who had been installed in this office in the Church
at Cenchreae. So this passage shows two things: first, as we have said,
that there were female ministers, and secondly, that it was expected that
those who had been of so much help and by their good services had
gone so far as to merit apostolic praise would be taken into the ministry.5
Here “ministry” and “female ministers’’ translate respectively the Latin
text’s ministerium and feminas ministras. Essential to understanding this
text is the observation that in Origen’s time there were no deaconesses
in his ecclesiastical province. Also, Origen seems to understand
Romans 16:1 in terms of the by then quite institutionalized diaconate familiar to
him. The least that follows, then, is that he was not opposed on principle
to admitting women to the diaconate; and quite likely he knew from
tradition that women had been deaconesses.

In referring to “one of” the two epistles to Timothy—which one is not
clear—Clement of Alexandria had already written:
The women whom . . . the apostles . . . took around with them were
not wives but, as befitted the apostles’ dedication to an undistracted
preaching ministry, sisters, fellow ministers to the women who kept
house. So the Lord’s teaching made its way into the women’s quarters
too, and in a manner above reproach, for we know what the honorable
Paul in one of his letters to Timothy prescribed regarding female

One may well conclude from both texts that for these two eminent
and discerning theologians, pertinent passages from the New Testament,
viewed in conjunction with its over-all theology of the Church
and church offices, clearly granted the possibility of admitting women
to the office of deaconess.

The witness of Pliny the Younger, from a letter (111–113) dispatched
to Trajan from northwest Asia Minor, is a neat chip in this entire mosaic
of evidence. The writer had “judged it . . . necessary to extract the real
truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were
styled deaconesses.”

As for tradition, the earliest text that gives formal and unequivocal
evidence of the existence of the office of deaconess is the Didascalia, the
Syrian document dating from the first decades of the third century.
Pertinent passages show what place the office of deaconess had amid
the other ministerial offices and outline its duties in detail. So this ecclesiastical
code presupposed an established communal practice, the
appointing of deaconesses, which, though perhaps not yet established
among all those addressed by the document, the bishops were being
exhorted to continue.

Exactly as the deacons, the deaconesses were chosen and ordained
by the bishop. Their ministry was of both a liturgical and a nonliturgical
nature. In the first area, they were mainly expected to assist at baptisms of
women and perform the accompanying anointings. In the other, calling
on women, sick ones in particular, for whom they performed nursing
duties, and giving religious instructions and guidance to newly baptized
women made up their responsibilities.

The rapid expansion of the female diaconate in the Eastern churches
brought a number of other responsibilities to the office and gave it further
definition. In the area of liturgy, deaconesses in certain churches were
granted the right to distribute Communion from the rail to women and
children. As to the rest, they occasionally administered the Anointing of
the Sick to women, were responsible for the order and cleanliness of the
sanctuary, and functioned, in church and outside of it, as portresses, the
community’s guardians as it were of women and children. They were
supposed to take an interest in all women and children, healthy or ill.
The exact meaning of the Council of Nicaea’s non admission (canon
19) of the ordination of deaconesses through the laying on of hands is
disputed. Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon, however, does speak
of such an ordination through the laying on of hands. The ordination
formulas, the ceremonies (the laying on of hands), the handing over of
the stole, etc., all of which had been retained, show that here it is a matter
of ordination regarded as on a par with the ordination of a deacon, i.e.,
an ordination in the strictest sense, not something like a blessing.10 The
formally sacramental character of this ordination cannot be questioned.
In fixing an apportionment of clerics into various types, the Nouvellae
Justiniani give grounds more or less to infer that deaconesses were part
of the clergy as such.

We decree that no more than sixty priests, one hundred male and forty
female deacons, ninety subdeacons, one hundred ten lectors, and twenty-
five cantors be appointed to the most hallowed high church, so that
the total number of its most reverend clerics be four hundred twenty-
five, plus one hundred of those called porters.

Although, like the deacons, the deaconesses were ordained and fully
integrated into the liturgical and pastoral ministry and the performance
of charitable works, two principles always applied in the various Eastern
churches: the deaconesses were not allowed to function at the altar,
especially during the consecration of the Eucharist; and they were
given no assignments ranking them above men. This applied both to the
deaconesses’ cooperation with other clerics, i.e., to specifically clerical
functions, and to their association with the laity.

That the theological justification for the first point was not easy can be
seen in an Egyptian ecclesiastical code from the third century. Through
an imaginary conversation between Peter, John, Mary, and Martha it is
explained that women had not been allowed to take part in Jesus’ celebration
of the Last Supper with the apostles because Mary had laughed
and because “what is weak will be saved by what is strong.”

