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The impossible synodal debate on ‘deaconesses’

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A Vatican synod official raised again this week the possibility of female deacons being introduced into the Church in an interview with a German Catholic newspaper. 

In an interview with the German publication Die Tagespost, synod undersecretary Sr. Nathalie Becquart said that the introduction of female deacons on a regional basis was “a possibility” following the synodal process.

The religious sister has emerged as a kind of roving booster for the global synodal process since her appointment to the permanent secretariat in Rome in 2021. 

Sr Nathalie Becquart: "a sign of confidence for women in the Church" -  Vatican News
Sr. Nathalie Becquart XMCJ. Image credit: Vatican media.

In her interview, previewed April 24, she stressed that the issue of female deacons remains a divisive point, one unable to command a consensus in the October synodal assemblies. 

Instead, she told the newspaper, “the synod could emphasize this diversity with further decentralization,” and cited the reinstitution of the permanent diaconate following the Second Vatican Council, which was left to bishops’ conferences to implement, or not, as they found suitable.

While she did not personally back the institution of female deacons, Becquart’s comments are likely to stir controversy fueling expectations that such a move is even possible, since there seems to be little consensus among synodal participants or advocates for a female diaconate more broadly about what, exactly, a female deacon would be.

That lack of agreement on what a “deaconess” could be might prove to be a greater impediment to their introduction than the general opposition to the notion of a female diaconate.


The question of female deacons has been discussed in the Church for more than a decade, often within the context of meetings on the synod of bishops in Rome, amid wider discussions of how to open new roles and paths to leadership for women in the Church.

For many, including prominent leaders of the Church in Germany’s controversial “synodal way,” full female sacramental ordination is a stated ambition — often presented as a demand — for the “modernization” of the Church in the third millennium.

To that end, advancing female diaconal ordination is often seen as a necessary first step towards female priestly ordination which, as Becquart stressed in her interview, Pope Francis has clearly stated is not possible in Church teaching, even if he is apparently willing to listen to the case for “deaconesses,” for which there was some precedent in the ancient Church.

In 2016, Francis set up a commission at the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to examine the historical role of “deaconesses” in the early Church. While that commission did not issue a conclusive finding, Francis himself noted that the historical role was not akin to sacramental ordination, and was closer to the role of an abbess in many cases.

The issue surfaced again during the Synod on the Amazon, with the final synodal document asking that the issue be revisited, something the pope agreed to do.

In the meantime, the Church has repeatedly stated that the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone is a function of divine law, and beyond the power of the Church to change or depart from. 

But the extent to which there is theological or doctrinal room for maneuver between the ordination of female priests and deacons remains at the center of the current debate. 

Some theologians and bishops have argued that, since deacons do not have the power of sacramental ministry beyond those common to all the faithful, conferring diaconal ordination on women would not challenge directly the teaching on the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone.

However, other theologians have pointed out that the Church recognizes and teaches that there is only one sacrament of holy orders, common to deacons, priests, and bishops, with each class of cleric receiving an increased fullness of orders. The Church’s teaching which excludes women from sacramental ordination, they argue, applies to all three grades since the essential nature of the sacrament cannot be divided.

Francis himself has stressed, as recently as last October, that the Church’s unchangeable teaching on male-only ordination pertains to the unified sacrament of “holy orders,” rather than a more narrow understanding of “priestly ordination,” and he has previously tightened canonical language to reflect this understanding.

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In 2021, the pope promulgated a revised version of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, the Church’s universal penal code. As part of the revised text, a new version of canon 1379 was issued.

The previous wording of the law provided the penalty of excommunication for “a person who simulates the administration of a sacrament,” whereas the new version specifically excommunicated “both a person who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive the sacred order.” 

The language was seen by many canonists as an important reinforcement of both the discipline of barring female diaconal ordination and the theology of the unified nature of holy orders, since it recognized the “simulated” nature of such an attempted ordination at any grade, meaning it would be invalid of its nature, not just an illicit act as would be the case of a rogue consecration of a man as bishop, for example.

Nevertheless, advocates for female deacons continue to use the language of “ordination” in their pressing of the issue, including in the global synodal process — and even explicitly link those discussions to the prospect of female priestly ordination.

In her interview with Tagespost, Becquart appeared to make a similar reference to a division of the ranks of holy orders. 

According to the newspaper, while Sr. Nathalie said Pope Francis was either unwilling or unable to bring in female deacons at present out of concerns for Church unity, the pope is “not open to the opening of priestly ordination to women” for sacramental reasons.

Yet, while theologians, cardinals, and activists continue to debate for and against the impossibility of sacramental diaconal ordination for women, little if any conversation or thought has been given to exploring what other models of “deaconess” would be possible in line with Church teaching and informed by ancient examples.

Instead current discussion of female deacons, as much from those cautiously opposed as from those stridently in favor, remains stuck at the level of debating the sacramentally impossible. 

When pressed, all sides concede that alternative models for non-sacramental deaconesses could be envisaged. But, as yet, neither side of the debate seems interested in fleshing out the practicalities of those possibilities. 

Until they do, synodal calls or recommendations for local Churches to be given the kind of latitude to institute deaconesses — as suggested by Becquart — seem unlikely to make it into any final synodal document, and still less find papal favor.

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