Women deacons or deaconesses? East and West

women deacons

The confluence of two events, one Roman Catholic and the other Orthodox, point to a growing appreciation of the fact that women are indeed made in the image and likeness of God and are suited for altar service.

In Catholicism, the argument against ordaining women to any grade of order rests in the intimation that women cannot image Christ, the Risen Lord.

But in 2021, Pope Francis modified Canon Law to allow women to be formally installed as lectors and acolytes, each required for diaconal ordination.

In Orthodoxy, in 2017, five women were consecrated as deaconesses (or as subdeacons) in Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of Congo, by the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. Other Church leaders eventually convinced the patriarch to suspend the practice in 2020.

Both facts — women lectors and acolytes in Catholicism and deaconesses or female subdeacons in Orthodoxy, point to the restoration of the tradition of women ordained as deacons.

Each brings to mind two events.

Some time ago, a colleague asked Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, about restoring women to the diaconate. His response was: “We don’t want to get ahead of the Catholics on that.”

Soon after, another woman reported the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, was asked the same question.

“What about women deacons?” He responded: “We don’t want to get ahead of the Orthodox on that.”

Despite historical evidence, despite theological anthropology and the crying needs of the People of God, Catholicism and Orthodoxy seem wedded to the argument that women cannot be ordained to major orders.

Other ecumenical discussions aside, it appears the leadership of each tradition agrees that one thing is necessary to ensure the stability and order of religion: women must be kept away from the altar.

Except that each of two recent developments — women lectors and acolytes in Catholicism in 2021, and deaconesses (or female subdeacons) in Orthodoxy from 2017 to 2020–apparently promote altar service, if not ordination, for women.

Roman Catholicism

On January 10, 2021, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, by the “motu proprio” Spiritus Domini and in response to a direct request made in the Final Document of the 2019 Synod on the Amazon, Pope Francis changed Canon 230 § 1 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law to allow women, as well as men, to be formally installed as lectors and acolytes.

The change is not insignificant. Although many commentators correctly point out that many women already perform the functions of these lay ministries, installing women in them is a relatively major step.

Formerly, each was a minor order and a stage in the now-abandoned Roman Catholic cursus honorum.

Solidified and codified in the thirteenth century, the cursus honorum or “course of honor” first led male candidates from tonsure through the minor orders of lector, porter, exorcist, and acolyte, and then through the major orders of sub-deacon, deacon, and priest.

In 1972, when Pope Paul VI suppressed the four minor orders and the major order of sub-deacon, he stated that the functions of these five orders would henceforth belong to the installed lay ministries of lector and acolyte.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law decreed that, should the bishop deem it necessary, any layperson could perform these functions, but only males could be so formally installed.

Formal installation into each of these ministries is required prior to diaconal ordination.

Does the formal installation of women as lectors and acolytes portend women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church?

To be clear, the question is about ordination (cheirotonia) to a major order, not “blessing” (cheirothesia) to a minor order.

For Rome, ordination to the subdiaconate was the ordination to a major order, as was and today is the diaconate. It is important to remember that ordinations of Roman Catholic subdeacons and deacons were to major orders.

The Subdiaconate and Deaconesses
In Orthodoxy, however, the sub-diaconate is the highest of the minor orders, ranked between the reader and the deacon.

There are interesting facts about the subdiaconate in the Eastern Churches.

First, when vested, the Eastern subdeacon wears the orarion, or stole, over the inner and outer cassocks and alb.

Second, the Eastern subdeacon has care of the altar, including of altar cloths and clergy vestments. For these latter purposes, the Eastern subdeacon has a specific blessing to touch the altar.

In the West, the now-suppressed subdiaconate comprised individuals who assisted the deacon while vested in an alb, with a maniple, cincture, and tunic.

Unlike in the East, the Western subdeacon did not wear a stole. In the West, the use of the maniple signified the major order of subdeacon.

Each Church’s tradition of the subdiaconate may give hope to those seeking the restoration of the female diaconate.

