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The diaconate - a ministry for women in the Church

The diaconate - a ministry for women in the Church

by Ida Raming (bibliography)

From Orientierung 62 (1998) pp. 8-11; translated for www.womenpriests.org by Mary Dittrich and republished on the website with permission of the author and the editor of Orientierung (Scheideggstrasse 45, Postfach, CH-8059 Zürich, Switserland. Tel. 01- 2010760; fax 01-2014983).

John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (1994) and the Responsum published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1995) meant a definitive “no” from the authorities in the Vatican to the claim for the ordination of women. Since then the movements within the Church which are striving for reform of the inferior status of women are concentrating their efforts more and more on the diaconate for women, so that at least in this respect progress can be made.

But independently of these magisterial refusals to ordain women, even before and during Vatican II, and especially in the post-conciliar phase up to now, there have been plenty of initiatives and votes world-wide for the diaconate to be opened up to women.(1)

Last year (1997) the push was specially evident, and public opinion echoed it. For from 1 to 4 April 1997 a big congress to debate the diaconate for women took place in the Academy of the diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, attended by some 300 women and men from home and abroad. Documentation on this important congress has now come out. The book bears the same title as the theme of the congress: Diakonat: Ein Amt für Frauen in der kirche - Ein frauengerechtes Amt? (2) (”Diaconate: a ministry for women in the Church - one suited to women?”) contains all the papers and statements presented there, the closing resolution and the findings of the discussions held in working groups. There is a valuable addition in the form of an appendix listing in detail initiatives in favour of the diaconate for women before and after Vatican II (62 pages!), added to which are important historical source texts from the early Church, the Middle Ages and modern times relating to this subject and the general status of women in the Church. The book is completed by a list of literature for those wanting a deeper look into the matter, and is a very good working tool.

The papers and statements throw light on the sociological, canonical and pastoral implications attendant on introducing the diaconate of women. The following deals with essential thematic points of conflict in the papers and with questions and problems still open which emerged during the congress. It is not a detailed presentation of the contributions.

Contrasting assessments of the historical sources

The most evident aspect is the contrast in assessing the historical sources on the office of deaconess. Two papers deal with this: “Das Amt der Diakonin in der Kirchlichen Tradition des ersten Jahrtausent” (paper by Anne Jensen, p 33-52) (= ‘The office of deaconess in ecclesial Tradition of the first millennium’), and “Theologische Bedenken gegen die Diakonatsweihe von Frauen” (paper by Hans Jorissen, pp 86-97) (= ‘Theological objections to the diaconal ordination of women’.) The preface to the latter paper shows that H Jorissen had assumed the awkward job of “presenting a position” to which he himself did not subscribe “at least in its consequences”, just because scientific work essentially needs “an impartial depiction of divergent views” (p 86). So he presents mainly the opinions of A G Martimort (3) and M Hauke (4) on the diaconate for women. Neither of these theologians had accepted an invitation to the congress.

Jorissen’s premise is that by the Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacredotalis” (1994) on the restriction of the priesthood to men and the corresponding official statement of the CDF “the matter of whether a sacramental diaconate for women is possible” has been dealt a definitive blow (p 86). He sees the reason for this in the ‘unity of Holy Orders’ as confirmed by Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 28,1), which is that the three steps in ordination, episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate, are “individual, not isolated but internally interrelated expression of one office (in its fullest form, episcopal - cf LG 26,1), in which are concentrated the three constitutive, in essence equal, fundamental ends of the Church Martyria (witness), Leiturgia (worship), Diakonia (service) (p 87).

