The vexed question of the ordination of women in the Catholic Church (1) has widespread and deep implications for ecumenical dialogue between and among churches that ordain women, either to the diaconate or to priesthood or to both. Three churches in dialogue with the Catholic Church--the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church of Greece, and certain Old Catholic Churches that are signers to the Union of Utrecht--are able to ordain women to the diaconate. While the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of sacraments and orders in these churches, it is unclear as to whether the validity of the ordination of women deacons in these churches would be equally recognized. There have been no Catholic statements regarding them.
The Armenian Apostolic Church has an unbroken tradition of ordaining monastic women deacons and today has women deacons in active ministries. The Orthodox Church of Greece is the most recent to join churches whose apostolic succession is recognized by the Catholic Church and that ordain women. At least four Union of Utrecht Old Catholic Churches ordain women deacons and priests: the Old Catholic Churches in Germany (1996), (2) Austria (1998), the Netherlands (1998), and Switzerland (2002). (3) The Old Catholic Church in the Czech Republic ordained a woman deacon in 2003.
All of these ordinations are licit according to the requirements of their respective churches. These facts raise the question: Does the Catholic Church also recognize these ordinations of women as valid? The restriction of orders at every level in the Catholic Church to males, rooted at the level of priesthood in the question of authority, is an ecclesial law not binding in these churches. Further, Catholic teaching does not necessarily hold that gender is a determinant of validity. Pius XII with the Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum ordinus (1947) determined that "the only matter ... of the Sacred Orders of the Diaconate, the Priesthood, and the Episcopacy is the imposition of hands; and that the form, and the only form, is the words which determine the application of this matter." (4) The gender of the ordinand is not part of the determination of matter or form. Assuming that the ordinations in these churches are carried out with proper matter and form, then, it would seem that the ordinations are sacramentally valid as well as ecclesially licit within their respective churches. Given the older tradition of women deacons throughout Christianity, there seems no barrier to Rome's recognizing the validity of diaconal orders in these sibling churches. (5)
To recognize the ecumenical implications of the ordination of women to the diaconate in these three churches in their relation to the Catholic Church, the question must necessarily be split. The ordination of women to the diaconate is separate and distinct from the ordination of women to the priesthood. A major (yet flawed) argument against the ordination of women deacons in the Catholic Church is that such ordination would thereby qualify women for ordination to priesthood--if you can ordain a woman deacon, then you can ordain a woman priest. However, there is nothing in custom or tradition to provide for the automatic entrance into priesthood of an ordained deacon, male or female. Further, the Catholic Church has reasserted its tradition of a permanent diaconate in modern times. (6)
The opposing argument to ordaining Catholic women deacons also states that, since the Catholic Church has definitively taught that a woman cannot be ordained a priest, so neither can she be ordained a deacon. Those who propose this argument overlook the fact that, if the argument holds, then the reverse is also true: if women were ordained to the diaconate in the past, then they can be ordained in the present. That is, if the nonordination of women deacons implies the impossibility of women priests, then the ordination of women deacons similarly implies the possibility of women priests. …