VIDEO: What are the arguments for and against women deacons?
JAMES MARTIN: Hi. I’m Father Jim Martin. I am a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at America Media. I would like to welcome you back to the second part of our web series, “Deacons, Women and the Call to Serve.”
I am joined by four distinguished panelists — Nancy Dallavalle, Greg Kandra, Rita Ferrone, and George Demacopoulos — who will be speaking to us today about women deacons.
I want to set this up a little bit for us. Recently Pope Francis met with the heads of women’s religious orders, Catholic sisters, and in a Q&A session one head of a women’s religious order asked the pope about women deacons: Why aren’t there women deacons?
Pope Francis said, “I’ll have to think about that. I’d like to set up a commission.” There was some question about whether or not he was serious, but it turned out he was serious. He recently set up a formal papal commission to study women deacons, and it really brought it back in the news, and this is one of the reasons we are talking about it today.
I want to ask our panelists for me the most interesting question of all: What are the arguments — theological, historical, ecclesiological, pastoral, and ecumenical—for and against women deacons?
Maybe we can start with historical. What are the historical arguments in favor or against women deacons?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: Well, certainly women were deacons there from the beginning. We know that; we have recognized that.
Part of the historical argument also has to do with the way in which early ordination texts for women deacons indicated clearly that they were receiving the laying on of hands, and so they were brought very clearly into the story. This faded after a while, and probably for a variety of reasons.
JAMES MARTIN: Which reasons? What would you say?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: Certainly as the Church became more a product of an institutional vision, I think that the place for women was overridden to some extent.
The other thing is that while women often ministered to women as deacons, they were not the parallel of male deacons; they were often slighted into ministering to women. I think in some ways the story about the Church became frankly more male, and there was less reason to have an accommodation for women.
What do you think?
RITA FERRONE: Another thing that happened, though, which is really interesting to me from the liturgical point of view, is that there became an interpretation of the altar as being sacred in a sense that was derived from the Hebrew scriptures. This arose in the 10th and 11th centuries, that more of these taboos relating to menstruating women came to the fore, and it was decided that women shouldn’t be anywhere near the altar.
Women had served at the altar in the early Church, but then these other ideas about women being unclean, and therefore not able to do altar service, did play a role in the limiting or discontinuation of the deaconate for women.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: But, Rita, did that have to do with a retrieval of these ancient taboos about women menstruating, or did that have to do with the changing understanding of what an altar was and what was going on there?
RITA FERRONE: I suspect it had to do with the difference between ancient civilization being a bathing culture and medieval situations not having clean water and not bathing. Frankly, I think this was really quite a visceral thing. That is my suspicion. I haven’t written a dissertation on this, but I think that is part of it.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Let me add in a third possible scenario, at least with the history of the Church in the East. Without question, we have the greatest amount of evidence for a female deaconate in Byzantium than we have anywhere else in the world; you have it in Jerusalem; you have it in Constantinople; you have it in Thessalonica; you even have it in southern Italy when it was controlled by the Byzantines.
It does die out, probably in the 11th or 12th century, and people have put forward the arguments you are putting forth. Let me propose that there is a third reason for that. At the exact same time that this is happening, the liturgical rite in Constantinople is being transformed. The cathedral rite that was used in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, which had very specific rubrics for female deacons, became replaced by a Jerusalem rite that came out of a male monastery.
I am not so sure that it is a specific choice to remove women from the service of the altar so much as it is for a variety of geopolitical reasons — you have the Crusades, you have the rise of Islam, you have all of this — you have the appropriation of a new liturgical rite in Constantinople that is based on a space in which they did not have women serving.
That sort of took over the Eastern Christian tradition, where we have the best accostation for what is happening.
GREG KANDRA: Also one of the things that is often used as a way of characterizing what women deacons did in the early days of the Church is they were responsible in assisting with baptisms, which at the time was full immersion and usually done naked.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: And largely adult.
GREG KANDRA: Yes, yes. That changed as time went on, and so there was less of a need for the women to be involved doing that.
JAMES MARTIN: Let me ask the question I’ve been dying to ask all four of you. You all said very bluntly, “Yes there were women deacons, yes there were women deacons, here’s what they did.” And yet, when that argument is put forth, it is often cut down by people. In fact, the former papal commission said that there really were not what we consider to be women deacons.