Again, according to Jorissen (citing Martimort) the verdict of Tradition regarding the historical function of the deaconesses points in the same direction. History, so he holds, offers “no firm basis for a sacramental diaconate for women” (p 95); for “even where the consecration of deaconesses by means of the laying on of hands and epiclesis is carried out analogously to male diaconal ordination, historical verdicts do not allow the two ordinations to be to be ranked as equal”. The exclusion of the deaconess in contrast to the deacon, “from any form of altar service, from public proclamation and from baptising solemnly” was clearly based “on the exclusion of women from priestly office” (p 94). According to Jorissen “the sacramentality (in today’s dogmatic understanding) of an independent diaconate without internality” cannot be sustained in history “in the relationship with the episcopal-priestly office founded on diaconal ordination.” Accordingly, Jorissen concluded that “the possibility of a sacramental female diaconate stands and falls with the possibility of the priesthood for women.” (p 95).

Jorissen, who in this respect is very far from Martimort, Hauke and other writers, expects the problem of women and ordained ministry to be swept away by the admission of women to the priesthood in spite of “Ordinatio Sacredotalis”, that being “not an infallible pronouncement by the magisterium”; this road, he holds, needs “courage and tenacity”, but is “a worthwhile road”(p 96).

In interpreting and assessing the historic sources on “The office of deaconess in Church Tradition of the first millennium”, A Jensen reaches conclusions differing largely from Jorissen’s. Quoting the Orthodox theologian Evangelos Theodorou (5) she stresses - as against Martimort et al - the sacramental nature of the ordination of women deacons (p 48). She does not doubt it was a major order. “The deaconess was truly a female deacon; her ordination differed only in non-essentials from that of her male colleague.” However, the ritual used in her ordination was less than that for a deacon in respect of “proximity to the altar and to the eucharistic gifts of bread and wine” (p 49). Nevertheless, in considering conditions nowadays, A Jensen warns against merely imitating the early Christian function of deaconess: “It would be a fundamental methodological error to turn historical facts into a kind of norm” (p 34). Her suggestion for the current state of church politics would be “to restore validity as an independent ministry” to the permanent diaconate. In this way cone could “aim at the diaconate for women without necessarily meaning the priesthood too”(p 50).

Hünermann’s view of cultural and dogmatic history

Many of the female and male speakers at the congress agreed with this procedure. Particular attention should be paid in this connection to the statements by Peter Hünermann. He quite rightly goes into detail about something disregarded by Jorissen and Jensen in their papers: the classifying of the historical documentary evidence on deaconesses under the socio-cultural aspect. For “when assessing historical data and theological arguments” one must “ distinguish carefully which facts and reasonings rest upon cultural and social-historical views rooted in as it were self-evident patriarchalism, and where dogmatically relevant reason are present” (p 103). Hünermann cites and substantiates the following examples, or “guiding principles in church praxis”, stemming from this patriarchalism:

  1. The exclusion of women from service at the altar (p 109f), which goes back to the fact that the early Church based itself “on the Old Testament and Jewish Sacred observance” and, in connection with this on “the concept of purity in late antiquity and the Middle Ages”, meaning that women were kept behind liturgical barriers.
  2. The exclusion of women from official teaching and leadership in the Church (pp 111-113). The result, according to Hünermann is that deaconesses in the Eastern Church were entrusted with the same office as their male colleagues. Although because of the socio-cultural factors cited their field of activity was considerably restricted.(p 114)

In attempting to refute the objections to a sacramental diaconate, Hünermann employs not only historical arguments, but also brings in dogmatic aspects. He develops a “new” model for the unity of Holy Orders that is based on an analysis of patristic ordination rituals. According to this “there is differentiation in naming and describing the various ministries in the Church according to their functions”. He believes that in the early Church “there is no indication of a formal theology of the unity of ministry” (p 115). The concept of the unity of Holy Orders, developed in the Middle Ages, in which the various services were brought together, was officially adopted in the decree “Sacramentum ordinis” at the Council of Trent, but Hünermann holds that it was corrected by Vatican II where express reference was made to “various services” in the Church, without their purpose being fixed, as it was at Trent, “simply in the - - -authority to celebrate the Eucharist.” Their common purpose was, rather, ministering salvation to the faithful (p 116).

