Your Holiness, It Is Time for a Theologian Who Is Not Clamoring for Women Deacons to Write an Open Letter to You

Your Holiness:

Forgive me for taking so long to write this letter. As you well know from your many years of service in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, since the late 1960s it has been fashionable for theologians to write open letters critical of the doctrine and discipline of the Catholic Church. Lest you be tempted to despair regarding the state of the theological guild in North America, I write to assure you that not all self-professed Catholic educators agree with these highly publicized diatribes against the perennial teaching and practice of the Church.

The immediate example that has spurred this missive is an open letter in which Phyllis Zagano urges you to reconsider the ordination of women to the diaconate.

In a convoluted argument citing ambiguous and anecdotal evidence, Zagano suggests that Your Holiness and members of the Roman curia know that “women can be ordained as deacons” and are paving the way to “the recovery of the tradition of women deacons.” Being an avid fan of documents produced by the Magisterium, I have noticed no such trends or signals in them. If you are urging us in that direction, please be clear about it. Moreover, I have read all 16 documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, and found therein no advocacy of women deacons.

Zagano further claims that the International Theological Commission produced a report concluding that “the Magisterium must decide” whether women can be ordained to the diaconate. I have read the ITC’s report, published under the title From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles, and found no such conclusion that the Magisterium can arbitrarily admit women to the diaconate.

The fact that women in various ancient Christian communities were called “deaconesses” is indisputable. Yet this does not mean that deaconesses held holy orders in the Church. In the earliest centuries of Christianity, the words “deacon” and “deaconess” were used as imprecisely as “minister” is used today. Some called deaconesses were simply the wives of deacons; others were female monastics or abbesses.

The specific roles assigned to deaconesses in ancient documents such as the Didascalia Apostolorum comprise charitable services for women, the instruction of female catechumens, and the anointing of women at baptism. In other words, deaconesses ministered strictly to women, fulfilling functions that are best performed by women rather than by men, if scandal is to be avoided. Another early Christian document, the Apostolic Constitutions, prescribes: “A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons.” Deaconesses manifestly did not have a role at the altar during Eucharistic celebrations. As the ITC states in the study mentioned above, “This ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate.” Those advocating a “restoration” of women deacons must be clear about what they wish to restore, since their arguments are based on historical models.

Yet not all of us are advocating or agitating for such a “restoration.” Some of us are mistrustful of archaeological exercises that thinly veil radical agendas under ostensible calls to restore ancient Christian practices. Many things that took place among early Christians disappeared for good reasons, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and need not be resuscitated today. Please be sure that the Vatican bureaucracy continues to stymie the desires of those calling for change by invoking early Christianity!

Be assured, Your Holiness, that I am not the only Catholic with no interest in women deacons. Millions of women have lived their Catholic faith and have made inestimable contributions to the Church without any desire to prance about the sanctuary in clerical garb. For the most part, they are too busy with service to their families and with works of charity to organize petitions, attend rallies, and write open letters expressing their lack of desire for female ordination.

Having taught at undergraduate institutions, I can attest that the average young woman has no more interest in being a permanent deacon than the average young man. Not, that is, until the young woman in question has been radicalized by professors such as Zagano and her like-minded colleagues, who dominate theology and religious studies programs in colleges and universities across the country. Our enlightened professors have far more to do with the disaffection of educated young women from the Catholic faith than the fact that the Church does not ordain women.

My family and I continue to pray for you, Your Holiness; please remember us in prayer as well.


Daniel G. Van Slyke, S.T.L., Ph.D., is associate professor at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St Louis, MO. He teaches liturgy and Church history to seminarians, candidates for the permanent diaconate, and lay adults seeking ongoing formation. Dr Van Slyke’s research articles have appeared in journals such as Antiphon, Ephemerides Liturgicae, New Blackfriars, and Usus Antiquior. His latest book is “Liturgy 101: The Sacraments and Sacramentals” (Ligouri, 2010).

  • Deacon Ed

    #1. Radical feminists in the Church will try to use the “female diaconate” as a path for admission to the presbyteral order. Don’t believe them when they try to deny this.

