Female deacons?

Question: Since women can perform so many roles in the church today, why can’t they be deacons? I understand there were female deacons in the early Church. Do you have an opinion in this matter?

— Paul Nemetz Eden, Utah 

Answer: Women have carried out a great variety of roles in the Church right from the beginning. Long before the Second Vatican Council, women’s religious orders and congregations accorded women roles of authority and influence that had no parallel in the non-ecclesiastical world. 

It is clear that even in Jesus’ own ministry women played an important role. While there were no women among the Twelve Apostles, and while there is no evidence that women were ever ordained to the priesthood, there is ample evidence that there were female deacons in the early Church. While these continued to have a presence for a number of centuries in the churches of the East, the female diaconate quickly died out in the West — as did the male permanent diaconate. 

With the restoration of the permanent diaconate for men after Vatican II, there have been many calls from Church groups and individuals for the opening of the diaconate to women. The Holy See has not shown any desire to move in this direction; however, the Church has not officially ruled out the possibility. 

Before this would happen, a clearer picture would need to emerge of what exactly female deacons did. Scholars are divided on this matter, and even the International Theological Commission, an official advisory group to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, came to no definitive conclusions when it completed a study of this matter in 2001. 

Among the questions that remain are: Was the early Christian diaconate for women parallel to that of men? Did female deacons perform the same liturgical roles as male deacons? Was the commissioning of female deacons a sacramental rite? Was the diaconate for women part of holy orders or was it more akin to what used to be called minor orders? 

If all these questions were answered in such a way that the Church would think itself free to open the diaconate to women, then I would welcome such a development. The question is certainly not going away. Even now, the matter continues to have a certain presence in the Church in the fact that the wives of deacons are closely associated with the education, formation and ministry of their husbands, and many seem capable of undertaking the same ministry as their husbands. 

Valid baptisms 

Question: How do we know if the baptism performed in other Christian churches and denominations are valid? When does doubt occur? 

— J.G., Pueblo, Colo. 

Answer: This matter was dealt in the Directory Concerning Ecumenical Matters, Part One (1967) when it declared: “Baptism by immersion, pouring or sprinkling, together with the trinitarian formula, is of itself valid. Therefore, if the rituals and liturgical books or established customs of a church or community prescribe one of these ways of baptizing, doubt can only arise if it happens that the minister does not observe the regulations of his own community or church. What is necessary and sufficient, therefore, is evidence that the minister of baptism was faithful to the norms of his own community or church” (No. 13a). 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.