The case for women deacons


In response to last month’s article on future directions for the church, the author of a book on women deacons defends traditional church teaching on celibate clergy and women priests, but suggests that the ordination of women as deacons would help address the needs of parishes without priests.

The church has always accepted that there is no theological reason why priests could not be married.  Yet from its earliest days it has insisted on a celibate clergy.  It is a disciplinary rule that could be changed.  We already have a significant number of married priests in those who have crossed the Tiber from the Anglican tradition.  However if married priests became the norm, we could lose far more than we would gain.  A look at those denominations that do allow married clergy shows that, possibly after an initial rise, it would not solve the problem of the shortage of priests.  They are struggling to keep parishes open just as much as we are.  We could end up with married clergy feeling, or being treated as, inferior to their celibate counterparts.  We would lose the example of men who felt that being ‘in persona Christi’ was worth sacrificing family life for.

The issue of women priests is a theological one, not merely disciplinary.  Church practice must conform to Scripture, Tradition and the teaching of the magisterium.  The magisterium of the church has never allowed women priests (there are some records of groups with women acting as priests but they were schismatic and never approved by the wider church).  Tradition has never recognised women priests.  Women played important roles in the early Church – Paul names thirteen women who were just as important as the men in setting up house churches and evangelising – but none of them were presbyters/elders/episcopoi.  So that leaves Scripture.

If we look back over the centuries covered by the Old Testament (which Jesus came to complete, not destroy), women could be judges and prophets but not priests.  Several women had unique or powerful positions – Eve was the only person in all of Scripture other than Jesus to speak with both God and the devil; Sarah’s servant, Hagar, named God, which even Moses did not dare to do; Deborah was the only person named as being both judge and prophet – yet none of them were priests.

The New Testament also has examples of women in positions of equality or even superiority to men.  Of course, the first is Our Lady ‘full of grace,’ without whom Easter could not have happened.  Others include the Samaritan woman who held the longest recorded conversation with Jesus; the Syro-phoenician woman who was the only person to argue with him; Martha who gave a declaration of faith equal to that of Peter; the group of women who stood at Calvary when all the disciples had fled; Mary Magdalen and the other women who were the first to see the empty tomb, the first to see the risen Lord and the first to spread the Good News.  Yet none of them were at the Last Supper.

Those arguing for women priests point, perfectly accurately, to Jesus’ unconventional attitude to women and say that only the social norms of the day prevented him from appointing these women as apostles.  In the modern world, they say, there is no reason why we could not have women priests.  I would say that this argument is self-contradictory.  Jesus broke the social conventions on relating to women by speaking to them in public, so he could also have broken the conventions by having them present at the Last Supper.  The only conclusion is that, while Jesus wanted women to be apostles (he made a positive choice to appear first to them on Easter morning), he did not want them to be bishops/priests.

The lesson from this is that society works best when men and women treat each other with respect, accept their differences and concentrate on their complementary roles.  Pope John Paul II wrote at length about this in his Theology of the Body, where he argued strongly for women to be treated as equally made in God’s image.  His ‘catch phrase’ was ‘equal but different’.  Yet he also said categorically that women could not be priests.

I would turn instead to the question of women deacons.  Here, as with married priests, there is no theological reason why the rules could not be changed.  The early Church had women deacons, so there is no reason why they could not be re-introduced.  The key theological point was clarified at Vatican II in the document Lumen Gentium, when it was stated that only the bishop had the ‘fullness of the sacrament of orders’.  The bishop then delegates some of his ruling/judging powers to priests but only his duty of service to deacons.  So priests share in the bishop’s tasks of saying Mass and hearing confessions while deacons, not having the power to loose and to bind, assist the bishop in his duty to serve the community.  Female deacons in parishes would go a long way to addressing the needs of parishes.

Jane Coll completed a theology degree from Maryvale Institute, Birmingham by distance learning and is author of Handmaids of the Lord: Women Deacons in the Roman Catholic Church published by Gracewing in 2013.  She is currently working on a study of the named women of Scripture.


February/March 2019

February/March 2019


Open House held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.