Hünermann sees the principle of unity in services differing from each other - in contrast to Jorissen - in their common ground: the loving care and grace of the Trinity, and also in their common aim: the good of humankind (p 119f). In this way he refutes the argumentation arising from the unity of Holy Orders (in the Tridentine sense), which runs: “Women cannot be admitted to the episcopate and presbyterate. So they cannot be admitted to the diaconate either” (p 115).

What should be the profile of the ministry of deaconess?

Seen from the angle of pastoral theology, there is a further focal subject: what profile should a future diaconate for women assume? Critical questions arrise, relating to the connection between the diaconal dimension of this ministry and the traditional role of women.

The content as profiled by the male diaconate has developed from the three constitutive ends of the Christian community: Martyria, Leiturgia and Diakonia. Even though the various ministries each in their own way participate in these three features and represent them, Diakonia is somehow characterised as the essential point of the diaconate. Bernd Jochen Hilberath insists that “The diaconate is not a stage on the way to the presbyterate - - not a substitute function in the liturgy, but an independent service, closer to the social work/charity field than to the liturgical/catechetical one” (p 216). Deacons and deaconesses ought to make present and keep present the “diaconal functioning basis to the community” (Albert Biesinger, 65). In the person of the deaconess and the deacon the command to perform the bodily and spiritual works of mercy “is, so to speak, personalised as a duty (of all Christians, female and male)” and presented “to the community in their persons - -”. The female and male deacons could motivate the Christians “to recognise this mission as their own” (p 71). With the office of the Permanent Diaconate the Church of Vatican II, so the commentator, has found the way back to one of its origins, “that is, to Jesus Christ as the servant and consoler of humanity” (p 70). In the exercise of the diaconate conferred through sacramental ordination there occurs representation of Christ on the official level as the servant of all. Some are there who hold to a certain symbolist theology “which wants to exclude women from ordained office” because they apparently cannot represent Christ “as Lord and head of the Church”; to these Hilberath responds “that the representation of Christ as the servant of all is not gender-specific”. And since it is essential to diaconal work that it should truly reach people, he feels “the exclusion of women to be a real impairment of the diaconal ends of the community of Jesus Christ” (p 217).

The pros and cons of the female role

The pronounced diaconal development of the office of the deacon has, however, led to distinct anxieties, which can be summarised as follows: is there not a risk of a female diaconate intensifying the traditional female gender role of serving? Eva Maria Dannebaum thinks so: “An office which debars access to higher responsibilities, lags sociologically behind the social role changes for women in the spheres of work, education and family, and tends to reinforce the traditional view of women”. (p 161)

But those women speakers who are much in favour of the diaconate for women - from the pastoral theology angle - are most sensitive to this problem. So it is repeatedly stressed that not only the preconditions for the concrete shaping of the office of deaconess but also the formation for it should in principle be the same for men and women; that it is the only way in which the equivalence of deacons and deaconesses in the service of the community can be guaranteed. (Benedicta Hintersberger, p 248; Martries Miltler-Holzem, p. 285f).

  • “It would be a contradiction of the diverse charisms, differing life styles and life-worlds, abilities and biographies of women if specific fields of womanly activity and service were to be planned or expected for a female diaconate on the basis of fixed roles and behavioural patterns. So from the start enough free space must be opened up to allow for a creative process of development of each one’s own charisms and gifts” (B Hintersberger, pp 248 and 257).
  • “Considerations about the spirituality of the deaconess must therefore bear in mind that the diaconate of women is at quite some risk of exploitation because of their availability through socialisation”; for “the division of work by gender” is still to be seen as “gender-hierarchical” (Angrea Tafferner, p 267).

Despite all these grave anxieties and dangers associated with the introduction of a female diaconate, in the papers and statements the positive assessment of this reform preponderates, in view of the future of the Church and the status of women: “Together with the patters of collaboration between men and women” - so runs the “hopeful expectation”, the “patterns of power, leadership, service, spirituality, pastorship, language - - will change”, so that “the structures of office in our Church will tend increasingly to develop into structures of ‘communio’.” (Hintersberger p 248).

