The deaconesses are coming!
If you’ve been following the news, you’ve probably heard that Pope Francis has established a commission to investigate the role of women deacons in the Church. This decision came during a conversation between the pope and the International Union of Superior Generals, a group of women that serve as heads of their particular religious communities.
Since this news broke, there has been a lot of talk among secular and Catholic news sites about the possibility of women becoming deacons in the Church. Pope Francis has simply said that the question about the role of deaconesses in the early Church was worth clarifying. He never said women can become deacons. In fact, the historical precedent found in the Church suggests that women will never be able to become ordained deacons.
The best argument for women deacons can be found in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this letter St. Paul states:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2).
How could the Church possibly deny women the right to be deacons after reading this passage?
Some might point out that the word “deaconess” can also be translated as “servant,” but this still doesn’t answer the question. For a full response, we need to look to the Council of Nicaea.
In 325 the Council of Nicaea addressed this very issue in Canon 19 when the fathers of the council declared, “Deaconesses…since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity.”
From this passage we can see that in the early Church, deaconesses were not considered a part of the clergy, because they had not received an imposition of hands (a sign of ordination into the clergy). So if this is the case, what was the role of deaconesses in the early Church? It is clear from St. Paul’s words to the Romans that the deaconess Phoebe is a great woman who has played an essential role in the development of the early Church and in Paul’s own ministry.
In the early Church, deaconesses had the distinguished duty of baptizing women. This might sound strange, but baptism was typically celebrated by full-body immersion. In other words, people were naked when they were baptized. Obviously, male priests and deacons did not find it suitable to be in the presence of a naked women even in a sacramental context. Placing themselves in that situation would have been a source of temptation and even potential scandal. Therefore, the early Church employed deaconesses to perform this sacramental duty.
So what will come of Pope Francis’ commission to investigate the role of women deacons in the early Church? Who knows. But my guess is that the commission will simply affirm the teaching of the Council of Nicaea from 325, that women can’t become ordained ministers in the Church.