Why is there so much argumentation about the historicity? Are the documents somehow up for interpretation? All of you say, “Yes there were women deacons,” and that may come as a surprise to a lot of our viewers, and in fact to some theologians and some commentators. They say, “No, there absolutely were not.” How can there be so much discrepancy on the simple historicity of that?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: For the West, to be fair, there were only a few examples that we have that are extant of these ordination rites and these specific, named persons. Many of them are not parallel examples to the male deacons at that time, and they are not parallel examples to anything like the deaconate today.
In that sense, this is the history question again: Did we have male deacons? Well, when exactly did we start having priests? These are things that emerged in the Church. In the Latin Church, after the early Middle Ages, it was verboten.
RITA FERRONE: I also think that you tend to read history based on your present experience. So in some ways, it seems to me some of the studies have taken within their bias, can be looked at a second time and seen perhaps differently through eyes that might evaluate the evidence a little bit differently.
For instance, Gary Macy wrote a wonderful historical essay on this in the book called Women Deacons, and he adduces all these examples of identical practices with women being ordained and men being ordained to the deaconate and so on.
The International Theological Commission only puts “ordained” in scare quotes. It will not say that they were ordained because it takes a very cautious and critical view of the sources which are out there as being partial, unpersuasive, and so on.
But you have to ask yourself, “Well, what is really the case here?” Sometimes in history you do look at the same sources and get different answers depending on what pair of glasses you have on.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: I think the case about the difference between the East and West here is very important. There really is very little evidence for a female deaconate in the city of Rome. In fact, you actually have a pseudonymous decretal attributed to a fifth-century pope that forbids it. Now, that of course means it is probably going on.
RITA FERRONE: Thank you for noticing.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: And it wasn’t actually written by him, and we know that. But there is clearly an attempt to shut it down in the early sixth century in the Roman Church.
In the Eastern Church at the same time, it is very active. It would just be ridiculous to claim that there isn’t a female deaconate.
What is open to question, though, is what was their role. As we talked about in our previous segment, the role of the male deacon has transformed so much over time. If you come to these questions with present concerns and the role of the present deacon is potentially different than it was in the fourth century, so too with the female deacon.
Two more points about Byzantium that I think are worth noting. The oldest ordination rites that survive, the ordination rite for the male and the ordination rite for the female, are almost identical. There is one parameter that is different. But that’s it. Everything else is the same.
The other thing that is interesting to note, though, is that the canons set a minimum age of twenty-five for a male deacon and the initial canon treating female deacons was sixty, and then it was reduced to forty.
GREG KANDRA: They were probably widows.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Right. Other than Phoebe, who we just don’t know, we do not have to my knowledge any extant sources that speak of married deaconesses. The evidence we have are dealing with celibate women who may or may not have been nuns but celibate women nonetheless. Of course, that gets baked into any kind of contemporary conversation.
RITA FERRONE: There is the First Letter of Timothy, though, where it talks about deaconess, and it’s not clear whether these are the wives of deacons who are themselves serving in the deaconal ministry or not, so they could be married back in the Apostolic Age.
JAMES MARTIN: Greg, you cover this a lot. You run a blog called “The Deacon’s Bench.” What do you make of the very fierce arguments for and against the historicity? All of the panelists here are very clear about the evidence, scant or heavy, for women deacons. What do you make about the rebuttal of all this, and in some cases the denial of all of this history?
GREG KANDRA: Well, a lot of it is from personal bias. A lot of it is fueled by personal opinion. As I think we have established here, there is no clear history. It varies from place to place and from culture to culture. And there’s dispute about what exactly it meant to be a deacon, what it meant to be a woman deacon, what they did, what all of that entailed.
I think a lot of the people that I have talked to are alarmed about this because they feel that introducing women into the equation of holy orders is going to be a disruption somehow, that it is going to break the unity of orders that exist now. That takes us to a larger theological discussion about what it means to be ordained and that unity of holy orders.
JAMES MARTIN: Well, that is the next question, to move on a little bit. What are the arguments for and against women deacons? We have heard some of the reflections on the historical basis, which would be a restoration basically. Maybe someone can take the “for” and then someone can play, say, devil’s advocate and do the “against.” Who would like to argue for women deacons from various perspectives? You can take history or pastoral or ecclesial or ecumenical.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Well, let one of the men do it. The pastoral just seems so obvious. How does it not seem obvious that there are good, legitimate pastoral reasons to do this?
