Why are women denied the diaconate?

Tphoebehe Catholic Church in our time does not allow women to be ordained deacons. This prohibition makes no sense. For women have been ordained deacons in the past. Paul commends Phoebe, “the deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16,1). During the first thousand years of the Church’s existence, thousands of women deacons were sacramentally ordained, especially in the eastern, Greek-speaking, part of the Catholic Church. The exclusion of women from the diaconate in our time is inexcusable.

Here we will briefly present the data. Each of these facts can be verified through the research that we have published online on www.womendeacons.org. [Numbers refer to footnotes printed at the bottom of this document.]

For almost a thousand years women deacons prepared female catechumens for baptism. They anointed them during the baptismal ceremony itself.[1] They assisted female members of the congregation during church services. They visited the sick and took them the Viaticum.[2] They anointed the dying and arranged the deceased for their funeral. In the absence of a male deacon, they assisted the presbyter at the altar when celebrating the Eucharist.[3]

Research has shown that tens of thousands of women served as fully ordained deacons in local churches during ten long centuries. Some of them ministered in Italy[4] and Gaul[5], but the majority lived and worked in Greece[6], Asia Minor[7], Syria[8], Palestine and Egypt[9], remembering that these latter were Eastern regions of the Christian Church as yet undivided by the schism of 1054 AD.

The ordination rite for women deacons

The ordination of women deacons was clearly a real ordination, ‘sacramental’ to use today’s terms[10] and substantially identical to the ordination of male deacons. The rite has been preserved in ancient manuscripts, such as the Barberini Gr 336 (780 AD),[11] the Bessarion (1020 AD),[12] Vatican Mss Gr 1872 (1100 AD),[13] the Coislin Gr 213 (1050 AD)[14] and the Codex Vaticanus Syr 19.[15]

That the rite conferred a full ordination to the diaconate, equivalent to that for male deacons, is clear from the following facts:

  • The female deacon, just like her male counterpart, was ordained by the Bishop who imposed hands on her while invoking the Holy Spirit: “Holy and Omnipotent Lord, through the birth of your Only Son our God from a Virgin according to the flesh, you have sanctified the female sex. You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maid servant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate, and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit.”[16]
  • The Bishop, while still imposing hands, spoke a second prayer of ordination, the ekphonese, characteristic only for the three major orders of episcopacy, presbyterate and diaconate.
  • Before the ordination of both the male and female deacon the Bishop publicly declared his intention of ordaining the candidate to be a deacon in the ‘Divine Grace’ statement, as only happened for all major orders.
  • The ordination of both male and female deacon took place in the sanctuary before the altar, during the liturgy of the Eucharist and at a very solemn moment, namely after the sacred Anaphora, just like for the ordination of male deacons, presbyters, and bishops. In contrast, so-called minor orders, such as the lectorate and subdiaconate, were imparted by a simple imposition of hands outside the sanctuary and not during the Eucharist.
  • Both the male and the female deacons received the diaconal stole, the diakonikon, as a sign of their ecclesiastical rank.
  • During the ordination rite the bishop handed the chalice to the female deacon, just as he did for the male deacon, which indicates that deacons of both sexes had equal authority to distribute communion.[17]

These features convince a vast majority of scholars that the rite was a true ordination establishing women as much as men in the major order of the diaconate.[18]

Confirmation in Tradition

Overwhelming evidence shows that, at least in the Eastern part of the Church, women were fully accepted as ordained ministers during the first millennium.

In Scripture we read about “Phoebe, our sister, who is a deacon [diakonos] of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16,1-2). Scholars attribute to her a true ministry.[19] We find the instruction in 1 Timothy 3,8-11: “Deacons [diakonous] must be serious, reliable in what they say, not given to wine, not greedy for money […]. The women in the same way should be respectable, not gossips, but sober and reliable in everything.” That this last sentence refers to ordained women deacons and not deacons’ wives follows from an attentive reading of the Greek text and is confirmed by the interpretation of early Greek Fathers of the Church.[20]

