Rome Sends Mixed Signals as Eastern Orthodox Begin Ordaining Deaconesses

Experts on female deacons urge Catholic Church to revive the female diaconate in the West

The newly ordained deaconess Angelic Molen administering the chalice at the St. Nektarios Mission Parish near Harare.

By Jules Gomes Published on July 9, 2024

The Roman Catholic Church is postponing its debate on deaconesses even as the Eastern Orthodox Church ordained its first female deacon to serve in the liturgy, in anticipation of more women to be ordained to the diaconate.

In a historic event, Metropolitan Serafim Kykotis, archbishop of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all of Africa, ordained Angelic Molen at the St. Nektarios Mission Parish near Harare, Zimbabwe, on Holy Thursday during the Orthodox Holy Week on May 2.

Eastern Orthodox Pope Authorizes Ordination

Molen’s ordination, authorized by His Beatitude Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, has triggered reactions ranging from hostile to affirming in the Eastern Orthodox churches — especially as her role, according to Serafim, “will include assisting priests in the liturgy and sacraments.”

“The Alexandrian Patriarchate in Africa felt the need to revive this order to serve the daily pastoral needs of Orthodox Christians in Africa,” states a press release from the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, revealing that “this historic event would not be possible without the approval and support of the Alexandrian Synod and His Beatitude Theodoros.”

After unanimously voting to revive the female diaconate at its synod in Alexandria in 2016, the patriarchate ordained five sub-deaconesses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2017.

“The ordination of Deaconess Angelic was the culmination of efforts around the world to renew the ancient order of deaconesses in the Orthodox Church, and specifically for the unique needs of parishes in Africa,” the statement added, explaining that Molen was ordained in the Byzantine rite.

Catalyst for Deaconesses in the Catholic Church?

Sources in Rome told The Stream that Molen’s ordination could spark debate on ordaining deaconesses in the Roman Catholic Church during the second phase of the October Synod of Bishops. 

However, at a press conference on Tuesday the Vatican announced that the discussion on deaconesses “will not be the subject of the work of the Second Session” of the Synod.

The Instrumentum laboris (working document) released to the media stated that “the fruits of Study Group 5” (which dealt specifically with deaconesses), will “take into consideration the results of the two Commissions that have dealt with the question in the past.”

“While some local Churches call for women to be admitted to the diaconal ministry, others reiterate their opposition,” the document explained.

“The restoration of the tradition of ordaining women to the diaconate in the Greek Orthodox Church in Zimbabwe gives great support to those Roman Catholics who wish the tradition to continue in the West, where it has been largely abandoned for some 800 years,” Prof. Phyllis Zagano told The Stream.

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Zagano holds a research position at Hofstra University, is regarded as a world authority on female deacons, and is author most recently of Just Church: Catholic Social Teaching, Synodality, and Women. In 2016, Pope Francis appointed her to serve on the Vatican commission to study female deacons.

“The question of restoring women to the ordained diaconate is before the Synod on Synodality, and one can only hope the process within Catholicism, and the Orthodox return to Tradition, will be respected,” she confirmed to the National Catholic Reporter.

“There is no Catholic doctrine against ordaining women as deacons,” Zagano told The Stream.

Orthodox Christians React with Support and Hostility

Molen’s ordination has triggered a heated debate within the Eastern Orthodox Churches between those who oppose women’s diaconate as a rupture with tradition and those who support it as a revival of an ancient practice that existed in the early days of the Church.

“The event caused many reactions, and gave rise to the free expression of various opinions and approaches,” Metropolitan Serafim wrote in a May 11 statement.

“The mission in Africa needs deaconesses, mainly for pastoral work and for the baptisms of adult women, as well as in special cases, such as widowhood, in stricter male-dominated environments, where for a long time the widowed woman is cut off from social and church life,” he explained.

Archdeacon Job Serebrov, an expert on the liturgies in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, told The Stream that it’s hard to predict whether other Greek Orthodox Churches will follow suit,

There appears to be stiff resistance on the part of the Slavic Orthodox Churches to do so,” he said. “The main concern that has been raised is that ordaining deaconesses will lead to female priests. This fear has arisen from the misplaced notion that the diaconate is only a stepping stone to the priesthood, which has only been reinforced in Eastern Orthodox seminaries and by current practice.

“Within the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches only the Armenian Orthodox Church has also ordained liturgically serving deaconesses. However, until 2017, when a lay woman was ordained, that office was reserved for nuns,” he added. “With proper education about the diaconate, ordination of deaconesses can be a great benefit to the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, especially when viewed in its correct perspective as filling a church need instead of correcting an imbalance in gender equality.”

Pope Francis Sends Mixed Signals on Female Deacons

In April 2020, Pope Francis appointed a new commission tasked with investigating the possibility of ordaining female deacons. Among the 10 theologians on the commission are two permanent deacons, three priests, and five lay women — all holding professorships at theological faculties.

Seven of the commission members hold the Church’s traditional position on reserving sacramental ordination to the diaconate and priesthood exclusively for men.

One of the most prominent scholars on the commission who has categorically concluded that women cannot be ordained deacons is Fr. Manfred Hauke, professor of patristics and dogmatics at the Theological Faculty of Lugano, Switzerland.

“Allowing women to be deacons would create great confusion for the faithful,” Fr. Hauke maintains. “You would have to explain to people the difference between male and female deacons.”

Moreover, calling women “deacons” would be “ambiguous” since they would not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, he said.

Dr. Rosalba Manes, professor of biblical theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, argues in favor of Phoebe as “deacon of the church of Cenchrea,” explaining that the term diákonos suggests Phoebe’s ministry is not limited only to “the sphere of charity, but that it also includes preaching and evangelization.”

However, in a May 2024 CBS interview, Pope Francis ruled out ordaining female deacons. “But women have always had, I would say, the function of deaconesses without being deacons, right?” he said. “Women are of great service as women, not as ministers […] within the Holy Orders.”

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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