JAMES MARTIN: Well, can you explicate them? What are those reasons?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Well, sure. Young women today in contemporary American society are confronted with every possible reason not to believe in God, and they are confronted with every possible reason to no longer buy into an institution that is outdated and so forth.
It just makes so much logical sense that a young woman struggling with her faith as a first level of pastoral conversation would benefit from a woman in her community who had genuine theological training and was seen to be in a position of authority to give counseling.
Now, could you do that without the ordination rite? Of course you could. But it just seems obvious to me that this offers a great pastoral opportunity.
JAMES MARTIN: And I would say there are a lot of men who could benefit from that as well.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Of course.
JAMES MARTIN: Yes, exactly.
Other arguments for the ordination of women deacons?
GREG KANDRA: I think having the voice of a woman in the pulpit could be profound and have a powerful impact on both men and women in the pews to hear that point of view and that perspective reflected, which is something in the history of our Church we really haven’t heard very much.
Also, having women perform baptisms, having women preside at weddings; it brings a whole different element to those sacraments that I think could be very valuable and very beautiful and significant, just looking at those examples right there. I know women can do this now — lay women — presiding at a wake service. The feminine genius would be brought to the fore in a way that it really is not right now.
RITA FERRONE: I would like to say I look at this from a little different perspective. I see it as an ecclesiological issue and as something which we need to look at as far as the whole Church is concerned. It is not so much is this going to benefit one particular person or not; it is that we are not firing on all cylinders. We have half of the human race who are gifted and are able to do many things, and the Church is not acknowledging that officially, which is one of the things that holy orders does; it claims a charism and says, “Yes, this is for the upbuilding of the Church and we affirm this.”
We worry a lot about secularization. I would contend that the church is assisting secularization by allowing so many of the gifts that are inspired by faith to not be named and identified explicitly with the Church. So we push all those women who are doing great things aside, and they go and collaborate with all of their secular partners, when we could be saying, “Look, this is sacred what you are doing.” And deaconia is for the whole community, and so you are lifting up examples both male and female of people who can be kind of a bellwether and an inspiration to that deaconate.
JAMES MARTIN: In a sense, you are frustrating the Holy Spirit. I know I am only supposed to moderate, but I think that one of the strongest arguments for this is that women feel called; and if the Holy Spirit is calling these particular women or some women to the role of deacons, then, in a sense, who are we to stand in the way?
What would you say for, what arguments for?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: The arguments for are just what have been stated. There are all kinds of reasons for having women speak in this way.
We might ask ourselves if younger women are going to see this as something in their trajectory. I have a number of friends who are Vatican II Catholics like myself who I could see doing this with a deep amount of wisdom and vision and bring a lot of leadership to it.
I am concerned about where the next generation is coming from.
JAMES MARTIN: The next generation of women leaders?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: Of women who might see this. I think they look at this and I am not sure that they are going to find this appealing?
JAMES MARTIN: Because?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: Because they do not do institutional things and, in particular, they don’t do institutional things that involve obedience. I think that could be less appealing in a male power structure for women, especially for younger women.
But may I ask a harder question? My question is just — I think this would be a wonderful opening and a wonderful opportunity in the ways that you have all described — I’m curious at this moment in the Church’s history what the cost of this would be. You mentioned the feminine genius. I think that there is a lot of concern in the Roman Church about what is often disparaged as “gender theory” and the concern that everything we know about being male and being female is completely socially constructed.
I share that concern, but I do not think that is the entirety of gender theory. What it seems to do is bifurcate: either “We are going to have differences of gender with norms that accrue to them that have been very historically conditioned but we are going to go with them,” or we are going to say, “There are no norms that accrue to being male and being female,” and that is obviously going to lead to places we do not want to go.
So the Church, I am afraid, in doing this — in opening up the question of ordaining women to the deaconate — will also use it as an opportunity to more fully define what it means to be female as they put this forward in a way that I think the Church is not ready to do at this time.
JAMES MARTIN: That is very interesting. So the idea would be that it is a certain type of minister, and therefore it is a type of ministry for women, and therefore it is typing women in that particular role; is that what you are saying?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: Well, yes. And that it is going to proceed from and also give rise to much more quasi-dogmatic language about what it means to be female. Among other things, it will give much fuel to the question of closing the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood even more firmly.
