Academic journal article Theological Studies

Remembering Tradition: Women's Monastic Rituals and the Diaconate

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Remembering Tradition: Women's Monastic Rituals and the Diaconate

Article excerpt

WHEN THE INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION (ITC) published its research on the diaconate in 2002, it presented two conclusions: (1) women deacons of history were not precisely identical to male deacons; and (2) the sacrament of orders clearly distinguishes among the priest, bishop, and deacon both in tradition and in the teaching of the magisterium. Therefore, the ITC wrote, "it pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord has established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question," i.e., ordaining women as deacons. (1)

The ITC specifically noted distinctions between men and women deacons in the ancient church "evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised." (2) Depending on limited examination of available texts, the ITC ignored some scholarship that supports the argument that women deacons were indeed considered as belonging to the same order as men deacons in antiquity, but also well after. For example, the ITC implies that the eighth- century ordination liturgies of the Barbarini codex, which are virtually identical for men and women deacons, did not incorporate women into the order of deacon, arguing that the rituals were mainly for monastic women; and the ITC further asserts that the women so ordained exercised no liturgical ministry. (3)

Significant scholarly evaluation of historical evidence, however, combined with worldwide calls for the restoration of the tradition of women deacons, drives contemporary discussion relative to the formalization of ministry by women through ordination to the diaconate. Evaluation of the historical evidence of women deacons has at least two subsets: what did women deacons do? and how were women deacons ritually acknowledged? (4)

This study investigates ritual. It does not enter into arguments about the precise functions of the women deacons of history except to acknowledge the fact that whatever they did was sufficiently "diaconal" in nature for them to be called deacons. Rather, this article evaluates historical and current ceremonies for Cistercian and Carthusian nuns in comparison with known diaconal ordination ceremonies in an effort to recover some of the lost tradition of women deacons, distinguishing between and among monastic profession, diaconal ordination, and consecration of a virgin, which latter brings women into the order of virgins. (5)

Ordination ceremonies for women deacons are known from the early third century. (6) They preserve significant literary and epigraphical evidence of women deacons in many regions, often against pressure to end the practice of ordination of women as deacons. (7) In the sixth century Radegund (ca. 520-586), queen and wife of Frankish King Clothar, insisted on being ordained deacon, and Caesarius of Aries (ca. 468-542) wrote his Rule for Virgins. Subsequently, women deacons existed regionally up to the twelfth century, and as late as the eleventh century popes allowed Western bishops to ordain women as deacons. (8) The orders of women under direct investigation here, the Cistercians and Carthusians, distinguished by adherence to their oldest known rules and usages, were founded in the reformist wave of the eleventh century. (9)

The initial hypothesis for this article is that the tradition of ordaining women to the office of deacon seems to have become connected to or subsumed within other monastic rituals, beginning with the early sixth-century Rule of Caesarius of Arles. (10) My working hypothesis is that where a bishop or priest is needed for a contemporary ceremony, the ceremony historically relates to ordination as it developed over centuries. Conversely, if a bishop or priest is not necessary to the ritual, that ritual more clearly relates to the permanent monastic profession to a stable community, which in the oldest traditions and the oldest orders is always made at the hands of the abbess or prioress, paralleling the process of incardination for secular clerics. …

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