The Roman Catholic Magisterium infallibly teaches that Jesus did not give His Church the authority to ordain women to the priesthood:
“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) 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.” [Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, n. 4]
In my theological opinion, this teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis meets all of the conditions for Papal Infallibility. In addition, the teaching that the Church has no authority to confer “priestly ordination” on women, at this point in time, would also seem to qualify as infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. The Church lacks the authority, and therefore also lacks the ability, to ordain women as priests. Since a Bishop is a kind of priest, and the Pope is a Bishop, this implies necessarily that the Church lacks the authority to ordain women as priests and as Bishops, and that a woman cannot be a valid Pope.
However, this infallible teaching does not mention the deaconate, and it specifies “priestly ordination” and “ordination to the priesthood”. The Magisterium has not settled the question as to whether or not women can be ordained as deacons. Those who claim otherwise are unable to cite any magisterial document definitively teaching that Christ did not give His Church the authority to ordain women as deacons.
One approach to support this claim, that the prohibition on ordaining women priests also prohibits ordaining women deacons, is to claim that women are not valid matter for reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. A comparison is made between the valid matter for the Eucharist (wheat bread and grape wine) or for Baptism (water) and for Ordination. However, this argument fails for two reasons:
1. The matter of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the imposition of hands used to administer the Sacrament. The person who receives ordination is not the matter of the Sacrament. See this article in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Similarly, in Baptism, the matter is the water, not the recipient, and in Confirmation, the matter is the chrism, not the recipient. In the Sacrament of Confession (as St. Thomas explains), the matter is the sins of the penitent and his contrition for those sins, not the recipient of forgiveness. In the Anointing of the Sick, the matter is the oil used to anoint the sick.
The Magisterium has never taught that the matter of the Sacrament of Ordination is the person who receives the Sacrament. This claim is based on a misunderstanding of the term “matter” as it applies to Sacraments. So the claim that only a baptized male is “valid matter” for the Sacrament of Holy Orders is patently false.
Some persons cite Canon Law on this point:
“Can. 1024 A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.”
and they draw the conclusion that the only valid matter is a baptized male. But the Canon does not say that the matter of the Sacrament is a baptized male. It simply restricts ordination, currently, to men. Furthermore, Canon law can be changed. If the Magisterium teaches that women can be ordained to the diaconate (currently an open question), then the Canon can be changed to permit women’s ordination solely to the diaconate.
2. The infallible teaching of the Magisterium, that the Church lacks the authority to ordain women to the priesthood, always specifies “ordination to the priesthood” or “priestly ordination”. The Pope and the Bishops are well aware that these terms restrict the teaching to the two higher degrees of ordination (priest, bishop).
The definition in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis falls under Papal Infallibility, and yet it is limited to priestly ordination. In fact the title, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, means “Priestly Ordination”, not ordination in general.
The arguments in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, presented by Pope John Paul II, as support for the subsequent definition, are based on Tradition and Scripture. And yet these arguments also are limited to priestly ordination.
The many magisterial sources which together make this teaching infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium also are specific to priestly ordination. There is no ordinary and universal teaching that women cannot be ordained as deacons.
So while the teaching that the Church lacks the authority to ordain women as priests or bishops is infallible, the idea that the Church also lacks the authority to ordain women as deacons is not an infallible teaching of the Magisterium. Neither do the proponents of this idea offer any magisterial document as evidence for an infallible teaching of the Magisterium on women deacons.
Jesus did not choose any female Apostles. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis argues that this choice by our Lord, with the constant witness of the Church, restricts priestly ordination to baptized males only. But Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not view this choice and witness as pertaining to ordination to the deaconate. So the argument by some persons extending this choice and witness to the deaconate is unsupportable.
A priest stands “in persona Christi”, as if he were the very person of Christ, not merely a representative. So when the priest forgives sins in Confession or consecrates the Eucharist at Mass, it is truly Christ who forgives and consecrates.
But a deacon does not stand “in persona Christi”. He cannot forgive sins in Confession, nor consecrate the Eucharist at Mass. A deacon is unable to administer any Sacrament, except those that can also be administered by lay persons in an extraordinary circumstance: Baptism and Marriage.
This strong distinction between priests and deacons supports the position that the Church does have the authority to ordain women as deacons. For the role of a deacon is substantially different from that of a priest.
Others argue that a woman cannot be an ordained deacon because the distinction between ordained and non-ordained persons is a reflection of the mystical distinction between the Church as Bride and Christ as Groom, between Christ as the Head and the Church as His Body.
This argument fails for a couple of reasons. First, every Pope, Bishop, and priest is also a member of the Church (the Bride, the Body of Christ). So the Pope is the Vicar of Christ (Groom, Head), but he is also a member of that Church (Bride, Body). So he participates in Christ’s headship over the Church, but he also participates as a part of the body. Similarly, every bishop and priest is both a symbol of Christ as Groom and as head of the Church, but also a member of the Church, the Bride. So the symbolism of head and body, or groom and bride has limited application to persons other than Christ.
Second, the role of a deacon is not a role of headship. The deacon is not the head of the diocese, nor is he the head of the parish. The deacon is not the celebrant of the Mass, nor does he have the authority to forgive sins. The role of the deacon is primarily that of service, not headship. And so a woman deacon does not contradict the symbolism of the Church as Bride.
Still others argue that Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are clear in their teaching that women cannot be ordained at all. But this argument ignores the role of the Magisterium as the authoritative interpreter of Tradition and Scripture. A theological argument based on Tradition and Scripture, on a question not settled by any teaching of the Magisterium, is mere opinion; it is not a definitive answer to the question.
It is a grave error found among many conservative Catholics today to substitute one’s own understanding of Tradition and Scripture for the authoritative interpretation of Tradition and Scripture by the Magisterium. Tradition and Scripture are infallible. But any fallen sinner’s interpretation of Tradition and Scripture is fallible.
My theological opinion, speculative and fallible, is that the Church does possess the authority and ability to ordain women as deacons. Catholics are free to hold the opposing position, that women cannot be ordained at all. But it is false to say that the Church has already decided the question, or that it is not an open question.