Deaconesses in the Early Church

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Question from Anonymous on 5/12/2008:

Were the "deaconesses" in the early church (mentioned as far back as in the book of Romans) ordained ministers of the Church, equal to male deacons?

A nun in our parish cited to our Catholic school children that in the future women could be ordained as deacons because the church ordained women as deacons in the past - citing Romans, Acts, and the "Early Church".

Is this true? If it is not true, then could women be ordained as deacons in the future? Does this possibility exist?

She told this to about 75 fifth grade students and since I invited her to speak, I feel I have an obligation to follow-up with the teachers and make sure our students are not being misled on Church history or Church law in regard to female ordination to the diaconate - past or future. Thank you. If you cannot answer this question on the Q&A cite, could someone please answer me directly via email. I really want to ensure our children are being taught their faith correctly. Thank you so much.

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 5/25/2008:

Part of the discussion surrounding women and the diaconate has been centered among scholars as to the presence of deaconesses in the early centuries of the Church. St. Paul, for example, mentioned the deaconess Phoebe at Cenchreae (Rom. 16).

However, after extensive study, the International Theological Commission in 2002 concluded that the role of women deacons in the early Church should not be viewed as being equivalent to that of ordained male deacons. Further, the commission concluded that the permanent diaconate belongs to the sacrament of orders and thus is limited to men only.

The commission recognized that deaconesses had the responsibility during the early Church serving as a bridge or connection between women laity and the local church authorities. They did not take part in liturgical ministry, as did their male counterparts. Additionally, while deaconesses were ordained (sometimes with the imposition of hands), the practice was used with other nonclerics who served the church and was banned by one church council in the 6th century. As some groups in recent years had expected women deacons to be permitted, the Vatican in 2001 ordered an end any to Church supported courses that might prepare women for ordination as deacons.

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