JAMES MARTIN: Although you could argue that once women are ordained and become their own people and become their own ministers, that the idea of a woman deacon is totally transforms when people see them.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: And that may happen. Certainly, when they said that girls could be altar servers — we were talking about this earlier — many of my conservative friends were opposed to it and my progressive friends were in favor of it. I thought the conservatives were on to something because they said, “You know, putting those girls on the altar, they are going to get big ideas.”
The fact of the matter was they are in the same sort of state as the young men on the altar. Nothing has changed here. There is nothing to see.
But in fact what they got was that the symbolic value is very strong, and seeing those girls on the altar was a very powerful symbol. Yes, women deacons could contribute to breaking down that symbol, to opening it up.
I am, however, afraid that it will come with language about being female that will be sort of chiseled into rock and will be very hard to overturn.
GREG KANDRA: This is, I think, something that was mentioned when the commission made its report in 2002, that to admit women just to the deaconate but saying “You can’t go any further” would do more harm than good essentially.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: It would get their hopes up, you mean?
GREG KANDRA: It would pigeonhole — as you were indicating — that this is the role of women and it can’t go any farther than that, and that would create other problems theologically or ecclesiastically.
The other thing that needs to be kept in mind as they are weighing this over in Rome — and thank God this is above my pay scale — is how disruptive would this be to the Church and to the people in the pews and to parishes and to rectories?
Speaking as a deacon — and I know that there are a lot of deacons out there who could echo this — there is a lot of prejudice against deacons by priests and by some bishops. A lot of that has changed. It is evolving, it’s not as bad as it was fifteen or twenty years ago, but there is still a strong element of “You stay in your place and leave me alone” in some areas. I wonder how it would be received, to have a woman suddenly be in that role.
JAMES MARTIN: Well, that is a good question. I want to ask you to refine something you said because I found it fascinating. We can move on to how disruptive, which is a great question. You said that one of the difficulties might be that it would encourage women to expect more. And yet, earlier you said that the role of the deacon is its own vocation, in a sense, that it’s not that Greg Kandra wants to be a priest.
So what is the difference between Greg Kandra being satisfied and fulfilled in his deaconal ministry and a woman being satisfied and fulfilled in her deaconal ministry? Why would she necessarily want more? Why would that be something that would happen necessarily? You are not saying to yourself, “I want to be a priest.” Why wouldn’t that same appeal be there for a woman?
GREG KANDRA: I think the concern that was expressed — I was doing my Googling last night and reading about this from the 2002 report — was that it would limit women and say, “You can only do this; you can’t become a priest.” I could become a priest if the circumstances changed a little bit, having nothing to do with my gender. For women it is a different situation. And then there are all sorts of theological complications that ensue from that.
JAMES MARTIN: So they would feel constrained?
GREG KANDRA: Yes.
RITA FERRONE: One of the pieces we have to remember, of course, is the commission isn’t going to say “yes” or “no.” They may very well come out with a story about women deacons that is fairly attenuated and very distinct from what the male deacon story is — or at least that could be what happens after the commission’s report. It may not be that it will be a parallel.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: One of the things to notice, too, is that none of the other studies have been done with any women on the commission. This is the first time, and we have an equal number of women and men. I am interested to see what they will come up with and whether this mix and actually putting different people at the table will result in some new insights.
GREG KANDRA: It is also interesting that the commission doesn’t have any deacons on it, either.
JAMES MARTIN: Is that correct?
RITA FERRONE: But you know —
NANCY DALLAVALLE: I didn’t notice that.
GREG KANDRA: They are all academics.
RITA FERRONE: — their mandate was to study the history.
GREG KANDRA: Right.
RITA FERRONE: And that’s not the same as making a plan for — I am sure if there was a mandate to go ahead and do this, they would have plenty of deacons on the commission to implement it.
GREG KANDRA: Right. That raises the question of what exactly their mandate is and what the end result will be.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: In Orthodox history it was the Byzantine Church that had the most pronounced experience of this. But in the Russian Church on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, there was agitation from all sides — from the aristocracy, from the people, even from the bishops — to renew a female deaconate in Russia.
There was a year-long council in 1917-1918 of the Russian Church, one of the most significant councils in modern history, and one of its marching orders was to commission a study on the actual history of the female deaconate. And then the Bolsheviks took over and the entire thing collapsed. So you had the largest Orthodox Church in the world at the time ready to go back to it, and then they lost ninety years.
JAMES MARTIN: Thank you.
Greg talked about disruption — which of course can be good and bad — in the Church. What would be some of the arguments that would give people pause about women deacons, either the restoration or the initiation of a female deaconate?