    #2 Vast improvements need to be made in our understanding of the vocation to the diaconate:
    a) deacons need to report directly to their bishop and not the local pastor – most of whom have no idea about the theology of the diaconate even though they at one time were deacons themselves.
    b) bishops ought to clearly delineate the unique role and activities of deacons in their diocese so there is no misunderstanding about their charism in the Church
    c) there should be an effort to eliminate the confusion which surrounds the role of deacons’ wives in their ministry. Far too often they are viewed as “co-deacons.”

  • Dale Price

    The Greek Orthodox re-established some form of deaconesses back in 2004. I’m unclear on what their duties are, nor am I aware of the circumstances for placement. From what I can tell, it only applies to the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece proper, too.

  • John

    Great article! This debate has been going on in our diocesan paper lately. A local pastor started it by saying (in a letter refuting a piece against women’s ordination by another priest) that some Orthodox churches are starting to ordain women to the diaconate again, and that there is “no question” that women were ordained to the diaconate in the early Church. It was a very misleading piece. I dug around a bit (including consulting well-placed Orthodox friends) and found that what Mr. Van Slyke says in this article is absolutely right. The Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church in Greece recently decided to allow deaconesses again, but only in a very few remote and unusual cases such as a monastery with no priest within traveling distance; in such cases, only “certain high-ranking nuns” are to be chosen, and their role is to be strictly social. Other Orthodox churches (Armenian Apostolic, Coptic) use deaconesses in the ancient sense, as ministers of charity and service. I wrote in to the diocesan paper myself, but so far they haven’t published my letter. They even went so far as to include in a “further reading” section a couple of women’s ordination websites along with the token Catechism reference.

    • Deacon Ed

      What diocese are you in?

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  • I sincerely hope that no one, male or female, has any desire to ‘prance about the sanctuary in clerical garb’. Holy things to the holy, please. I think the question is rather more complex than you are able to indicate in the space available. For example, D. Felicitas Corrigan, late of Stanbrook Abbey, did quite a lot of work on the connection between the diaconate and the Consecratio Virginum; and in England we have the Anglo-Saxon Penitentiaries which show an increasing narrowing down of what is permissible to women. If nothing else, I think one can make a good historical case for arguing that the changing legal status of women has affected our theological reflection. If you look at the article on Woman in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, you’ll see what I mean.

  • anonymous

    you are definitely right

  • jack

    You have some good points.

  • Laura

    Amen Daniel! Thank you for pressing this important point; like pressing a festering sore, the thing must be relieved of its contents and fully opened before it can adequately heal.
    My backbround is wife, mother, physician and former Navy Officer.
    Now I am wife, mother, physician and CCD teacher (sorry, there’s a newer term but I can’t recall it) for 3rd and 7th graders. I must get back to preparations for teaching my children about Holy Mother Church and inspiring, please God, a love for Christ and for His Mother.
    In Christ-

  • Dr. Syke:
    Thank you, thank you for putting the truth out there. Part of me hoped this was coming from a woman, to be honest, but we need men and women to uphold truth, do we not? Just give me time to get cracking on the next degree, so i may join your sentiments with a theologian’s credentials…. In the meanwhile, please know as a lay minister to youth and young adults, and with the theology my MA has afforded me, i emphatically support what you say. In fact, i find it offensive that anyone wants to muddle my womanhood with misguided masculine norms, and belittle the service i can provide the Church as only a woman can.

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  • Patricia

    We do not need female deacons, I am not even that fond of the male deacons we have at our parish–I always think of them as men that wanted to be priests, but had to have a wife instead. My opinion is to remove any women on the altar, especially the Extraordinary ministers (male or female).
    There are other roles for women–teaching religion class, instructing altar servers, vocation committee, pro life support and so on–but for Heaven’s sake –no women deacons!!

