Q — Since Pope Francis has expressed a desire “to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church,” my question is: when were the first women ordained to the diaconate?  The Council of Chalcedon in 451 defined the age and marital status for women’s ordination, yet I do not know when the first women deacons were ordained.  I assume they were in existence prior to this?  How would it come about if we were to re-establish the ordination of women to the diaconate?

A — The information we possess about ministry as about so much else in the early church  is not complete. So, the task of historical reconstruction is difficult. We simply do not have all the data. The following, however, would seem to be the “state of play” with regard to women deacons in the early church. St. Paul in Romans 16:1 is the first to speak of a woman as a deacon. Her name was Phoebe, but what exactly a deacon did in the first century, female or male, is not entirely clear. Phoebe is called a diakonos tes ekklesias/ “a deacon of the church” by St. Paul, but we are not provided with the description of her functions. Later, in the early second century we have a reference from a letter written by Pliny, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to Emperor Trajan, in this letter (ca. 112) Pliny mentions two women quae ministrae dicebantur “who were known as ministers.” The word “ministers” here is feminine gender, and may well mean “deacons.” Here too we do not know exactly what their functions were. The actual word for a deaconess, in Greek diakonissa, did not come into use until the third century. The office of deaconess developed especially in the third and the fourth centuries and is described in two texts, the Didascalia (ca. 240) and the Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 380). In the Didascalia deaconesses assisted in anointing women in the Rite of Baptism, in instructing the newly baptized, and in visiting women in their homes, especially the sick. In the Apostolic Constitutions the deaconesses experienced the “laying on of hands” and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. Their principal function was attending to women during the Rite of Baptism. In this document, the “laying on of hands” with the invocation of the Holy Spirit certainly sounds like ordination, but it is almost the only text with this kind of clear reference. When the baptism of infants became the norm in the church, and when adult baptism by immersion ceased, there was little need for female deacons.

Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon (451) reads as follows: “No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after close scrutiny. If after receiving ordination and spending some time in the ministry (leitourgia) she despises God’s grace and gets married, such a person is to be anathematized along with her spouse.” The word for “ordination” here is cheirotonia, literally meaning “the imposition of hands.” It is presumed by this canon that deaconesses are to be either virgins or widows. While the word for “ministry” is the Greek term leitourgia, a term that is normally used at this time for ministry at the altar, the word is also used for the Divine Office, “and there is ample evidence of women’s leadership there.” (Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, ed., Ordained Women in the Early Church, A Documentary History,  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, p. 122).

So, were women “ordained” deacons in the early Church? It seems so, even though from a historical point of view the evidence is somewhat sparse and unclear, especially in regard to the Latin West. With regard to the date of women’s diaconal ordination, we do not have hard evidence. The other part of the question has to do with the possible ordination of women to the diaconate in the contemporary Church. I think one would have to say, in principle, that there is nothing to prevent it, but, at this time, Church authorities are of the mind that it ought not to go ahead.

Will this change in the future? It remains to be seen.