The Very Rev. Mark Morozowich, Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, has some thoughts on the history and role of women deacons in the Eastern Catholic churches. This interview — in America magazine — notes that he is arguably the highest-profile Byzantine theologian currently working in the United States.
The most ancient extant euchologion of the Byzantine tradition, the Barberini Greek 336codex that dates from the 8th century, has an explicit section for the ordination of women to the diaconate. The prayers for ordaining deaconesses share the exact same structure as those used for ordaining men as deacons. In fact, it calls for the same prayer, “The Divine Grace,” as used for all other ordinations as previously noted. Also, the oldest manuscripts indicate that deaconesses were ordained at the altar and received communion at the hand of the patriarch within the chancel barrier.
This clear indication of women in the sanctuary would probably challenge some Eastern Christians today who have adopted a later deformation of their tradition by barring women from the sanctuary. I wish we could say more, but so little is known to us from these sources other than the prayer rituals themselves.
I think that the most important aspect to remember is that the church [historically] valued women and saw them as important to its life. However, their role in governance remains marginalized, even today. This differs from ordination and since Vatican II more and more effort has been made to increase their role, for example as chancellors, canon lawyers, etc. While these advances are positive, clearly more work needs to be done on this front.
I think that the separation of the issue regarding governance and liturgical ministry are crucial. Let’s look at the historical witness and how it might help to answer questions about whether or not ordination of deaconesses necessitates ordination to the presbyterate. At no time in the history of the Eastern tradition do we find evidence of the ordination of women to the priesthood. So the Byzantine tradition admitted women to the diaconate and did not find it necessary or compelling to admit them to the priesthood. Nor do we have clear evidence that they functioned in exactly the same manner as deacons.
The church is not just the liturgy or hierarchy, but the whole people, the whole body of Christ. The more we realize today that we need to put more attention on the ministries women can already exercise, promoting the right people pastorally or administratively, the more we will find we already have ways for women to do what Phoebe did.
Most of the important roles of women over the centuries, including spiritual direction, have not included ordination. However, we have neglected these roles in many ways and we need to accentuate them today. Our deeper challenge right now is to encourage all Catholics to see the Church as not simply a sacramental dispensary, but as a true place of the unity of the Body of Christ, a place of mutual support of one another.