Women Deacons? A Matter of Authority

Pope Francis recently called for a commission to study the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate in the Catholic Church. This might seem to be disturbing news because it suggests that the pope has opened up the possibility of ordaining women to the hierarchical and sacramental diaconate—a role which, throughout the history of the Church, has been expressly forbidden.

However, since we know this pope likes to open up topics for discussion without any intention of changing Church teaching, we have to believe that is what he is doing here. Furthermore, we know that, historically, a diaconate role has already been open to women. Since the early Church, women have been admitted to a non hierarchical and non sacramental diaconate. These women—”deaconesses”—played an essential role in ministering to women when it was clearly not appropriate for men to do so, for example, when preparing women for full immersion baptism. Much has been written on this subject by many authors, including myself when the subject of women deacons last reached a full boil in 1996.

Today, there is no need to rehash those arguments. The definitive answer to the question of admitting women to a hierarchal and sacramental diaconate need not be lengthy. If the pope’s call for discussion does get underway, we must hope and pray that he will effectively teach what is grounded in Scripture and in the Church.

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One has only to understand the nature of the diaconate and St. Paul’s teaching in his letter to Timothy. First, deacons occupy “the lower level of the hierarchy” and as administers of the word, the sacraments, and parishes, they have official Church authority over men, women, and children as they serve in this capacity. But, St. Paul says to Timothy: “For I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men; but she is to keep quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and was in sin” (1 Tim. 2:12-14).

Obviously, since St. Paul recognized that women can prophesy during public worship with head covered (1 Cor. 11:5) and since women were able to teach doctrine unofficially in the early Church (Acts 18:26), St. Paul’s statement, that “I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men,” referred to official teaching in the Church and to official Church leadership. While women could be charismatic leaders and teachers in the Church, as was St. Catherine of Siena, they could not be official leaders of men.

There have been attempts to probe this statement of St. Paul looking for a way to discredit it or to reinterpret it so as to open up a way to ordain women as hierarchical and sacramental deacons, but to no avail. Some have tried to say that this statement was conditioned by the culture or situation of the time but these were easily refuted. For example, it has been suggested that the rules or ordinances of St. Paul about women speaking in churches should be treated as a custom, just like St. Paul’s statements saying that women should have their heads covered when praying in churches (1 Cor. 11:2-6).

But the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith distinguished between these two Pauline ordinances for women when it explained St. Paul’s rule for women to cover their heads and St. Paul’s rule for not speaking in churches. After pointing out that the requirement to wear a veil on the head (cf. 1 Cor. 11: 2-6) was based on a custom of minor importance, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated: “However, the Apostle’s forbidding of women ‘to speak’ in the assemblies (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12) is of a different nature…” And the reason is that “For Saint Paul this prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7; Gen. 2:18-24); it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact.”

Thus, when St. Paul speaks about the wearing of a “veil,” he refers to it as a “sign” in the context of a “custom” within a culture (1 Cor. 11:10 and 16). Exegetes have stated that “Paul’s argument is based on his view of nature and propriety, i.e., the custom of the earliest Christian communities.” He even lets the Corinthians decide the issue: “I will let you judge for yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God unveiled?” (1 Cor. 11:13). So, while a woman should wear a veil, the issue may not be a serious matter in every culture.

But, when St. Paul gives his rule in 1 Tim. 2:12-14, “I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men,” he gives no evidence that he considers this to be just a matter of “sign” or “custom,” nor does he let Christians decide this matter for themselves. Rather, after giving a direct rule (“I do not allow”), he immediately appeals to Scripture for justification: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived (first), but the woman was deceived (first) and was in sin.” (My parentheses.) Thus St. Paul is basing his rule, that women must neither “officially” teach in assemblies nor have authority over men, on the divine revelation found in Genesis 2:18-22 and 3:1-13. So, this rule of St. Paul is not due to cultural conditioning but is part of the “divine plan.”

What all of this boils down to is this: women can have ministries in the Church—even administering the sacraments in some cases and conducting administrative rules as deaconesses. But “they cannot have authority over men.” It is a question of authority. This is the basis of why women cannot be ordained as sacramental and hierarchical deacons in the Catholic Church.

So, the possibility of women being included in the hierarchical diaconate of the Roman Catholic Church hinges on the question: Is St. Paul’s rule in 1 Tim. 2:11-14 (“For I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men”) a divine law? For, if it is a divine law, the Church’s rule, which excludes women from the diaconate, cannot change because the divine law is “eternal” and “unchanging.” And, as mentioned earlier, it is quite clear that St. Paul based his rule in 1 Tim. 2:11-14 on the divine law, because he explicitly appealed to the divinely revealed teaching of Gen. 2:18-24 as the basis for his rule. Thus, those who want to change the present ruling of the Church to permit women deacons must attack 1 Tim. 2:11-14 itself by challenging its authenticity as inspired Scripture.

But, Pope St. Damasus I and the Council of Rome (382), stated: “Now indeed we must treat of the divine Scriptures, what the universal Catholic church accepts and what she ought to shun.” Following this the Council of Rome listed the authentic Scriptures, which include St. Paul’s letters to Timothy. And, the Second Vatican Council stated that it “accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts,” and this Council itself quoted “2 Tim. 3:16-17.” Furthermore, the Council said that these books of the Scriptures, which have been with the Christians since the early days of the Church, “teach” the truth of God “without error.” Once more, in no. 11 of the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX “condemned” the statement that “Divine inspiration does not so extend to all Sacred Scripture that it fortifies each and every part of it against all error.” So, 1 Tim. 2:11-14 is fortified “against all error.”

Now, what do these passages from Scripture and these papal directives have to do with the women deacon issue? Everything! After all, the same authority of the Church that certified 1 Timothy certified the other Scriptures too. Therefore, to doubt the authenticity of any part of 1 Timothy is to doubt the authority behind the Canon of Scriptures. To base an argument in favor of women deacons one would have to call into question the authenticity of Church teachings, which is to attack the entirety of Scripture and Tradition, i.e., the deposit of the Catholic Faith itself, including the Second Vatican Council. One cannot disbelieve the message of the apostles and the Church and be saved (Matt. 10:14-15).

Therefore, to call into doubt the veracity of 1 Tim. 2:11-14 is a very grave matter for which one risks his eternal salvation. Surely the pope’s intention is to draw out the argument for the ultimate purpose of silencing Church activists once and for all, and to declare the Church’s teachings once again. For we know that Jesus said: “For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul” (Matt. 16:26).

Yes, some choose to lose their souls to gain the whole world. But for women deacons?

(Editor’s note: The image above is taken from the Visoki Decani Monastery.)


  • Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap

    Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M.Cap., is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008. His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made three series for Mother Angelica’s EWTN: “Crucial Questions,” “Catholic Answers,” and “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?”

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