The Deaconess Idea Redux

The much-anticipated Synod in the fall is to discuss the question of deaconesses. As is the case with so many other stupid ideas, the Protestants have been ahead of us for centuries on the issue.

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Here we go again: the much-anticipated Synod in the fall is to discuss the question of deaconesses. As is the case with so many other stupid ideas, the Protestants have been ahead of us for centuries on the issue.

Two anecdotes illustrate my concern about this. 

The first occurred when I was on a sabbatical in Providence, Rhode Island. I helped a Catholic campus minister who was working with Newman chaplaincies in a few public college venues. He knew an Episcopalian deaconess who also worked at a community college. I celebrated a Mass one day for a small group, and then the campus minister, the deaconess, and I had lunch together.

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The campus minister, a product of some 17 years of Catholic education, brought up the question of the Episcopalian ordination of women and whether the deaconess wanted also to be a “priest.” She surprised me by saying that when she became a deaconess there had not been the idea that this was a path to holy orders. The ministry of deaconess was “something else,” she said.

In fact, the Episcopalian deaconess ministry dated to 1857 and was part of a pan-Protestant, international movement in the 19th century. The Episcopalian deaconesses in the United States, set apart by the bishop of Maryland, “ministered as nurses, teachers, chaplains, caregivers, administrators, fundraisers and missionaries, both within the U.S. and around the world. They often served under difficult conditions, with little compensation, and always under gendered definitions,” according to an official denomination history [emphasis added].

It was not a path to holy orders, but it was service to the church like that of the Catholic religious congregations of sisters (and brothers). The deaconess I knew had accepted the ministry that existed for her and did not apparently accept the decision of the Episcopal Church in the United States, “when in 1970 women were admitted to ordination as deacons, the Church’s deaconesses, perpetual deacons and transitional deacons were joined in a single order of deacons; and women were thus counted among clergy for the first time.” Note the phrase, “single order of deacons.” 

The word deaconess was retired and the official decision marked the defunct category with the testimony, “Some 500 Episcopal deaconesses blessed the Church and the world with their diverse ministries, and provided an example of courageous faithfulness that challenged later generations to recognize God’s call to women.” Requiescat in pace.

Of course, the “diaconal” ordination of women in that ecclesial community led to “priestly” ordination and then to “episcopal” ordination. My marking the words between quotations is not about women’s ordination per se but a reflection of the traditional official Catholic estimation of Episcopal and Anglican participation in holy orders. 

So, are the advocates of deaconesses pushing for inclusion in holy orders? This seems to be the thinking of Cardinal Hollerich of Luxembourg, a synod relator, who has said he did not believe St. John Paul’s 1994 official statement on women’s ordination was infallible. Hollerich said about the inclusion of the theme of deaconesses, “Pope Francis does not want the ordination of women and I am completely obedient to that. But people continue to discuss it.” And, therefore, we should give its advocates space to shape a pastoral project of the Church? If at first you don’t succeed, as when this was tried in the Amazon Synod, try, try, again?

This is the story of activists who take over meetings, and, in many denominations, the administration of central offices. The deaconess cohort in the Catholic Church will surely jettison the “gender-defined” word if they get their way, and the deaconesses will be merged or submerged into the diaconate order. Activists are agenda oriented, not necessarily pastorally oriented; they push forward ad extremum

We have seen that in the acceptance in ministry to congregations by various denominations of openly homosexual ministers, at first celibate ones, and then those who are “married” civilly to partners, and later these same given positions of supervisors and bishops. It does not even merit the slippery slope metaphor; it is more like the Long March. Is that what we will see in the synod?

A second anecdote. The Evangelical Reformed Church in the United States, made up of many German immigrants from Prussia, also had deaconesses. In fact, there was a hospital founded in Cleveland in 1922 called “Deaconess.” It survived into the eighties when it was swallowed up into The Cleveland Clinic, which is one of the two great octopuses of healthcare in this city.

Deaconess Hospital was served by a group of Evangelical Reformed women who did not marry and lived a communal lifestyle. One of Cleveland’s histories frankly calls them “religious sisters.” In the 1970s, as part of my seminary formation, I took an internship with the hospital, which was then officially a ministry of the United Church of Christ. The Evangelical Reformed denomination merged with the Congregational Church of America in the 1930s to form said “United” Church of Christ). The head chaplain at Deaconess, who was in charge of our brief pastoral experience, was an old-shoe type of Protestant minister, very open to Catholic students and easygoing. 

He told us the story of the deaconesses, who had already disappeared from the hospital. He talked about the roots of the community in nineteenth-century Germany. In the early part of the twentieth century, a kind of seminary or training center for deaconesses was founded in Cleveland. Celibate (like Florence Nightingale, by the way, although she did not take vows), the deaconesses had a communal life of prayer and service.

As time went on, there were fewer and fewer deaconesses. From being the health care workers at the small hospital (it began with only 22 beds) they eventually became the managers of the operation, which had grown into a major hospital. There were fewer and fewer of them as time went on. It was even decided that the deaconesses could marry, but the chaplain said, “That didn’t work either. They had come to the end of their time.”

This makes us think of the schools and hospitals run by so many religious orders. As the pool of religious became smaller, there were less religious in education, from kindergarten to the Catholic universities. The orders and congregations became owners-administrators of institutions that had been ministries. There are congregations of sisters about to cease to exist. 

In Cleveland, the sisters who taught me in grade school have stopped taking in new candidates for their community. One religious said that her community’s new retirement home was built with the idea that eventually it would become condominiums for senior independent living. Is this prudence or despair? 

Is the synod going to address what has happened to religious life—and the ministries sustained by it—in most of Europe and North America? The gender-orientation of the deaconesses’ issue is perhaps an equivocation. Men’s congregations of brothers are disappearing, too. It is not necessarily about a man-woman thing, maybe it is about faith and self-abnegation. Is the synod going to address what has happened to religious life—and the ministries sustained by it—in most of Europe and North America?Tweet This

What needs to be addressed is the crisis of faith. We have seen many initiatives, but they seem to be an option for what Pope Benedict, whose absence grieves us still, called regno-centricity, the placing at the center of our thinking the material aspects of the kingdom instead of the King, Jesus Christ. Good works accompany faith but are a result—not the object—of our worship. The actions of the Church in charity are not, cannot be, more important than belief in Jesus the Christ, although they are its crucial corollary. 

Many times, we have the cart-before-the-horse kind of apologetics instead of unapologetic preaching of the Gospel. We want to show the world our usefulness. We should demonstrate that to God and not be concerned about appearances.   

Calling some women in ministry deaconesses does not seem to be the solution to the crises we are living with, whether it implies ordination or not. The harvest is plentiful (or should be) and what we need is more laborers, not new nomenclature. Is the plan to change Church Order or to substitute a new top-down structure of ministry to substitute for the charisms of religious life and service? Synods ideally should be about recognizing charisms, not inventing them. 

The example of deaconesses among the shattered fragments of Christianity should be a warning to us. Some have tried this before, and it did not work. Why waste our time in committee work and—let’s face it—verbiage, while the fields are heavy with grain? 


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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