    • Gerri

      Thank you for your comments, Patricia. I am in total agreement with you. I do not wish to second-guess or pass judgment on anyone’s motivations for becoming a deacon; however, it’s like men wanting to “play church” and have a wife, family, home, etc., in addition to performing certain clerical functions in the parish. I do not believe that women belong on the altar–not as lectors, Eucharistic ministers (a practice I cannot stand in general, as I believe it is sacrilege), or altar servers. There are plenty of roles for women and girls. If Mother Teresa had been ordained as a deacon(ess) or priest(ess), could she have achieved any more than she did? Let’s look to her and other wonderful women in our Church’s history as role models and not waste time hankering after something that is not meant to be.

      • Gerri

        Please forgive me for using the expression “‘play church'” in connection with deacons. It was not appropriate and certainly not respectful towards these men who work very hard to serve the people in their parishes. Thank you.

  • gravey

    Deacon Ed, What John is describing is found in the Catholic Voice, the diocesan paper of the Oakland Diocese in California.

  • Shane Patric

    The average young woman has no more desire to become a priest than the average young man.

    Who is to say that a young woman who has been called by God to a priestly vocation is wrong?

    I don’t think the Pope has that insight. I don’t think anyone does. We should take such young women at their word, let them begin the process and wait to see if they succeed. God calls to him who he calls, in the way and time of his choosing, not ours.

    • Robert

      There are no callings to the ordained priesthood for women. The fact that it is impossible to ordain a woman means there are no callings for it. Any perceived “calling” comes from another place than God.

    • Robyn

      Thank you, Shane. Finally, someone who understands this.

  • kathy


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  • Andy

    Who is to say that a young woman who has been called by God to a priestly vocation is wrong?

    Well, John Paul II, for one. His statement in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, declaring the Church to not have the authority to ordain women, is an infallible one. This was clear from his own declaration and confirmed by the CDF. If the pope has the authority given to him by Christ, then this is an unmistakable teaching of the Church.

  • Cord Hamrick

    In reply to Shane:

    You’re right, Shane; even this gentle and wise pope doesn’t have the necessary insight to discern whether the 2,000 year old rule of the church should be altered, for no obvious reason, at this late date. To see wisdom in such an earth-shaking cataclysm is beyond the insight of a mere man; it belongs only to the King of Kings.

    Moreover, the pope lacks the authority to alter the apostolic deposit of faith in that way. He has in fact already and infallibly said as much.

    This is how we know that the clergy, up to and including the pope, simply lack the ability to change the requirements for ordination. It’s is Jesus’ church, not theirs; hence, it is out of their hands.

    Jesus can come, any time He wishes, and change the rules. He could even indicate by signs and portents that He wished to do so without personally showing up, or sending Our Lady for the purpose.

    And, it’d be helpful for the cause of priestesses if the wish for female ordination would, for once, show up in the mouths of saintly and orthodox persons, practicing heroic virtue and associated with the usual miracles, and not dissenting from the Church’s teaching in other areas. That’s the bare minimum, I should think, to qualify as a positive message from Our Lord about such a serious matter.

    But no such pattern can be found. The wish for priestesses emanates, as is usual, from a tiny wedge of American and European academics who’re associated with no miracles, who lack even accurate predictive prophecies to validate their divine message, tend to dissent in other areas, and who aren’t noticeably saintly in any other way.

    Far from being inexplicable as anything other than the will of God, the wish from these quarters is most easily explained as the outcome of the usual post-Christendom, Late Western Civ. confusion and ignorance about God’s authorship of creation and history, Christ’s Kingship the Church by which He assigns us to posts and vocations, the Natural Law, the notable fact that the Jews, alone among the ancient races of their area, also were forbidden to have priestesses, the solid and divinely-ordained good of the differences between the sexes, and the difference between doctrinal development and doctrinal reversal.

    If the wish were worldwide, we could perhaps plausibly explain it as something other than our own benighted cultural backwardness in such areas. But no such luck.

    So it seems Our Lord has sent us no message for a radical change of course in this area. The clergy, therefore, are entirely correct to follow His last stated instruction, and steer the Barque of St. Peter straight ahead.

  • Agree with your letter, but didnt care for your use of the word “prance”…horses, not people prance!