Over and above this it is hoped that a female diaconate will mean a specific promotion of women, along the lines of freeing them spiritually from one-sided male pastorship; for the future deaconess “represents the experience of women, even if in a limited way”; thus she can help “to make visible the religious treasure of half humanity, whose light has so far been under the bushel” (Tafferner p 269). A feministic spirituality in the deaconess would lead to “liberating impulses” by means of “reflection on discrimination against women in the light of faith”. In this respect the special service to women, which was also a characteristic of the work of the deaconess in the early Church (though coming from another socio-cultural situation) “is nowadays in no way outdated, but on the contrary an important pastoral reason for the diaconate of women”. According to A Tafferner “practical experience points to the importance in many situations of trustworthy persons of the same sex”. The deaconess could “out of the certainty of the love of God” experienced in herself “be an important faith witness, not only for women but surely specially for them”, if “out of deprivation, suffering and conflicts they are to win through to trust in God and fresh vitality” (p 270).

The closing Resolution of the Congress

As a kind of spiritual yield from all the papers, statements and discussions, at the end of the Congress a “Resolution on the Realisation of the Diaconate of Women” (pp 138-140) had taken shape. It was addressed not only to the German Bishops, but beyond them “to Catholic organisations and movements”, and “to the communities”, to “all committed Christians, female and male.” The text of this carefully considered declaration makes it very clear that there is a distinct discrepancy, even a drop, between the theological reasoning and the vote in favour of ordaining women. This observation applies to numerous remarks in the individual papers. In the theological argumentation it is stressed that “modern social development has shown the gender-based inferiority of women to be irreconcilable with the equal dignity of men and women”, that the Church has recognised in this “a sign of the times” and “the work of the Spirit”, that the Church “in its own social form” and “for the sake of the credibility of the salvific mission” - - “calls for conversion”. But the Congress vote on this sounds very muted. It reads:" The participants, women and men, expressly request the bishops to exercise the personal responsibilities which only they can hold in their dioceses, and procure an indult from the Holy See enabling women in their dioceses to be ordained to the diaconate".

Yet the majority of the participants felt that this modest step of applying to the Holy See for an exception to the general rule fundamentally excluding women from ordination (c 1024 CIC/1983) was the right way on the whole, because of the current state of church policy. In so doing the Congress was in line with the recommendations of the Canon Law Society of America, which in an intensive enquiry (6) on the diaconate for women as seen under canon law had recommended this method in 1995.

Several speakers advanced, directly or indirectly, reason and justifications for restricting matters to the diaconate for women:

  • “The question arises of whether the arguments against the priesthood for women are not the same as those advanced against their diaconate - - but - - I demand soberly and clearly that at long last whatever is possible be done.” (Hanna-Renate Laurien p 133).
  • “In this situation the opening of the diaconate to women seems essential. Were the diaconate to be reintroduced, one could come a little closer to the brotherly-sisterly Church without the need for innovations in Tradition. An ancient esslesial tradition would be revived” (Regina Radlbeck-Ossmann p 244).
  • Even though according to P Hünermann the admission of women to the diaconate would be “a decisive, progressively visible signal that the Church is starting to give effect to its insights in the structure of its offices and leadership too” (with respect to a gender relationship liberated from sin - the author), he shares with the Congress participants the realisation that admission to this office “represents only a moment in the pending reorganisation and profiling of pastoral services developed after the Council (eg community and pastoral spokespersons male and female) (p 11f).

