Deaconesses or female deacons? Journalists do you know the history of these terms?

Once again, it is time to play that popular news-media game, "What did Pope Francis say and what might it mean?" The goal is to fit a bite or two of church history into the rapid-fire and breathless responses of journalists in some elite newsrooms, where a papal call for clarification on female deacons is being hailed as a possible door to the ordination of women as priests. 

Let's start with some basics: The word used in Romans 16:1 to describe the woman named Phoebe is diakonos -- which some have translated as "servant," while others use "deacon. In the New International Version, that would be:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

In the classic King James Version, that reads: 

I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.

Scan through this Bible Hub search and you'll see a variety of translations that go each way. But we can start our discussion with an acknowledgement that the early church did include some kind of role for women known as "deaconesses." 

Now, we also need to recognize that in the modern world, a rapidly rising number of Catholic parishes and ministries are featuring the ministry of men ordained as "permanent deacons," as opposed to deacons who will soon transition into the priesthood. This is a very newsworthy trend.

So, when you clicked on your news source of choice (or perhaps even opened a newspaper) today, did the story you read contain some material resembling the following from the report in Crux?

Currently, canon 1024 of the Code of Canon Law says that only a baptized male can receive the sacrament of ordination, so the law does not presently permit female deacons. The question, however, especially in light of the Biblical evidence for women being referred to as “deaconesses” in early Christianity, is whether that law could be changed.
A high-level Vatican panel took up the question in 2002, when the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, produced a document on the diaconate which considered whether women might be eligible for the role. Although the document did not draw any firm conclusion, it seemed to lean against the idea of female deacons.

Now, it is clear that there is quite a bit of relevant source material out there, in terms of existing Vatican research and debate. But Crux stressed that this document, in the end, offered "two points for reflection."

First, the document says that deaconesses in the ancient Christian church “cannot purely and simply be compared to the sacramental diaconate” that exists today, since there is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions they exercised.
Second, the document asserts that “the unity of the sacrament of orders” is “strongly imprinted by ecclesiastical tradition, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the post-councilor magisterium,” despite clear differences between the episcopacy and priesthood on the one hand and the diaconate on the other.

In other words, can one equate the ancient "deaconess" role with the ordained ministry -- at the altar -- being offered by modern permanent deacons?

That's the big question that you are looking for in the news coverage.

So how did that play out in the pages of The New York Times

ROME -- Pope Francis said Thursday that he would set up a commission to study whether women could serve as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church, a move hailed by women who have campaigned for years for a more prominent role in the church.
His remarks reveal an openness to re-examining the church’s long-held insistence on an all-male clergy. Yet the idea will face stiff resistance from those who believe that it is the first step toward ordaining female priests, something that recent popes have ruled out, citing church doctrine.

It's hard to get much more definitive than that unattributed statement of fact: "His remarks reveal an openness to re-examining the church’s long-held insistence on an all-male clergy."

So what about the other half of the discussion, the issue of the ancient role of the "deaconess"? Is that the same as the modern "deacon"? The Times notes:

Deacons are ordained ministers in the Catholic Church, and in many parishes they handle many of the same tasks that priests do. They are permitted to preach at Mass, perform baptisms, witness marriages and conduct funeral services. Deacons currently must be men over the age of 35, and they may be married (though if a deacon’s wife dies, he is expected to remain celibate).

Well, that is the modern role for ordained permanent deacons. But what about the pope's question about whether women were "ordained" in the ancient church? How does the Times handle that? 

To be blunt: That direct quote didn't make the cut. Instead, readers are told:

Some Catholic women cite research showing that women served as deacons in the church’s early history. But the pope asked some skeptical questions at the assembly about whether the responsibilities of deaconesses in the early church were more circumscribed than those of male deacons.

That's one way to put it.

Some of the wordings were even more bizarre at The Washington Post. What, precisely, does this language mean?

The pope’s comments immediately triggered debate about whether Francis was opening the door for radical change or instead turning back the clock by reviewing biblical history many feminists see as settled.

Huh? So the only option is to move in a radical direction, basically accepting as fact the views of modern feminists? In other words, attempting to restore the ancient ministry of the deaconess would not be enough, that would not be progress? 

And check this out:

In the Catholic Church, deacons are clergy who may baptize in a similar way to priests, may officiate at weddings and may preach. And unlike priests, they may marry. They cannot, however, carry out many of the sacraments, such as consecrating the bread or wine for the Holy Eucharist. They can, however, distribute the Holy Communion.

Wait a minute: There are two ways of baptizing in the Catholic church today? One done by priests and another rite in which deacons baptize believers "in a similar way"?

Note also that, like the Times, the Post team is a bit confused on the issue of deacons being married. A married man can be ordained as a permanent deacon. A man who has been ordained as a deacon cannot then be married. The same is true for Catholic men who are married and then -- in the Eastern Rite and in some cases involving former Anglicans and Lutherans -- ordained to the priesthood. I know, that is rather picky material, but facts matter.

For those seeking background on these issues, let me offer two initial tips. First, check out the must-follow "Headlines and Homilies" blog of Deacon Greg Kandra, a former CBS News producer.

Then you may want to read an interesting reflection by a former Anglican, Father Dwight Longenecker, who is now a married Catholic priest. He has some positive and calming things to say at his "Standing on My Head" blog about the deaconess issue, but then adds the following (opening with a reference to the ancient tradition of baptizing converts sans clothing):

A full discussion, however, demands that we would have to question why this change was necessary.
Do we require women deacons to assist at naked baptisms? No. Do we require women to be ordained so that they might have the authority to administer the church’s charitable work? The splendid work of our teaching and nursing sisters precludes the need. Women are already administering the church’s charitable work effectively at every level. Do we need deaconesses to be diocesan chancellors, school principals, parish pastoral associates, directors of faith formation, Vatican administrators, professional consultants, diplomats, journalists, and financial advisors? No. Plenty of women already fulfill these roles. Do we need women to be ordained as deaconesses to be spiritual directors, theologians, cultural activists, broadcasters, evangelists, writers and scholars? No. We have a growing number of women already doing this.
The only reason, therefore, to have deaconesses is to include women in the ranks of the clergy, but when the need is to de-clericalize the church and empower the laity, isn’t it counter productive to add yet another layer of clergy to the church? 

Stay tuned. But a note to journalists: Please look for voices among those who sincerely want to consider the return of the ancient role of the deaconess, but do not favor using this debate as a wedge on the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood. There are at least three camps to seek out, this time around.

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