Can women receive sacred orders? Let us consult several authoritative sources. Canon 1024 of the Code of Canon Law states, “A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.” In 1994 Pope John Paul II said, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” And the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has weighed in on the issue more than once. A statement in 1995 read, “This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written word of God and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.” And in 2010 the doctrinal congregation stated, “both the one who attempts to confer sacred ordination on a woman, and she who attempts to receive sacred ordination incur a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.” And so the issue is settled.
Or is it?
Jesus chose the Twelve and others to help spread the word that God was working in the world uniquely through him. After his death and resurrection, local communities of believers formed; and within them leaders emerged or were chosen. In a natural way, the shape of such leadership was often borrowed from contemporary society. There were episkopoi, or “overseers,” in synagogues, who managed finances and sometimes settled disputes, and overseers in the civic world responsible for community projects, like the building of a road. There were presbyteroi, or “elders,” councils of men who formed administrative boards in synagogues and other religious institutions. Adopted by the Christian communities, these offices would develop into the episcopate and priesthood.
Very early in the life of the church, around A.D. 55, the Letter to the Philippians names the episkopoi and diakonoi among its addressees. This latter group is our focus. Many ministries contributed to the fruitful life of the community. Some were transient, like speaking in tongues or prophecy, while others, like teaching, required more permanence. In the New Testament, a whole range of such contributions to community well-being are clustered under the heading of the Greek verb diakonein and its related nouns. An inclusive translation of these words would be “to minister,” “ministry,” “minister.” A diakonos in the secular society of the day was someone chosen and entrusted by another person with carrying out a specific task. This meaning carries over in the ministry words found in letters written by or attributed to St. Paul. Such services entrusted to a believer by God and/or the community could range from preaching the Gospel to encouraging the community to taking up a collection for hungry believers in Jerusalem during a famine.
In the First Letter of Timothy, which most scholars date at the end of the first century, the word “deacons” appears to be used in a more narrow way. Requirements for the office (3:8-12) are not especially “spiritual” but basic to living with integrity: “dignified,” “not deceitful,” “not addicted to drink,” “not greedy,” “holding fast to the mystery of faith,” “tested first,” “must be married only once and manage their children and their households well.” What exactly the deacons did is not spelled out, although in Acts 6 and 7 they care for the needy and preach.
1 Timothy also stipulates that “women, similarly, should be dignified, not slanderers, but temperate and faithful in everything.” Much has been written about whether these women are the wives of deacons or deacons themselves. There is good reason to believe that they, too, are deacons. Paul in the Letter to the Romans famously calls Phoebe a diakonos, the only named individual explicitly so designated in the New Testament.
Here a note of caution is called for. It would be premature to make judgments about the diaconate today from these passages, since the specific nature of this ministry is not clearly defined.
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