While the Catholic Church is not considering ordaining women to the priesthood, the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate is a real possibility.
In 2016 Pope Francis created a commission to study the history of women deacons. This focus on history is notable because it acknowledges that women deacons are an ancient tradition in the church. St. Phoebe is named as deacon in the Bible (Rom 16:1-2). Both the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) mention the ordination of women to the diaconate. Chalcedon states, “No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon,” thereby suggesting that older women deacons were permitted. As late as the 11th century, the right of the diocesan ordinary to ordain women deacons was confirmed by three consecutive popes. Pope Benedict VIII wrote in 1017, “We concede and confirm to your successors in perpetuity every episcopal ordination not only of presbyters but also of deacons or deaconesses.”
In my experience, many people who oppose the idea of women serving in diaconal ministry fear that the potential female candidates are not faithful Catholics. But in speaking to some of these women, I have found that they are overwhelmingly obedient to the church, which is exactly why they want to assist her in diaconate ministry.
Ellie Hidalgo is a 56-year-old Cuban American woman and the co-founder of Discerning Deacons. She believes there is a need for women deacons and that God already is calling women to this ministry. Ms. Hidalgo has years of experience serving the church, first as a journalist for a Catholic newspaper and then as a pastoral associate in one of the poorest churches in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Dolores Mission, a Jesuit parish associated with Homeboy Ministries.
Ms. Hidalgo tells me she believes the work she did at Dolores Mission was diaconal. She ran a group for parents who had lost children to gang violence, worked in administration and did fundraising. She also preached. A priest was assigned to Dolores Mission, but his Spanish language skills were poor. Parishioners complained because they could not understand him. As Ms. Hidalgo tells it, a parish leader asked, “The people of God need to be nurtured. Would you be willing to offer a reflection?” So she did. “I would preach five, six, seven Masses in a row some Sundays,” she recalls. “The reality was that the people of God needed to be nurtured. And I had been formed. I had a master’s in pastoral theology.”
She continues, “At first, I was a bit shy, but I realized that God had prepared me for this, and this work was a way I could be of service to our community.”
Worth noting: this overview on women deacons published by The Angelus a couple years back. It offers some history, along with some skepticism on the topic:
There are [also] thorny theological questions involved. Theologians have traditionally considered deacons, along with priests and bishops, as occupying three grades on a single continuum.
“The Second Vatican Council treats holy orders this way,” said Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., a member of the International Theological Commission. “It’s difficult to see how you can ordain women as deacons if you can’t also ordain them as priests — unless you decide that the ordination of a male deacon is not a sacramental action.”
The hierarchy’s foremost expert on the permanent diaconate, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, agreed. “Right now there are significant theological obstacles that haven’t been addressed,” he told Angelus News.
“The proposal [to ordain women as deacons] calls the unity of holy orders into question. Are bishop, priest, and deacon essentially related and continuous grades? Or is the diaconate something else entirely?”
McKnight observed: “What we have not established is whether there were ordained female deacons in the early Church — not just in one place, but in the whole Church — and whether ‘deacon’ meant for them what we mean by the word today.” McKnight is the author of “Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological, and Sociological Foundations” (Catholic University of America Press, 2018).
For Weinandy, the answer is to be found in history, but not ancient history. “We can tell the meaning of past actions by the actions that came later,” he told Angelus News. “It seems to me that, if the early Church was actually ordaining women deacons, the practice would have continued. As it is, the role ceased when the need ceased.”
McKnight acknowledged, however, that the Church may need a role today like the role played by deaconesses in the past. “Whatever the status was for women called ‘deacons’ in the early Church, there may be a need for such a role today — to provide a more effective bridge between the shepherds and the flock.”