The Female Diaconate in the Age of Complementarity

By: Jake Kohlhaas

Speaking to a gathering of women religious, Pope Francis suggesting his willingness to create a study commission on the question of female deacons. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangellii Gaudium, the pope wrote of the need to “create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” (Paragraph 103) And, as he mentioned in his comments Thursday, Francis has made efforts to promote women within the ranks of the Catholic Church. Yet the pope has also reaffirmed the prohibition of women’s priestly ordination as clarified under Paul VI and reaffirmed by John Paul II. Moreover, the Vatican has been quick to assert that a study of the female diaconate does not imply women will soon be ordained deacons and certainly does not change the Church’s stance on the impossibility of female priests.

Throughout his papacy, Francis has utilized John Paul II’s language of complementarity to buttress the need for women’s unique perspectives within the decision making processes of the Church. Complementarian language itself allows him to distance this concern from the more controversial issues of the all-male authority structure of the Church. The language of complementarity assists with articulating the limitations the absence of women’s perspectives may present but, as evePope_with_sisters_Instagram_Franciscus-255x255n prominent defenders have noted, complementarity rarely directs its attention towards reconsiderations of maleness. This avoidance of mutual analysis of gender difference can suggest an implicit commitment to maleness as the ‘standard’ form of humanity. If the process of researching the diaconate is to be undertaken honestly, attention needs to be paid to how the rise of complementarian thought may influence interpretations of historical realities.

Some Background to the Question                 

The lingering question of women’s eligibility to serve as deacons was almost too obvious not to be addressed given Francis’s persistent calls for greater female presence within the institutional Church. Yet Francis’s affirmation is news worthy precisely because the Catholic hierarchy has avoided publicly entering this conversation for so long. For decades, scholarly research has pointed to the existence of women deacons throughout much of the Church’s history. Saint Paul himself names Phoebe as a deacon of the Church of Cenchreae. Other sources verify the presence of women in early Christian ecclesial ministries. As Canadian canon law expert Fr. Frank Morrisey has recently explained, the logic here is quite simple. If women cannot be priests because the historical record of the Church’s tradition provides no precedent, as recent Popes have taught, then the historical presence of female deacons opens the subject for discussion.

Throughout recent decades, high ranking church officials, such as Canada’s Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher, have occasionally voiced their interest in studying the issue of the female diaconate. The Vatican’s persistent response, since the 1970s, has been to acknowledge the concern and affirm the need to study the issue. Two study commissions have already been completed, each returning similar conclusions: Yes, women have served as ministers in the church under the title deacon and deaconess and, no, those historical roles are not entirely the same as that of the permanent diaconate today. This raises the question of if these women were in fact a part of the same ministry to today’s male deacons are heirs or if women served in a parallel ministry; perhaps not initiated through ordination.

The logic that supports the all-male priesthood creates some challenges for the latter conclusion. If the priesthood (technically the presbyterate) was directly established by Christ and the Church has power only to adapt, but not to essentially change the ministry, then whatever the distance between the diaconate today and that of ages past, an essential continuity must persist. If women served in the ministry before, they cannot be prohibited in principle from serving now. The issue comes down to “if” women validly served in the diaconate. How we will come to terms with this historical question is where Pope Francis’s embrace of complementarian language raises concern.

Complementarity and Diaconal Ordination

The term ‘complementarity’ is now ubiquitous in Catholic discussions of gender relations. Though the concept is often used to support traditional teachings, the term itself has had a remarkable rise from obscurity in only the last few decades. Its first official Catholic use comes in Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio of 1981. (Paragraph 19) Complementarity’s rise to prominence comes in large part because the term speaks to the experiences of many people and captures a perceived reality at the heart of defenses for differentiated gender roles. The term complementarity functions as a means to name some essential difference in how maleness and femaleness are expressed and how these work together to create a greater whole of the human experience.

20160512T1137-3337-CNS-POPE-UISG_tnOf course, the association of complementarity with particular doctrinal and moral claims has also made it a polarizing term. Many view complementarian language as little more than a means of reasserting patriarchal norms under a thin guise of equality. This critique persists in large part because none of complementarity’s leading proponents have seemed capable of naming convincingly what the essential differences between the genders are, and as noted above, have often paid disproportionate attention to naming women’s distinctiveness and consequent gender roles.

Presently, there is no evidence that ordination as it is understood by the Catholic Church can be effective for a women. If an eligible man is illicitly ordained to the priesthood, his ordination remains valid. If a women is similarly ordained, her ordination is both illicit and invalid. This judgment flows from the logic that the Church has no power to offer ordination apart from how it was instituted by Christ. Clarifying diaconal ordination as valid for women would push sacramental theology beyond a tight association between maleness and ordination. Whether or not historical female deacons/deaconesses were ordained ministers is a valid question. But it does not take a conspiracy theorist to recognize how potentially costly the question might be for those invested in the male power structures of the Church.

The challenge that complementarian language poses for interpreting the historical record and theological possibilities honestly is that its functional lack of self-critical reflection on maleness continually permits women to be other. In a church long invested in centralized male authority where clericalism remains a continually resurgent force, interpreting history so as to find a role for women that does not involve ordination may be an all too comfortable option. The logic of complementarity will do little to expose how a drive to clarify the female diaconal ministry as something essentially distinct from the ordained male diaconate is embedded with certain interests. While Pope Francis has vocally advocated for reevaluating available pathways for female participation in the Church, the language he has utilized to do so is significant. Adding a commissioned ministry of deaconesses to existing ministries is a much different proposition that reevaluating the nature and expression of the ordained diaconate itself. The language of complementarity has not been effectively utilized to critique presumptions of normative maleness, yet a willingness to engage this critique is essential for a fair interpretation of the historical diaconate’s legacy, regardless of the conclusion.


Jake Kohlhaas, Ph.D. is assistant professor of moral theology at Loras college in Dubuque, IA. His research interests include theology of children and parenthood, sexual ethics, and environmental ethics.