The First Council of Nicea (325 AD), while declaring invalid the diaconate of women in the sect of Paul of Samosata “because those women had not received the imposition of hands”, implicitly acknowledged women’s diaconate as a valid order in the Church.[21] The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) imposed a minimum age on female deacons, as it did on male deacons and priests, an injunction repeated by the Council of Trullo (692 AD).[22]

The ministry of women deacons is mentioned or commended by the Fathers of the Church: St Clement of Alexandria (150-215),[23] Origen (185-255),[24] Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403),[25] St Basil of Caesaria (329-379),[26] St John Chrysostom (344-407),[27] St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)[28] and many others.[29]

Just like male deacons, women deacons are extensively covered in early Pastoral Manuals, such as the Didascalia of the Apostles (ca 250 AD)[30] and the Apostolic Constitutions (ca 380 AD)[31]. The latter contains early ordination rites for bishops, priests and deacons, including for women deacons.[32] Church legislation, such as under Emperor Theodosius (390 AD)[33] and Emperor Justinian I (529-564)[34] gives women deacons the same rights and duties as other members of the clergy, apart from some specific provisions.

Many Popes endorsed women’s diaconate. Representatives of Pope Sylvester I (314-335) attended the Council of Nicea which accepted women deacons. Pope Innocent I (401-417) corresponded with John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, who regularly ordained women deacons. The Council of Chalcedon, which imposed an age limit on women deacons, was partly organised by Pope Leo the Great (440-461). Pope Gregory I (440-461) composed a sacramentary which contained the ordination prayer for a woman deacon, identical to the prayer for a male deacon. At the request of Emperor Charlemagne, Pope Adrian I (772-795) sent a model sacramentary with ordination rites, the Hadrianum,[35] to Gaul. It contained the ordination prayer for women deacons.[36]

Though the ordination of women deacons remained known in the West till the Middle Ages,[37] it met heavy resistance in many regions which had been part of the Roman empire. This was due to a bias against menstruation by which it was feared women could pollute the altar[38] and the Roman belief that women are inferior to men.[39] In the East the ordination of women deacons ceased after 1000 AD by a combination of the fact that the number of adult catechumens diminished and the same fear of menstruation.[40]

Society in our time is rising above such ancient prejudices. Women are now proving their value in education, medicine, science, commerce, government and other spheres of modern life. Women too have been playing a crucial role in the life of the Catholic Church which often amounts to a real diaconal ministry. It is only right that they should be supported and affirmed in this by receiving a full ordination, as their male counterparts do.

What is the situation today?


wijngaards I cannot understand, for the life of me, why the Catholic Church is refusing to ordain women to the diaconate in our time.

There are no doctrinal excuses. The past proves that it can be done. Moreover, many women are already involved in ministries that in essence are diaconal. Ordaining men who do the same tasks to the diaconate, while withholding the order from women amounts to real discrimination. Since the ordination gives special spiritual as well as indicates a level of leadership in the Church, women are hereby unjustly denied what should be theirs.

When will this discrimination end?!

John Wijngaards


[1] http://www.womendeacons.org/intro/deac_bap.shtml.

[2] http://www.womendeacons.org/intro/deac_apo.shtml.

[3] http://www.womendeacons.org/intro/deac_alt.shtml.

[4] http://www.womendeacons.org/minwest/list_italy.shtml.

[5] http://www.womendeacons.org/minwest/gaul_overview.shtml.

[6] http://www.womendeacons.org/history/list_greece.shtml.

[7] http://www.womendeacons.org/history/list_asia.shtml.

[8] http://www.womendeacons.org/history/list_arm_syria.shtml.

[9] http://www.womendeacons.org/history/ list_pal_egypt.shtml.

[10] The distinction between ‘a sacrament’ and ‘a sacramental’ arose only in the 12th century. Hugo of St. Victor (1096 – 1141) was the first to contrast ‘the minor sacraments’ and ‘the sacraments through which our salvation is mainly found’. Peter Lombard (1100 – 1160) coined the term ‘sacramentals’ in opposition to the ‘seven sacraments’. However, a change of terminology does not disprove the value of the ordinations in the early Church.

[11] http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr1.shtml.

[12] http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr2.shtml.

[13] http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr3.shtml.

