Were there women deacons in the early Church?

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women deacons
Mosaic from Basilica Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Shutterstock

Question: I was speaking to a friend of mine and the subject of women deaconesses came up. He says we never had deaconesses in the Church. I disagree. He is a good friend, but I think he is misinformed.

Marie Spicuzza, via email

Answer: Some of it comes down to language. Were women in the early Church called “deaconesses?” It would seem so. However, there is no evidence that they were ever ordained, and it is inaccurate to simply equate these deaconesses with the office of deacon. So, linguistically, the term “deacon” can be used in a formal sense to mean an ordained man who is a deacon. But the term “diakonia” can also mean service, servant or ministry. Hence, today we often speak of “altar servers” or the ministry of lector, or of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, but these are not ordained ministers, as we all know.

The term “deaconess” is found in the Eastern Churches but not generally in the West. Deaconesses existed in numerous roles, primarily to preserve the modesty of women at baptism, which were conducted by immersion and with little clothing. They may also have assisted women in the liturgy, especially in those areas where men and women sat separately (usually on different sides of the nave). It also seems they assisted women in the Church community in those matters that propriety suggested were better done by women (such as visitation of the sick). In the early Church, the term may also have been used to refer to the wife of a deacon, and there might have been some association of deaconesses with the early forms of religious life as “enrolled widows” (cf. 1 Tm 5:9, Ti 2:3). But again, there is no evidence that the term “deaconess,” used explicitly or implicitly in reference to these women, was understood as an ordained clerical function. On the other hand, the male deacons are spoken of as having an office and had hands laid on them, a sign of ordination (cf. Acts 6:6).

While there are ongoing calls to further study the possibility of women deacons, such studies have already and recently been done. In 2002, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC) studied the matter and issued a document, “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.” In it, the ITC held that the deaconesses of early Church history “were not purely or simply equivalent to the deacons.” In effect, there is no substantial evidence of ordained women deacons in the early Church. 

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.