  • Carol Bryant

    Jesus was in Mary, but, He was with the apostles.
    Jesus, at the tomb, sent Mary M. to go and tell others
    of His resurrection ( to go and preach). Three women(all named Mary) were with Him at the cross when He died. I believe that we are all called, by God, as deciples, not by gender, but by His calling. Even in this day and age some women are not allowed in public nor to be educated, Gee, I wonder what it was like for all women 2000 years ago? I have no preference for women to be priest or not to be priest, But, then, I don’t have a calling. Many nuns are with dying people and take care of them, they should be allowed to annoint the dying patients thay take care of. i.e. Mother Teresa.

    • Michael PS

      The argument that it was the social position of women in the ancient world that led to their exclusion from the priesthood overlooks the fact that priestesses were commonplace in antiquity.

      The most revered shrine in the ancient world was the temple of Phoebus Apollo at Delphi, where the Pythian priestess uttered the oracle and Plato mentions the priestesses of Dordona, a sanctuary of Zeus, male divinities, both of them.

      The Roman law that women are not to offer sacrifice by night, except when celebrating the rites of the Good Goddess is unintelligible, if they were not allowed to offer sacrifice at all.

      Gaius, a very learned jurist, in discussing the various legal disabilities of women, mentions in an aside that these never applied to the Vestal Virgins, “on account of the dignity of their priesthood.” That the Vestals offered sacrifice is affirmed by Aulus Gellius.

      That there were priestesses in the Elusian and Elutherian mysteries, as well as in the worship of Isis and Osiris, is common knowledge.

      I could go on – A list of all the examples would amount to a catalogue of classical literature.

      This suggests that it was something peculiar to Christianity (and Judaism before it) that led to their exclusion of women from the priesthood.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering the near total collapse of the Episcopal Church, both morally and in membership for all to see–And the fact that its deconstruction began with the ordaining of deaconesses, one can only conclude that those who want deaconesses in the Catholic Church either blindly refuse to learn from other’s experiences or want the Catholic Church to become part of history’s rubbish heap.

  • Excellent open letter.

    “Some of us are mistrustful of archaeological exercises that thinly veil radical agendas under ostensible calls to restore ancient Christian practices.”

    I’m no historian, but my guess is that those burial sites that allegedly revealed “women priests” – in drawings, or in the crypt itself – were those who belonged to a heretical group. It would be the same as if, in 500 years, an archaeologist dug up “Bishop Betty”, who was buried wearing vestments, donned with a mitre, and proclaimed that this was irrefutable proof that the Church ordained women.

    In other words, context.

  • Kathleen O’Connell

    I am suprised that this author who calls himself a theologian relies so much on doctrine and so little on historical research and theological discipline. There is certainly sexism in religion. We see it in extreme Islamic and Jewish approaches as well. But we cannot pretend that Jesus instituted ordination limited to men as we know ordination came later in Church history. Nor can we pretend that Jesus’s disciples were men alone as scripture speaks of the presence of women among them despite the skewed patriarchal perspective of that time. I think the comment above that women can’t experience a call to the priesthood is ridiculous. None of us can read another’s heart. God is bigger than the author or the narrow, frightened comments. All in all, my gues is God wants us to focus more on living our own call and less on limiting and judging others.
    Kathleen O’Connell

    • Robert

      A call comes from God, not from the human person. This has nothing to do with reading another persons heart. Since it is impossible for a woman to be ordained to ordained priesthood (which is not the same as the general priesthood of all Christians), there are no callings to women from God to be ordained. In the same way, men are not ever called by God to the vocation of pregnancy and motherhood as this strictly pertains for women.

    • James

      Oh for goodness sakes, here we go. If you knew Dr. Van Slyke as I do, you would know that he relies HEAVILY on historical research to support his doctrinal claims. Christ Jesus himself DID institute the priesthood, and to say otherwise is blasphemy. I can provide you a paper if you like outlining 5 very solid and evidential reasons that Jesus chose men for the priesthood, and specifically did NOT choose women, not the least among which is the fact that he did not call his Mother, the most perfect example of service and virtue, holiness and purity, to be a priest. If he had intended the priesthood to be men and women, he surely would have chosen his own mother to be the first priestess. So, you wanted historical research – there you have it. THE historical Mary was NOT a priest. Need I say more?