The events in the Democratic Republic of Congo and their aftermath point to significant advances in the quest for the restoration of the tradition of women deacons at least in Africa, and perhaps elsewhere in Orthodoxy.

The Congolese ceremonies, by the Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, seem to have been consecrations or blessings to the Orthodox minor order of subdeacon, as evidenced by their manner and location.

Specifically, the women received a laying on of hands at the throne, not at the altar during the liturgy.

Further, while ancient canons limit diaconal ordination of women to those above the age of forty, photographs of the ceremonies depict five women apparently under the age of forty.

Each woman holds a basin and ewer, items often carried by the subdeacon when taking blessed water to the people so they may bless themselves with it.

Both the photographs and the description of the ceremonies support an assumption that the new “deaconesses” were brought into the minor order of subdeacon, although the patriarch is thought to have intended diaconal ordinations.

In Catholicism, there is no discussion about restoring women to the subdiaconate, because it has been suppressed.

When viewed through the lens of Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis’ response to the Final Document of the 2019 Amazon Synod, the restoration of women to the diaconate can seem far off.

However, Francis has pointedly stated that the two documents, the Synod’s Final Document and his own Querida Amazonia, must be read in tandem. That is, the one does not replace the other.

At first glance, two paragraphs (102 and 103) of Querida Amazonia seem dismissive of the fact that women can and do image Christ, the Risen Lord.

When read against the backdrop of history’s derisive commentary about the place of women in society and in the Church, these two paragraphs seem to present more of the same.

And the imago dei is distorted when Mariology is stressed over the teaching that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.

But what Francis wrote may not be so dismissive:

In a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.

Here it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition, and a commission from the bishop.

This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood. (QA, 103)

Pope Francis may here be referring to a more pressing need in the Amazon: to regularize the service of women who are de facto Canon 517 § 2 Parish Life Coordinators.

Women, including women who do not have the vocation to the diaconate, are already managing parishes and other ecclesial groupings.

With or without ordination, they can receive and in fact deserve, as he says, “stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.”

No matter how off-putting his remark about “womanhood,” the paragraph does not eliminate the possibility of restoring women to the ordained diaconate.

In fact, responding to the Final Document of the Amazon Synod, Pope Francis acted quickly to modify Canon 230 § 1 to allow women to be installed as lectors and acolytes, which protocol replaced the four minor orders and the major order of subdeacon nearly fifty years ago.

The question arises: If women can now be admitted to installed lay ministries that replace these clerical states, including the major order of subdeacon, how can women now be restricted from joining the ordained diaconate, in which historical documents they have already served?

Arguments against ordaining women as deacons often claim “unicity of orders,” calling to Inter insigniores (On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood) (15 October 1976).

That is because women cannot be ordained as priests, either can they be ordained as deacons.

In large part, this papally-approved declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith depends upon the so-called “iconic argument” in its presentation against the ordination of women as priests.

The principal argument in Inter insigniores, however, is the argument from authority. Simply stated, the Church says it does not have the authority to ordain women as priests because Jesus’s apostles were male.

The force of Inter insigniores and the subsequent Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994) is underscored by the new Book Six of the Code of Canon Law, which goes into effect this December 8. One innovation in this new Book Six is Canon 1379 § 3:

Both a person who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman and the woman who attempts to receive the sacred order, incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; a cleric, moreover, may be punished by dismissal from the clerical state.

But neither Inter insigniores nor Ordinatio sacerdotalis mentions the diaconate. The assumption that there is some relation between the diaconate and the priesthood runs counter to magisterial and conciliar teachings, and canon law, all of which clearly distinguish the two.

While the law may seem to close all possibility of women being restored to the ordained diaconate in the West, the bishop who presented it in the for the Vatican Press Office said in response to a question: “If the teaching changes, the law will change.”

As it is, this law is what is termed a “merely ecclesiastical law,” such as the recently changed Canon 230 § 1 regarding lectors and acolytes.

(The Congregation for Divine Worship is apparently re-writing the installation liturgy to emphasize the baptismal connection to lay ministry, although in some countries women are already being prepared to be installed using the current liturgy, with the necessary adjustments to pronouns.)

