Deaconesses and the Dangers of Antiquarianism

“Huge news: The female diaconate is not only an idea whose time has come, but a reality recovered from history.” ∼ Father James Martin, SJ

With one “tweet” celebrating the new commission appointed by Pope Francis to study the possibility of the ordination of women to the diaconate, Father James Martin, SJ managed to perfectly encapsulate the essence of the “hermeneutic of rupture” and the spirit of neo-Lutheranism that has infected the Church since the time of the Second Vatican Council.

As with all the novelties that followed the Council, the basis for the study of a female diaconate is the purported need to recover the practices of the early Church, that undefined time where the true faith flourished, before it became encumbered with later accretions that distracted the faithful from the pure, Christ-centered worship of the first Christian times.

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The desire for the restoration of the ancient, unsullied faith was central to Luther’s theology, and this way of thinking inspired the architects of the Novus Ordo reforms 450 years after Luther’s rupture. Ironically, Luther saw the papacy as an especially corrupt and unjustified departure from the Church of the apostolic times, yet in the quasi-Lutheranized Church of our era, the cult of the papacy has never been stronger.

Thus, we have the notion that a commission can allow, with the approbation of the pope, for the admission of women to a grade of Holy Orders. In fact, no pope has any such authority, as no pope may permit that which is flatly contrary to Tradition and the sacred Deposit of the Faith. Moreover, as these pages recently noted, the question of female deacons was studied exhaustively and, in 2002, the International Theological Commission concluded that the women who held the office of “deaconess” in the ancient Church were not ordained members of the clergy.

Nonetheless, since the pope has commissioned the study, and since the ways of the early Church have been held in such esteem by the reformers of the twentieth century, it would be beneficial at this time for the papal commission to review other practices of the ancient Christians that might merit restoration. The following are but a few of the areas at which the commission might look.

The Veiling of Women at Mass
The practice of women covering their heads with the veil at Mass is of the most ancient vintage. The custom is scriptural, handed down by St. Paul himself, whose pure Christianity is the ideal of every Lutheran-style reformer, including the crafters and implementers of the Novus Ordo.

Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved. For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil. (1 Cor 11:4-16)

Of course, this venerable way of dress persisted through the centuries. The 1917 Code of Canon Law held it mandatory for women assisting at Holy Mass, but the revised Code issued in 1983 removed the obligation. Given its apostolic foundation, it would seem a perfect subject for consideration and reintroduction while the pope’s commission investigates the role of the female deacon.

Separation of Seating by Sex at Mass
It seems that, in the early Church, men and women sat apart at Mass, in separate areas of the church building. The practice is noted in the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus of Rome and written around 215, wherein women are instructed to “pray in another place in the church, by themselves, whether faithful women or catechumen women.” Hippolytus also restricts the “kiss of peace” by sex, so that men were prohibited from the exchange of the greeting with women.

This should be of particular interest to the enthusiasts of the Novus Ordo, for one of the grounds for demoting the once untouchable Roman Canon and adding the new Eucharistic Prayers was to recover the “anaphora” prayer ascribed to Hippolytus, now set down as the ubiquitous Eucharistic Prayer II.

In addition, major Church Fathers Saints Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom endorsed the separation of the sexes as fostering modesty and as a safeguard against impure thoughts creeping in during Mass. The ancient and enduring nature of the practice is evident from the fact that it was strongly commended in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. “It is desirable that, in harmony with ancient Church order, the women in church be separated from the men.” (Canon 1262, § 1)

Thus, since the separation of the sexes was a practice of the ancient Church, praised Church Fathers, and because many of the foundations of the Novus Ordo are rooted in the attempt to recover these early practices, it would make sense to study segregation by sex along with the study of the revival of the female diaconate.

Public and Prolonged Penance
The practice of sacramental forgiveness of sins was substantially different in the ancient Church. Throughout the Church’s first millennium, the satisfaction aspect of the sacrament involved far more than the modern “say two Hail Marys”-style penances that commonly follow absolution. The practice of public penance grew over the course of the first centuries of Christianity. In the middle of the third century, St. Gregory the Wonder-worker described four classes of sinners, grouped according to the nature of their offenses and the manner prescribed for their penances.

Those guilty of the most serious sins were excluded for entry into a church building, and were instead made to stand in an outer portico where they were to beg the prayers of the faithful as the passed by into the church. These were known as the “weepers,” clad in sackcloth and ashes, crying over their grievous sins.

“Hearers” were granted entry into the church building, but were kept in the outer vestibule of the church. They were required to leave the building with the Catechumens before the commencement of the Sacred Mysteries of the Mass of the faithful. The “Prostrators” were allowed into the church building beyond the vestibule and could take part in certain prayers for their benefit, but they too were forced to exit before the Mass of the faithful and after they prostrated themselves before the bishop.

The canons of the great Council of Nicaea, promulgated in 325, also refer to these categories of public penitents and prescribe the years that certain types of sinners must spend as members of the various classes, excluded from the Mass of the faithful and subject to public abasement. (Canons 11-12)

Clearly, how the revival of these penitential practices would impact the Year of Mercy and the age of Amoris Laetitia requires further examination, but they are of ancient origin, so we must consider their reinstitution along with reinstitution of women deacons.

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Now, it is likely that many supporters of female ordination would object to the restoration of these practices. But perhaps such objections might cause them to reexamine the logic and wisdom of their desire to recover what they believe to be the ways of the early Christians. They might even be forced to consider the dreaded pre-conciliar magisterium of Pius XII, who sternly warned against the use of “antiquarianism” to guide liturgical reform (Mediator Dei).

Since Vatican II, we have seen the use of antiquity to try to out-tradition the traditionalists, destroying Tradition while acting in its name, ushering in practices modeled on modern ideologies antithetical to the slow and organic development of the Church’s two thousand years of liturgical life.

In spite of the appeal to “recovery,” the introduction of female deacons would be a radical break with Tradition and an unthinkable deconstruction of the very foundations of Holy Orders. It ought to have the same chances of institution as the promulgation of a decree ordering the segregation of the sexes at Mass and the return of weepers in sackcloth and ashes.


  • Christian Browne

    Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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