Once again, Pope Francis has dashed liberal expectations by stating no historical evidence currently exists indicating that the Catholic Church ever had women deacons equivalent to today.
While the Catholic Church has definitively stated that Jesus Christ instituted an exclusively male priesthood in line with the Hebrew tradition spanning all the way back to Moses, debates in recent years have centered on whether or not women can be ordained deacons in the church — a minister who aids in clerical functions but does not perform Sacraments, such as confession or the Holy Eucharist.
Just three years ago, Pope Francis was petitioned by the International Union of Superiors General to appoint a commission studying the prospect of female deacons. According to LifeSiteNews, the Holy Father said during an inflight press conference this week that the commission could not definitively find evidence that the Catholic Church ever had a female diaconate.
"They were all different, all toads from different wells," said Francis. "Everyone thought differently, but they worked together, and they agreed up to a certain point. But then each of them has his/her own vision which isn’t in agreement with the others. And they stopped there as a commission, and each one is studying on his/her own to go forward."
The biggest question on everyone's mind is whether or not the women of the early church participated in such a way that could be an equivalent to what is understood as today's diaconate.
"The formulae of ordination for the [female] diaconate found until now are not the same as for the male diaconate and are more similar to what today would be the abbatial blessing of an abbess," the Pope said. "There were deaconesses in the beginning," adding that the question is if "it was a sacramental ordination or not." His statement went further:
They helped, for example, in the liturgy of baptism, which was by immersion. When they baptized a woman the deaconess assisted. They also assisted for the anointing of the woman’s body. Then a document came out that showed the deaconess was called by the bishop when there was a marital dispute, for the dissolution of the marriage or the divorce or separation. When the woman accused her husband of having hit her, the deaconesses were sent by the bishop to look at her body for bruises, and so they testified for judgment.
What is fundamental is that there is no certainty that there was ordination with the same form and finality as male ordination.
The Pope also pointed out that said deaconesses were often in specific geographical locations, such as Syria, indicating that the function may have been one of necessity rather than a universal tradition.
Critics of the Catholic Church's position on the male priesthood have said it sprang forth from a time when women were regarded as second-class citizens. As the commission and Pope Francis noted, however, priestesses were well regarded among the pagan classes at the time of the early church.