  • NJ: STB, DMin

    It is too bad that the second person of the trinity was born in male form with male body parts. Had the second person been born in female form with female body parts, the men today would be correctly asserting their rights as the women are today. The divinty of Christ springs not from his human form or his human body parts; it springs from his spiritual essence, which could as well have been born in female form. Women today CAN stand in persona Chrisi!

    • Robert

      Here is a book by Sister Sara Butler, an ex-supporter of ‘ordaining’ women but discovered her error of her belief in heresy.

      “The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church”

    • Cord Hamrick

      My lack of Catholic upbringing is showing, I think. Does anybody know what STB stands for in this context? And Dmin (apart from a triad in which the participating notes are D, F, and A)? I presume the NJ indicates Garden State resident status.

      On the assertion that women can stand in persona Christi, I can only answer: Either they cannot, or God has chosen that they can but shall not; that is, He has not permitted it.

      Whereas sacramental theologians can give us insight into the topic of “can,” I don’t think there is any reason for doubt about the “shall not.” When the unbroken tradition is consistent right back to Jesus Christ, it is not as if we have any reason to guess that we, a tiny minority of prideful and puffed-up and spectacularly un-holy gentiles in a sexually-confused and theologically-ignorant post-Christian civilization divided from the sound of Jesus’ words by two thousand years, could possibly know “what Jesus really meant” better than the apostles and their immediate successors knew.

      He passed over such luminaries as Mary Magdalene and His Own Mother for ordination. Surely the fully-graced one would have served better as a steward of His kingdom than Judas Iscariot? Ah, but apparently Jesus thought a certain precedent was to be set. Who are we to say otherwise? Is it our Church, or His?

      Indeed the matter is so long-settled that a reasonable person should expect the usual kinds of signs to accompany any divinely-commanded change of direction on this matter. By “the usual kinds of signs” I mean: That this call for women to serve in persona Christi be uttered by saints, accompanied by verifiable miracles and predictive prophecy. This is God’s norm and He is surely up to the challenge should He wish to make His wishes known. At the very least, He can manifest something more impressive and noteworthy than a handful of dissenter academics…a species which grows rather thick-on-the-ground in the U.S.

      So let us not mince words. The argument that this is not a rule put in place by Jesus, Who Is God, is about as plausible as the argument that John’s “the disciple whom Jesus loved” meant that he and Our Lord were homosexual lovers. It has all the same marks of anachronism and Desperation To Remake God In Our Own Image…and indeed is usually floated by the same crowd.

      • Michael PS

        Bachelor of Sacred Theology [Sacrae Theologiae Baccalaurus]

      • Cord Hamrick

        Ah. Thanks, Michael.

        Still not sure about the Dmin; assuming he doesn’t live his life “in the saddest of all keys” (apologies to the great composer Nigel Tufnel), I presume it’s something along the lines of Doctor of Ministry.

  • Linda lvnv

    How many times have I seen postings like this, I do not remember, but I do know that Women do not belong on the Church Altar and neither do Altar girls belong on the Altar. God has never changed His laws and God will never change His laws

  • Aengus O’Shaughnessy

    Mr. Van Slyke–

    There were indeed female deacons and, aye, female priests in the Celtic Catholic Church. When this branch merged fully with Rome, the women in official roles either became lay people or nuns.

    I agree with Shane Patric, Robyn and Kathleen O’Connell. Women should be holding positions in the church, and by that I mean they should be deacons, priests, bishops, and all else they are called to be. And I believe that there are women that are called to be these things. . . how sad it is that our mother church forbids them to realise their callings.

    I fully expect that by the time myself checks back in on this thread in a day or two, I will have gotten a number of replies telling me that I’m a sinful maverick. So, here’s a my own reply in advance: I’ve heard it before, friends. I’ve heard the insults and the sarcasm, heard the quotes from various authourities, heard the dark mutterings of what happens to those who support female ordination. But it’s okay. Because even though I sometimes feel like I’m trying to knock down a mountain with a bent fork, I know that what I’ll find at the centre of that mountain is worth it.

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