On October 6, 2015, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher of Gatineau, Canada surprised Catholic Synod observers when he called for more study on the possibility of women deacons. In the course of his allotted three-minute address to the assembled bishops at the Synod on the Family, the Archbishop suggested that admitting women to the permanent diaconate could help affirm the dignity of women by giving them a wider role in the Church. He proposed this as something he considered feasible, given that the diaconate is traditionally ordered “non ad sacerdotium, sed ad ministerium” (“not to priesthood, but to ministry”).
The goal of increasing the avenues of women’s participation in the life of the Church is certainly a worthy one. Still, discussion of a potential feminine diaconate would necessarily involve a number of thorny issues. We do know that the early Church did have some kind of “deaconesses.” But at the same time, we do not have a very clear picture of exactly what their function was, or precisely how the Church understood their theological identity.
On the one hand, women’s ordination per se to the diaconate would be theologically problematic. After centuries of doctrinal maturation, the Church now has a well-developed theology of the priesthood and the sacrament of Holy Orders. In a nutshell, Holy Orders is understood as one sacrament with three degrees, as opposed to three entirely separate sacraments. While it is true that, as Archbishop Durocher indicated, the diaconate is primarily oriented towards the ministry of service rather than the authority of the episcopate or the sacramental power of the priesthood, because of the intrinsic unity of this sacrament the diaconate cannot be correctly understood apart from the other two degrees of Holy Orders. Therefore, if the Church were to consider literally “ordaining” women as deacons, this would conflict with our settled theology on Apostolic authority and an all-male priesthood.
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On the other hand, it has been suggested that rather than attempting to admit women into the sacramental diaconate through actual Holy Orders, the Church might alternatively consider establishing some sort of non-ordained “Order of Deaconesses” dedicated to charitable works. But although this would be theologically consistent, its anticipated pastoral benefit might be overshadowed by the myriad of unanswered questions it would present. Instituting a non-ordained women’s diaconate would mean, at least de facto, creating an entirely new state of life out of whole cloth, with all the canonical trial-and-error and ecclesiastical growing pains inherent in such an endeavor.
Given these considerations, one idea which I would respectfully propose to bishops interested in discussing the possibility of women deacons is: instead of spending the time and resources necessary to explore the question of a feminine diaconate, why not channel that pastoral concern into further developing and promoting the restored Order of Virgins? Consecrated virgins could easily fulfill most of what seems to be envisioned for women deacons in terms of engaging in works of mercy in an official capacity on the Church’s behalf, and the Order of Virgins provides a particularly fitting sphere in which women can become more closely linked with the mission of the Church. The vocation of consecrated virginity also has two distinct advantages over a hypothetical female diaconate. Namely, it is a completely orthodox reality which involves no theological controversy whatsoever, and it is something which already exists in our current liturgy and canon law.
But what is the Order of Virgins? Although relatively unknown even among well-catechized Catholics, the Ordo Virginum is arguably the oldest form of consecrated life in the Church. Since Apostolic times, there have always been some Christian women who felt called to love Christ in as undivided a sense as possible, by committing to a life of virginity in order to relate to Christ as their Bridegroom in a radical way. Many of the female saints whose names are familiar to us from the Roman Canon of the Mass—e.g., Sts. Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, and Cecilia—were consecrated virgins in addition to being martyrs.
We know that by the fourth century, the Church had already established a solemn liturgical ritual for consecration to a life of virginity, though our earliest references to consecrated virgins as forming a distinct group within the Church are found in the late first-century writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. With the rise of organized monastic life towards the end of the Patristic era, the consecration of virgins gradually came to be associated with women’s religious life properly so-called. By the time of the Middle Ages, the practice of consecrating non-monastic women, or virgins “living in the world,” gradually fell out of use until it became all but obsolete. However, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself was preserved for posterity in the Roman Pontifical, as some monastic Orders continued to offer their solemnly professed nuns the privilege of receiving the consecration of virgins.
With the Second Vatican Council, the document Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a revision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. The resulting revision, promulgated in 1970, was explicitly extended not only to nuns whose Orders had a custom of using the Rite, but also to “women living in the world”—in fact, the revised Rite of Consecration seems to have been primarily intended for this latter category. Later, the new 1983 Code of Canon Law would further acknowledge consecrated virginity as a recognized form of consecrated life. And so, in a situation not dissimilar to the restoration of the permanent diaconate for men, the Patristic era Order of Virgins was re-established as a vocation in the life of the modern Church.
Of course, despite some apparent historical overlap between the ancient Order of Virgins and the deaconesses of the early Church, it would be a mistake to equate consecrated virginity with the diaconate, strictly speaking. The vocation to consecrated virginity is a distinct charism with many particular elements—such as a call to a spousal relationship with Christ, and a life of literal virginity—which cannot be identified with the diaconate, and which also distinguish consecrated virginity from a more generic call to ecclesial service. Still, on a practical level, the Order of Virgins would seem capable of fulfilling the specific perceived pastoral needs which tend to prompt discussion of women deacons.
In our current Code of Canon Law, consecrated virgins are explicitly described as women “dedicated to the service of the Church” (cf. can. 604). The introductory section of the Rite of Consecration also lists one of the stated motivations for the candidates’ profession of a life of virginity as “greater freedom in the service of their brothers and sisters.” In this same section of the Rite, the list of consecrated virgins’ duties (or in the original Latin, their munera, a more evocative term which might be better translated as “offices”) includes both “works of penance and mercy” and “apostolic activity.”
The Rite also envisions consecrated virgins as “often taking part in the good works of the diocese.” This underscores another pastorally beneficial aspect of the Order of Virgins, the connection between consecrated virgins and the local diocesan Church. One way consecrated virginity differs from the more familiar vocation of religious life is that consecrated virgins are directly affiliated with their home dioceses, with their bishop as their ecclesiastical superior. Unlike religious Sisters, who generally serve in apostolates specific to the spirituality and mission of their particular community, a consecrated virgin is free to serve the local Church in whatever ways her bishop discerns are most necessary. Likewise, while a religious Sister may relocate frequently depending on her community’s needs, a consecrated virgin is able to remain as a more stable presence within her home diocese.
It is also worth noting that although both men and women can profess religious vows, the consecration of virgins is the only vocation in the Church reserved exclusively to women. Therefore, as a uniquely feminine vocation, consecrated virginity might be thought of as an appropriate, doctrinally orthodox complement to the priesthood.
It would seem that one common, if often tacit, argument in favor of a female diaconate is the thought that women would supposedly enjoy a greater and more meaningful participation in the life of the Church if they were permitted to enter a state which approximates the clergy in at least some respects. Yet, although there are currently many legitimate concerns regarding the place of women in the Church, allowing women to take on a facsimile of the essentially masculine vocation to Holy Orders would not seem to give us any deep or enduring answers or solutions. In contrast, consecrated virginity does provide a role for women which celebrates their unique ability to represent the Church as the bride of Christ, and, as such, honors them in their specifically feminine nature.
The renewed Order of Virgins clearly has the potential for great fruitfulness in the Church today. Still, even forty-five years after its re-establishment, it remains a little-known and less-understood vocation. Young women who feel called to the vocation of consecrated virginity often find that there are few resources available to assist them in their discernment or formation, and newly consecrated virgins can suffer keenly from a general lack of encouragement and moral support. Can we imagine what good could be brought about for both the Church and the world if those interested in discussing women deacons were willing to devote time and energy into fostering the greater flourishing of the Order of Virgins?
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Dream in a Cloister Cell” is painted by Luigi Busi (1838-84).