[14] http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr5.shtml.

[15] http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_syr.shtml.

[16] See the Codex Barberini Gr. 336 (780 AD): http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr1.shtml.

[17] The significance of these features is explained here: http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/hobart.shtml.

[18] D. Ansorge, ‘Der Diakonat der Frau. Zum gegenwärtigen Forschungsstand’, in T. Berger and A. Gerhards (eds.), Liturgie und Frauenfrage, St. Odilien 1990, pp. 31-65, here pp. 46-47; M-J. Aubert, Des Femmes Diacres. Un nouveau chemin pour l’Eglise, Paris 1987, p. 105; Chr. Bottigheimer, ‘Der Diakonat der Frau’, Münchener Theologische Zeitschrift 47 (1996) 3, pp. 253-66, here p. 259; Y. Congar, ‘Gutachten zum Diakonat der Frau’, in Synode. Amtliche Mitteilungen der Gemeinsamen Synode der Bistümer in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Munich 1973, no 7, pp. 37-41, here p. 37; H. Frohnhofen, ‘Weibliche Diakone in der friihen Kirche’, Studien der Zeit 204 (1986) pp. 269-78, here p. 276; R. Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Collegeville 1976; originally Le ministère des femmes dans l’Eglise ancienne, Gembloux 1972, pp. 117-18; P. Hofrichter, ‘Diakonat und Frauen im kirchlichen Amt’, Heiliger Dienst 50 (1996) 3, pp. 140-58, here pp. 152-4; P. Hünermann, ‘Theologische Argumente fur die Diakonatsweihe von Frauen’, in Diakonat. Ein Amt fur Frauen in der Kirche Ein Frauengerechtes Amt?, Ostfildern 1997, pp. 98-128, here p. 104; A. Jensen, ‘Das Amt der Diakonin in der kirchlichen Tradition des ersten Jahrtausends’, in Diakonat. Ein Amt fur Frauen in der Kirche Ein frauengerechtes Amt?, Ostfildern 1997, pp. 33-52, here p. 47; K. Karidoyanes Fitzgerald, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, Brookline 1998, pp. 120-121; D. Reininger, Diakonat der Frau in der einen Kirche, Ostfildern 1999, pp. 97-98; E. Theodorou, ‘The Institution of Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church and the Possibility of its Restoration’, in G. Limouris (ed.), The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Katerini, Greece, 1992), pp. 207-238; here pp. 212-213; A. Thiermeyer, ‘Der Diakonat der Frau’, Theologisch Quartalschrift 173 (1993) 3, pp. 226-36, here pp. 230-31; C. Vagaggini, ‘L’Ordinazione delle diaconesse nella tradizione greca e bizantina’, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 40 (1974), pp. 145-89, here pp. 169-73; John Wijngaards, The Ordained Women Deacons of the First Millennium, Canterbury Press 2011, pp. 112-121; Phyllis Zagano, Holy Saturday. An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Apostolate, New York 2000, pp. 98-102.

[19] G. Lohfink, ‘Weibliche Diakone im Neuen Testament’, in G. Dautzenberg et al. (ed.), Die Frau im Urchristentum, Freiburg 1983, pp. 320-338.

[20] J. Roloff, Der Erste Brief an Timotheus, Neukirchen 1988, p. 164; H. Merkel, Die Pastoralbriefe, Göttingen 1991, p. 31; L. Oberlinner, Die Pastoralbriefe, Freiburg 1994, pp. 139-142.

[21] http://www.womendeacons.org/history/can_nic1.shtml.

[22] http://www.womendeacons.org/history/deac_cls.shtml.

[23] Stromata 3,6,53:3-4; GCS 52, 220, 2-25.

[24] Origen, Commentary on Romans 10,17; J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 14, 1278 A-C. The text has been preserved in Latin, but R. Gryson (Ministry, p. 31, 134) shows that the phrase ‘women deacons’ must have been in Greek: ‘γυναικες διακονους’.

[25] Panarion 75, 1-4; J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 42, col. 744-45; GCS 37 (1933) p. 478; Summary of Faith 21; J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 42, cols. 824-25; GCS 37 (1933) p. 522.