Orthodox Churches

The situation in the East is more complicated, and perhaps more volatile.

The initiative taken by the Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa to consecrate women caught the rest of Orthodoxy by surprise.

The patriarch appears to have based his decision to act unilaterally on the documents of the Holy and Great Council attended by twelve of the autocephalous Churches on Crete in 2016.

Complaints and applause for the patriarch’s actions attempted to drown each other out.

The situation is confusing. While the ceremonies appear to have been consecrations to the subdiaconate, the women were called deaconesses.

There is a needle to be thread here. In some historical lists of orders, “deaconess” appears after subdeacon and before deacon.

Some argue this indicates the “deaconess,” belongs to an order distinct from the deacon, and is member of a minor order. Some argue that “deaconess” was a major order.

No matter which, the deaconess (if indeed in a separate order) is on the cusp of both minor and major orders.

However, it was the widely known intent of the patriarch to ordain these women as deacons, not as subdeacons, although his plan was scotched by donors’ threats to cut off financial support to the Patriarchate.

Even so, his repeated consecrations of women as “deaconesses” until 2020 solidified his intention to grant the women, whom he determined were already performing diaconal ministry, diaconal (and thereby clerical) status.

Whether as “subdeacons” or as “deaconesses” it seems the patriarch considered these women, these “deaconesses” to be in major orders.

It appears that forces outside Africa are deeply concerned about allowing women to be in major orders, or even in minor orders as subdeacons, perhaps because of the possibility of subdiaconal altar service.

The patriarch’s greeting to a 2020 Zoom-hybrid conference on women in the diaconate in Thessaloniki indicated he had ended his practice of consecrating women as deaconesses.

No doubt, the combination of anger and money may cause other Orthodox bishops to hesitate before bringing women into the clerical caste in any grade of order.

But the ministry of women in Orthodoxy, or at least in Africa, underscores the fact that women perform significant tasks and duties proper to the subdiaconate and the diaconate.

In many places in Africa, for example, women assist in the baptism of women and girls, teach catechize, lead services where priests are not available, and proclaim the Gospel in church.

There is no talk about whether these are “womanly” tasks and duties. They are functions, yes, but they are now carried out, at least by a few, with the charism of consecrated mission and ministry.


In Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis calls for “itinerant missionary teams” (98) and “other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women and responsive to the specific needs of the peoples of the Amazon region at this moment in history.” (102).

The Patriarch of Alexandria specifically consecrated his “deaconesses” as missionaries.

Combine this with the known facts of other ministries by Orthodox women in Africa and Catholic women in the Amazon, and we might see that the two traditions are not colliding, but rather moving in tandem.

While not necessarily directed at diaconal ordination these events, East and West, seem to belie the assumption that women cannot perform altar service, even as they demonstrate an ongoing resistance to women near the altar.

Western Church history documents claim that women are de facto unclean and cannot be near the sacred. Neither can a Western priest marry.

But the East does not so fully accept these arguments.

As its married priesthood demonstrates, the East does not completely subscribe to the concept that touching a woman renders a man unclean.

Such taboos, better inscribed in Western Church history, are the root of Pope Gelasius’s Fifth Century criticism of women’s altar service in what were most probably Eastern Church celebrations in Sicily in his time.

Even so, there is some movement toward recognizing women as able to represent Christ in both traditions.

The changes to Roman Catholic Canon Law formally allow women’s altar service. The African consecrations of women, whether as the separate order of deaconess or to the order of subdeacon, may allow the same.

What is most interesting is that from the outside at least, it appears that one Church is not in front of the other.

In fact, it could appear that they are operating in tandem.

  • Phyllis Zagano holds a research appointment at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY and is the author of several works on women deacons, including Women: Icons of Christ (Paulist Press, 2020).
  • This article was a talk given, via Zoom, to a November 21 seminar on women’s ordination sponsored by the American Academy of Religion inSan Antonio, Texas.
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