From Our Sunday Visitor, here’s part of an interview with Deacon Dominic Cerrato, editor of OSV’s The Deacon magazine, and a member of the commission looking into the question of whether women can (or should) be ordained deacons:
Our Sunday Visitor: Some say that the question of admitting women to the diaconate, because of the historical evidence for deaconesses, is one of discipline not doctrine. How do you respond to that?
Deacon Cerrato: The question of women in the diaconate is really more of a question of doctrine. It’s much more a question of doctrine, because, while there were deaconesses in the early Church — of that, there is no doubt — the question is not whether there were deaconesses in the early Church, but whether they were the male equivalents. And I’ll give you five reasons, or five general broad categories, as to why that was not the case.
First, the ordination rites were different. Ordination means to be enrolled in an order. It’s now come to be understood as holy orders. But if you look at the order, they are orders of virgins. They are the orders of widows. They were all kinds of orders. While the ordination rites of the deaconesses had similarities to that of the deacon, they were different. Because they were just similarities, it doesn’t mean that they’re the same.
[Considering] the role in liturgy shortly after the ordination, the deacon would participate in assisting at the sacrifice of the Mass. That was not the case of the deaconesses.
Their role in ministry. They didn’t have the same role in ministry. They ministered to women. They assisted at baptisms because they were done in the nude. They catechized women, and so they had a very limited ministerial function.
Deaconesses didn’t administer sacraments in the same way as the deacons were doing, and even as those sacraments developed, they didn’t develop along with it.
Finally, they differed in their relationship to the bishop. This is really critical: The dalmatic, the garment of the deacon, is the undergarment of the bishop. It shows the closeness. There is a filial relationship there. So there was a fundamental difference in what were called deaconesses and deacons.
One of my commission members who’s done a lot of work in patristics and the classics says the word diaconate, the term “diaconate,” was never used to include women. It was never used in the tradition to do that. And the Council of Nicea said they weren’t part of the clergy — no small council at that! So those are some key differences. There’s no strict parallel in the tradition between deacons and deaconesses.
Ordaining women to the permanent diaconate, as we understand it now, is not restoring that which was, it’s making something new. If that’s the case, then we need to find strong theological grounding for that [the ordination of women] in the sources of revelation, which need to be affirmed by the magisterium. Absent that, we can’t call it Catholic.
Read on to learn more.