After all these scientifically-based efforts towards clarifying the historical, dogmatic, canonical and pastoral-theological bases for a female diaconate, and after the pressing appeals directed first and foremost at the bishops, in the end there remains the decisive question whether, and how, the Vatican will react. Unlike with the priestly ordination of women, it has not hitherto pronounced on their diaconate, although many a plea from various countries has been submitted to it. The real problem lies in a denial by force of structure of insights despite the presence of scientific date and even more so in the fact that churchmen take it upon themselves highhandedly to set the boundaries for the action of women in the Church. So the depressing experiences women have time and again been through in recent decades under the current Church leadership, can in no way encourage the hope that before long, even in part of the Church, that portion of the law excluding women from ordination which relates to the diaconate will be annulled, not to mention a general reintroduction before long of the diaconate for women.

In the light of this situation it seems necessary not only to keep the call for the female diaconate constantly in the forefront, but to initiate now concrete preparations for the opening of this ministry (7). Over and above this it is urgent and indispensable to exert every effort towards eliminating all round the serious discrimination against women in the Catholic Church which means their exclusion from all ordained ministries; for experience shows that matters of details (eg the opening to women of the diaconate) are more easily solved within the whole picture than the other way round.

This much is certain: the Church can be credible to the world “as a sacramental sign of the love of God” only when of itself it fully resolves the question of women, ie when ministry in the Church is liberated “from an un-Jesus like and unredeemed gender hierarchy” (Stefanie Spendel, p 84) so that men and women take a common share in it, and in all official services. The law excluding women from ordination, a gross discrimination against them (c 1024/CIC) - a most shaming thing for the whole Church - must therefore go, not least because of the spiritual vocation of women which is still being suppressed by that law to the detriment of the Church!

Over a century ago Thérèse of Lisieux died. On 19 October 1997 she was declared “Doctor Ecclesiae universalis.” She, too, felt called to the priesthood; her inability to comply merely because she was a woman caused her great suffering(8).

How many generations of women with a vocation to the diaconate and presbyterate will have to die before at last the day of liberation from unworthy shackles and constraints in the Church dawns for them?

Ida Raming


1.  Further particulars in documentation entitled “Diakonat” (note 2) pp 304-366.

2. The editors of this documentation( in the following “Diakonat”), published September 1997 by Schwabenverlag, Ostfildern are: Peter Hünermann, Albert Biesinger, Marianne Heinbach-Steins, Anne Jensen.

3.  Literature: “Diakonat” p 96, note 5.

4.  Literature: “Diakonat” p 96, note 6

5.  Literature: “Diakonat” p 51, note 4

6.  ‘The Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate’ (Washington DC, 1995); for detailed comments on this see: L Blyskal ‘Uber die Kinchenrechtlichen Mittel zur Veränderung der gegenwärtigen Praxis nur Männer zu Ständigen Diakonen zu weihen’ in: “Diakonat” p 236-242.

7.  This is the intention of the “Netzwerk Diakonat der Frau”, which was set up immediately after the Stuttgart Congress as a national association of women and men. Its chief aims are the introduction of the Sacramental Permanent Diaconate for women, and the making available of diaconal training for women, and the making available of diaconal training for women with a vocation. (Contact address: Netzwerk Diakonat der Frau, c/o Katholisher deutscher Frauenbund, Mauritz-Lindenweg 65, D-48269 Münster).

8.  In a letter dated 8.9.1986 the Saint wrote:

“I feel myself called to the priesthood. O Jesus - - -  with what love would I hold you in my hands! - - with what love would I give you to the faithful! - - In spite of my littleness I would like to bring light to people as the prophets and teachers of the Church did/ I feel called to be an apostle. I wanted to travel the world to proclaim your name.” Translated into German by Josefa Theresia Münch after “Story of a Soul”, the Autobiography of St Theresa of Lisieux. A new translation from the original manuscript by John Clarke, ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1975). According to the testimony of her sister Celine, it was always very painful to Theresa that as a woman she could not be a priest.(cf ‘Heilig - und Seligsprechungsakten der hl Teresia vom kinde Jesu’ published by Theresianum, Rome 1973, vol 1 p 305f).

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