[26] Letter to Amphilochius on the Canons, Lett. 199, can. 44; R. I. Deffarari (ed.), Saint Basil. The Letters, vol. 3, London 1930, p. 130.

[27] Homily 11,1 on the First Letter to Timothy ch. 3; J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 62, col. 553.

[28] On the Life on St. Macrina; J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 46, cols. 960-1000; here cols. 988-290; English translation by W.K. Lowther Clarke, The Life of St. Macrina, London 1916; P. Wilson-Kastner, ‘Macrina: virgin and teacher’, Andrews University Seminary Studies 17 (1979), 105-117.

[29] J. Wijngaards, The Ordained Women Deacons of the Church’s First Millennium, Canterbury Press 2012, pp. 179-189.

[30] Alistair Stewart-Sykes, The Didascalia Apostolorum: An English Version, Studia Traditionis Theologiae: Explorations in Early and Medieval Theology, vol. 1 (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2009). Latin version in: E. Tidner, Didascaliae Apostolorum, Canonum ecclesiasticorum, Traditionis apostolicae versiones latinae, Berlin 1963. See also R. H. Connolly, Didascalia Apostolorum, the Syriac Version translated and accompanied by the Verona Latin Fragments, Oxford 1929.

[31] J. Mayer, Monumenta de viduis diaconissis virginibusque tractantia, Bonn 1937, pp. 18-26; Apost. Const. VIII,  28,5; F.X. Funk, Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum, vol I, Paderborn 1905, p. 530.

[32] Again, most commentators consider these to have been valid ordination rites. See D. Ansorge, Diakonat der Frau pp. 46-47; M-J. Aubert, Femmes Diacres p. 105; Ch. Böttigheimer, Der Diakonat p. 259; Y. Congar, Gutachten zum Diakonat p. 37; H. Frohnhofen, Weibliche Diakone p. 276; R. Gryson, Ministry pp. 117-118; P. Hofrichter, Diakonat und Frauen pp. 152-154; P. Hünermann, Theologische Argumente p. 104; A. Jensen, Das Amt p. 59; D. Reininger, Diakonat der Frau pp. 97-98; A. Thiermeyer, Der Diakonat pp. 230-231; C. Vaggagini, L’Ordinazione pp. 169-173.

[33] Law XVI, 2, 27; J. Mayer, Monumenta de viduis diaconissis virginibusque tractantia, Bonn 1937, p. 16.

[34] Novella 6, 6 § 1-10; Novella 123, 30; Novella 131, 23; R. Schoell and G. Kroll (ed.), Corpus Iuris Civilis, vol. III, Novellae, Berlin 1899, pp. 43-45; p. 616; p. 662.

[35] The Hadrianum is preserved in 5 manuscripts: Cambray 164 (811 AD) – http://www.womendeacons.org/minwest/cambrai164.shtml; Ottobianus 313 (850 AD) – http://www.womendeacons.org/minwest/ottobonianus313.shtml; Reginae 337 (850 AD) – http://www.womendeacons.org/minwest/reginae337.shtml; Vienna mss pal. 1817 (1002 AD) – http://www.womendeacons.org/minwest/vienna1817.shtml; Leofric Missal (1050 AD) – http://www.womendeacons.org/minwest/leofric_female.shtml.

[36] All this information is summarised here: http://www.womendeacons.org/history/timeline.shtml.

[37] See an overview of its history here: http://www.womendeacons.org/minwest/rite_growth.shtml.

[38] http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/unclean.asp.

[39] http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/inferior.asp.

[40] This according to medieval Greek theologians, such as Balsamon and Blastares – http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/balsamon.asp.

[41] The implication is: during the Eucharist the bishop sits on his throne – like God the Father. The deacon stands at the altar – serving as Christ did. The priests look like the apostles – whose life-size images could be seen on the iconostasis. The woman deacon is less prominent – as the lifegiving, healing, saving, all-pervading Spirit. Didascalia ch. 9 and 16. English translation by Stewart-Sykes, The Didascalia Apostolorum: An English Version, pp. 192-93 and 151 respectively.