Theologically unsatisfying as such a response may be, the practice
of the Eastern Church allows at least this to be derived as a general
principle: the one mission of Jesus Christ which is represented structurally
in the many church offices is so many-sided that it prohibits the
conclusion that all ministers who take part in this mission of Christ are
ipso facto partakers of the office of priesthood. This, it seems to me, is
important not only for considering the question of the female diaconate
but also for maintaining the element of independence in the definition
of the male diaconate. In matters regarding the female diaconate, the
Western Church did not follow the same line of development as the
Eastern Church. Nevertheless, a number of women were ordained to
the diaconate in Lower Italy and Gaul. Here the strong influence of the
Eastern churches can be clearly seen. In the context of a study such as
this, it is not necessary to enumerate the individual cases. Rather, it seems
more important to point to two decisive reasons why in the West the
formation of the female diaconate as an institution never occurred. First,
the women in the West were more firmly integrated; so the mission to
them, instructing them, etc., did not require the appointment of women
in any official capacity. Cornelius Nepos had remarked:

What Roman would blush to take his wife to a dinner-party? What
matron does not frequent the front rooms of her dwelling and show
herself in public? But it is very different in Greece; for there a woman
is not admitted to a dinner-party, unless relatives only are present, and
she keeps to the more retired part of the house called “the women’s
apartment,” to which no man has access who is not near of kin.

Second, in the Roman Church the order of widows did not have diaconal
duties the way it did in the Eastern churches; so it could not, as in the
East, simply be lifted from its original setting and then incorporated into
the office of deaconess as the latter initially took shape.

The female diaconate in the Eastern churches gained the greatest
ground during those long periods of peace when the Christian communities
imparted momentum to an intensive, ever-growing missionary ac-

tion and took in multitudes. It was the time before the official recognition
of the Church, the time of a quite energetic expansion. A greater number
of adult baptisms was in evidence; catechumens had to be instructed and
after their baptism receive a still further and deeper introduction to the
faith. The need to meet the various problems led not only to the creation
of the lower clergy but also to the simultaneous entrustment of women
with an important office in the Church.

The moment the churches proceeded to lose their missionary character,
this office began to die out. So the female diaconate continued to
flourish in the large mission churches of the Far East, while in Byzantium
it was already showing signs of torpidity and deterioration. Functional
weakening brought about the weakening of the office itself. Since there
were fewer adult baptisms, the deaconesses’ commission to teach became
more and more restricted; they were increasingly relieved of the
duties of the deacon; and so the stagnation and demise of the office in
the “established” churches came relatively quick.

If anywhere, then precisely in connection with this process of deterioration
it becomes apparent that hand in glove with an office in the
Church go a clear-cut professional image and well-defined, sufficiently
variegated portrait of the capacities of the office.

The discussion of the New Testament evidence and of the data of
tradition makes clear that dogma provides no grounds for misgivings
about ordaining women to the office of deacon. In the Latin Church
the reasons for opposing the ordination of deaconesses were not of any
fundamental nature but derived from conventions of the times. From
this starting point we now pursue the question whether the reasons
justifying a present reanimation of the female diaconate are sufficient.
The following enumeration of them, however, will not go beyond the
brevity of an outline. They are all part of much greater complexities, each
of which has been often enough expounded upon in the recent discussion
of the female office in the Church.

The first thing that must be pointed to is the fundamental transformation
of the position of woman in modern society, a society which is so
closely connected with an economy characterized by the division of labor.
Society’s doffing of that form and cultural guise where the guild and the
peasantry were the dominant features made woman a partner with equal
rights in social and economic life; it opened the doors to equal chances
of advancement to positions of leadership in public life. In a large measure,
working women are involved in two fields intimately associated
with the Church’s pastoral activity, those of education and welfare, and
hold numerous positions of leadership in these areas. In such a situation
the complete exclusion of women from offices in the Church can only be
taken as adherence to a bygone conventionality and as discrimination.

Second, to a large degree paralleling the development of the women’s
professions in society, the collaboration of women within the sphere of
the Catholic Church has grown into something bountiful and specialized.
The main thrusts of the effort are differentiated along the lines of catechetical,
pastoral, social, charitable, and administrative work. A great
many of these women are persons who, in the service of the Church,
direct their lives wholly and entirely to the service of Jesus Christ, often
remain unmarried, and regard their profession as a lifework. The educational
background as well as the personal inner dispositions of many
of them constitute the prerequisites for espousing an official ministry
that makes a claim on one’s entire life. Here the Church has obviously
been endowed through the providence of God with a mine of potential
authentic vocations, one which no one with a church responsibility can
blindly bypass.

