7 False Claims about Women’s Ordination to the Diaconate

The Roman Catholic Magisterium infallibly teaches “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). But ordination to the diaconate is an open theological question. Presently, there are no documents of the Papal Magisterium, nor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, teaching that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the diaconate.

Conservative Catholics often make false claims about women’s ordination to the diaconate. It seems to me that many conservatives are uncomfortable with open questions. They tend to represent every question on doctrine and discipline as having a definitive answer from the Church. But such is not the case.

Here is my list of common false claims on this topic:

1. The claim is made that the ordinary and universal Magisterium already infallibly teaches that the Church lacks the authority to ordain women to the diaconate.

Gerhard Ludwig Muller, speaking to the press as a private theologian in 2002, stated that the prohibition on women deacons is “a binding and irreversible teaching of the Church on this matter, which is guaranteed by the ordinary and general magisterium of the Church.” However, as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (beginning in 2012), he has issued no magisterial document asserting the same. Neither is there any document from the Holy See or the Pope asserting this theological opinion.

Absent a teaching of the Pope or the Holy See, in my view no teaching of the Bishops dispersed through the world can be considered to fall under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. For the body of Bishops must have the Pope as their head in order to exercise the infallible Magisterium at an Ecumenical Council, or in the universal Magisterium. Apart from the Pope, no Bishop teaches infallibly.

2. The claim is made that the same arguments which work for a male only priesthood work for a male only diaconate. Fr. Z has previously made this claim over at his blog.

To the contrary, there are substantial doctrinal differences between the diaconate and the priesthood. A priest can administer all the sacraments, except ordination (which is reserved to Bishops). A deacon can only administer baptism and marriage; the only two sacraments that can also be administered by lay persons in extraordinary cases. The diaconate exists because the Church needed persons “to serve at tables” (Acts 6:2). The role of the deacon is service, and such a role is not in conflict with the teachings of Scripture and Tradition on the proper roles of women. A priest, unlike a deacon, stands in persona Christi, consecrates the Eucharist, forgives sins, and is the head of the parish and the leader at Mass. The bad example of some male deacons notwithstanding, the diaconate is inherently a role of service, not authority.

Given that the diaconate has these substantial differences from the priesthood, one cannot make the sweeping claim that the same arguments would apply.

3. The claim is made that women are not valid matter for ordination.

See my post on this topic. In summary, the valid matter for ordination is the imposition of hands, not the person who received holy orders. The Magisterium has never taught that a baptized male is the valid matter for ordination.

4. The claim is made that ordaining women deacons is a step toward women priests.

Until Christ returns, there will always be unfaithful persons who distort Scripture or Tradition or magisterial teachings to support a false conclusion. The true teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium are not thereby nullified. The Church already infallibly teaches that the Church lacks the authority from Christ to ordain women priests. However, once Christ returns, He might possibly give the Church that authority.

5. The claim is made that Church approval for women deacons will sow confusion among the faithful.

Every new definition or renewed clarification of doctrine includes the possibility that we poor sinners will misunderstand and be confused. The possibility for confusion does not nullify the authority of the Church to teach the truth.

6. In addition, some persons are presenting various theological arguments, on this subject, as if these were dogma, not opinion.

This error occurs with alarming frequency among conservative and traditionalist Catholics. They answer every question on doctrine and discipline as if their answers were an infallible dogma. Their understanding of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium is treated as absolutely infallible, as if they could not possibly have misunderstood. They are headed for a fall. The Pope will authoritatively teach some truths from Divine Revelation, in contradiction to their understanding, and they will react by rejecting the Pope and departing from the Church.

7. The claim is made that the unity of the Sacrament of Holy Order prevents the distinction that women can be ordained as deacons but not priests.

Then why doesn’t this unity allow deacons, priests, and bishops to each administer all 7 Sacraments? Instead, deacons administer 2, priests administer 6, bishops administer 7. Then again, Bishops can participate in the ordinary and universal Magisterium and in an Ecumenical Council, thereby participating in the infallible teaching authority of the Church. But priests and deacons cannot. And a Pope is only a Pope if he is ordained as Bishop (before or after his election). If he is merely ordained as a priest, and never is ordained a Bishop, then he was never Pope (like Pope-elect Stephen).

So the idea is refuted that the three degrees of ordination so unify the sacrament that the teaching on the male-only priesthood must be applied to the diaconate also.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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