Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Deaconess: New Sources in Medieval Pastoralia

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Deaconess: New Sources in Medieval Pastoralia

Article excerpt

THE TWELFTH AND THIRTEENTH CENTURIES have become increasingly prominent in the ongoing ecclesial debate over deaconesses. The importance of this period is due in large part to the immense effort of medieval schoolmen to better understand the sacrament of holy orders. Questions about ordination were a frequent occurrence among the Scholastics, and numerous distinctions and clarifications were articulated. This Scholastic inquiry eventually led to a great precision in how people thought and spoke about ordination, and likewise to the conclusion that deaconesses were not recipients of the sacrament of holy orders. This precision has become part of the Church's heritage, and the theology of holy orders as concisely stated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law is largely an inheritance from this period. (1) The new sources from medieval pastoralia that will be presented here outline the increasing precision with which deaconesses and the sacrament of holy orders were understood.

The debate over deaconesses in the Latin Church has continuously stumbled over ambiguities of terminology, particularly over the words for deaconess (diaconissa) and ordination (ordo, ordinare, ordinatio, etc.). In the first millennium of the Christian era these words were used in various ways. Widows, baptismal assistants, wives of deacons, and abbesses were all, at various times, referred to as diaconissae. Additionally, the terms relating to ordination were not restricted to the sacrament of holy orders as now understood, and as will be explained more fully below. These ambiguities led to a situation where the two main works on the history of deaconesses, those of Martimort and Gryson, arrive at opposite conclusions regarding the possible ordination of deaconesses today, despite examining the same evidence. (2) It has become clear that the debate is not primarily over whether deaconesses as such existed in the past. The current ecclesial debate is over whether such women received the supernatural character bestowed by sacramental ordination, which the magisterium of the Church has since declared essential to the sacrament of holy orders. (3) This debate over supernatural realities cannot be resolved purely by historical research. As explained more fully by Gary Macy, a prior theological decision must be made regarding how the ordination spoken of in the first millennium corresponds to the investing of the sacrament of holy orders as now understood. (4) Nonetheless, what historical research into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries can do is demonstrate how people viewed deaconesses at the very moment when ordination and the diaconate were first understood in the precise way the 1983 Code of Canon Law speaks of them.

The task of clarifying the issues surrounding deaconesses and ordination was in large part accomplished by canonists during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. It was later in the mid-thirteenth century that theologians began to address the question. (5) The greatest of the medieval theologians, Peter Lombard (d. 1160), never addressed the issue, although in commentaries on his Sentences one can usually find later theological reflections. When Aquinas and Bonaventure were later commenting on his Sentences, they were no longer discussing whether women could be ordained to the diaconate, but rather why such a thing was impossible. (6) It was the canonists who provided this starting point. The locus for earlier canonical discussions was in commentaries on select passages from Gratian's Decretum. The Decretum (c. 1150), also known as the Concordance of Discordant Canons, was a large collection of ancient Church canons that were organized and commented on by Gratian in order to bring harmony (concordia) to the existing body of Church regulations. It quickly became the standard textbook for the training of medieval canonists. In the Decretum and the numerous commentaries by medieval canonists one can track the progression of Scholastic inquiry into the issues surrounding deaconesses. …

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