Third, like the Church in the third century, the Church today finds itself
in a missionary situation which demands an all-out effort. In the so-called
Christian countries the Church has turned out to be in a minority position.
The Church needs to take new root in society. What Christian faith
bespeaks today, what it can and in fact does mean to people of this age,
can only be made visible through the maximum expenditure of energy.
The requisite impulses for this have come from the Second Vatican Council.
In conformity with the prompting of John XXIII, it was the Council’s
intention to freshen the face of the Church. And part of such a process,
indeed an essential part, is a renewal of that impression of the faith which
the Church’s ministerial offices give. The Church can no more forgo the
official collaboration of women today than it could during its great missionary
drive or during the missionary effort of the third century; their
assistance was simply indispensable. The third-century redistribution of
the numerous ecclesiastical functions entailed the creation of the entire
lower clergy, one marked by the inclusion of an office for women. Likewise
today, the reanimation of such an office in the Church is imperative
for the reorganization and differentiation of the ministry.

The above reasons do not from beginning to end and unambiguously
betoken the office of deaconess. However, considering that in accord with
unbroken tradition in the East and West the episcopal and priestly offices
are reserved for men, considering that ecumenical advances toward
Orthodox Christianity are under way, the only female office thinkable
in the present situation of the Church is the office of deaconess. For it,
there is clearly a precedent in the Church’s history; about it theology has
not the least misgivings.

A single fundamental point, one important for an over-all evaluation
of the matter of the female diaconate, is all that the following reflections
are designed to bring out.

The question regarding the meaning of ordination perhaps arises with
greater trenchancy in connection with the female than with the male
diaconate. Would it not be better to continue with what has been the
practice until now, namely, of entrusting women with the performance
of an abundance of services in the Church? Why ordain them? What
is it supposed to empower them specially to do? Indeed, this question
feeds on something articulated in lay circles, the fear of an augmented
clericalism within the Church. But it is also posed by priests, motivated
by the fear of losing that self-identity perceived in the exclusive right to
administer the sacraments. Both the male and female diaconate make
requisite a thorough consideration of the essence of official ministry in
the Church. Such ministry cannot be defined primarily in terms of the
sacramental powers. It is much better to understand official ministry
with a view to the community and the world, as official repraesentatio of
the mission of Jesus Christ. An office in the Church is a God-given commission,
the power to build up communities and equip them for lives
sustained by the one, universally binding mission of Christ.

New Testament exegesis has shown us anew the mission of Jesus
Christ in all its breadth and comprehensiveness and thus made clear how
necessary it is to take the entire scope of this mission into consideration
insofar as it is represented by the official ministry, in the community, for
the community and for the people of the world. The cultic and sacerdotal
aspect should not be depreciated, but to concentrate on it to such an
extent that the diaconal element is slighted would be an anachronism
running directly counter to our present knowledge of the New Testament.
Seeking its way toward the total person and into all dimensions
of society, the mission of Jesus Christ has a scope which can only be
represented by way of office to the extent that a plurality of relatively
independent offices is envisaged. Naturally, such offices have need of the
constitutional and functional integration guaranteed by the office of the
episcopate. They should, however, be respected for their independence
and not simply be regarded as participating in the “priesthood.” There
are aspects of the mission of Jesus Christ which cannot be brought into
historical effectiveness by the function of the community leader, the presbyter,
but which have been reserved for this purpose to the diaconate.

This basic viewpoint on the matter of Church office provides an important
standard for the entrustment of deacons and deaconesses with
liturgical or sacramental tasks and powers. The liturgy, especially the
Eucharist, is the most concentrated of the expressions of faith and at
the same time a presentation of what the community in the Lord is. The
deacon’s or deaconess’s function there should be defined, then, in terms
of their specific tasks in the life of the community. Bringing the sacrificial
gifts to the altar and distributing Holy Communion, for example, make
visual what day by day, nonsacramentally takes place in the community
through the diaconal ministry. Also, the preaching done by deaconesses
and deacons during services should be the expression of such tasks.

These few hints are meant to be no more than illustrative. They are
enough to show how the desirable introduction of the female diaconate
can be combined with the development and enrichment of the community’s
life in the area of the liturgy and the sacraments.

This is a 1975 article recently reprinted in the latest book by Phyllis Zagano (Women Deacons. Essays with Answers):

“Conclusions Regarding the Female Diaconate,” Theological Studies 36, no.2 (1975): 325–33.