RITA FERRONE: The big theological objection has been about the theology of the sacrament. If the holy orders is one sacrament in three degrees, as it is defined in the Catholic Church at present, it means that the recipients of one degree of that couldn’t be different from the recipient of the other in terms of the gender. Now, I think there are a lot of weaknesses to that argument, but that is one that has been named as very significant in the discussion so far.
JAMES MARTIN: The argument is a deacon, a priest, and a bishop all have to be the same gender?
RITA FERRONE: Yes, because the unity of the sacrament would be broken if a woman were added to it. I am not going to defend that.
JAMES MARTIN: Sure, sure, absolutely, yes.
GREG KANDRA: Part of ordination involves valid matter, and valid matter right now involves being a male.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: Right, right, right. In fact, that was put into place centuries ago —
RITA FERRONE: In the 13th century.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: — with the idea that you could not ordain a female body
JAMES MARTIN: So these are theological and ecclesiological arguments against.
You have mentioned and hinted at — are there any pastoral arguments against women deacons? I have heard it said, for example, that in some parts of the Church — sub- Saharan Africa, the Global South — that they might not be welcomed and it might be divisive, that some bishops would ordain them; some bishops wouldn’t. Other pastoral concerns that people have?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Speaking for the Orthodox Church, I think the issue — even though we have the history of doing this — the idea of bringing it back now — again it gets talked about all the time. In fact, the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew, is on record saying “this needs to be restored.”
But what you have in the Orthodox Church is they look at an issue like this and they see it not for its history and for its pastoral opportunity, but they see it as a kind of manifestation of a creeping secularism brought on by godless feminism and so forth. So, in other words, “We are going to hold the line on this, even though it is not historical, because we don’t want to capitulate to the feminists.”
NANCY DALLAVALLE: That is seen as very scary, because that idea that somehow we can totally construct our gender goes in the thinking of the Church to abortion, to our understanding of what it means to be male and female, to same-sex marriage. They are teeing up a number of dominoes that actually, I think, need not fall because of that. But there is a sense that, “Well, once we start down that road then we’re into relativism,” and we are given the story of relativism for it.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Even though there’s a history. That is what is so destructive about the kind of conversation such that it exists in the Orthodox Church.
GREG KANDRA: What you were saying about secularism is interesting because the other side of the coin is something that Pope Francis himself has decried, which is clericalism. There are many people who worry that you add women into the mix and you are clericalizing them and it is just one more headache for the Church at that level.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: But you seem to have turned out okay. [Laughter] I understand this, but there is this sort of, “Oh, we can’t clericalize women; they’ll become” — although it does go to the feminine genius, the female matter that somehow — and what I think is underneath that that is very disruptive is there is a public/private little switch going on here, and that to bring women into holy orders moves them out of an essentially — even though they are very skilled, they welcome their gifts, they welcome their insights, they welcome their knowledge — it moves them into a public role which is seen as somehow deeply unwomanly and deeply violent to their inner nature, and so that is that “We don’t want to clericalize them.”
JAMES MARTIN: That is that idea of complementarity and the different — the Petrine Ministry, the Marian Ministry — that we all have our different roles.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: But I just want to say that we can have complementarity between males and females and still critique the story, the cultural accretions of patriarchy basically, that we have laid upon both of these. We can critique those all the way down without throwing away the idea that there is a difference male and female.
I think people’s heads can hold that thought. It is a complex thought, but people function that way all the time.
RITA FERRONE: I do think that this brings up a lot of visceral reactions for people and that there is an anti-woman strain in the Church because it is something that’s been reinforced by generation upon generation of exclusion. Now you’re removing something that has grown to be accepted as “the way we do it,” and therefore as sacred.
I don’t want to underestimate the fact that this would be a big step and that it would matter actually how people respond to it. I know there are women who are administrators of parishes, women who are chaplains, women who do a lot of the things that are leadership roles that men have done in clerical situations. But I also know that on a gut level there are a lot of Catholics who would be disturbed by having women more visibly be part of the clergy.
JAMES MARTIN: I want to thank our four distinguished panelists for this lively discussion in our second segment of our series, “Deacons, Women and the Call to Serve.” We were talking about women deacons.
For the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and America Media, I am Father Jim Martin. Please stay tuned for our next segment, which will be on the deaconate in the larger scope of ministry.