In the Catholic Church the question of women priests (and by implication women bishops) was put to rest with two modern documents. One is the 1976 Inter Insigniores (Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The second, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone), is a 1994 apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II to the world's bishops.
Both teach that the church does not believe it has the authority to ordain women to priesthood. However, each leaves aside the question of ordaining women as deacons.
Church history includes many women deacons, although history doesn't settle the argument. Ordained women deacons in the early church do not prove that the church needs ordained women deacons today. However, neither would a lack of ordained women deacons in the past toll the final bell against restoring a clearly historical ministry of women.
Many women called "deacon" in the early church ministered in various ways in different territories across the centuries. The earliest woman "minister" in scripture is Phoebe, whom St. Paul calls a "deacon of the church at Cenchrae" (Rom. 16:1).
While specialists translate scripture in different ways, Paul definitely uses the title deacon for Phoebe. In Romans and again in First Timothy (3:11), we find the greatest scriptural support for women deacons. The word diakonos appears 29 times in 27 different verses in the New Testament and is translated variously as "servant," "minister," or "deacon" depending on the context.
Language is always a problem when considering ancient sources. Were the early women named in scripture "servants" or "ministers" or "deacons"? Bishops of the early church named many women "deacons" or, in some territories, "deaconesses." The women "served" and performed "ministry." The evidence flips back and forth. Some writers today call the women deacons of the early church "deaconesses," even where ancient literary or epigraphical (tombstone) references specifically call them "deacons."
What does language prove? Not much, except that a ministry of service identified with the word diakonia was somehow extended to women. Some argue that the women called "deaconesses" were the wives of deacons. Others argue they belonged to a fourth, minor order ranked between deacons and subdeacons. Still others argue that the titles deacon and deaconess are interchangeable and neither prove nor disprove anything about these women's status in the early church.
Where does that leave us now? me modern rebirth of the permanent diaconate began in 1951 when several young social workers who hoped to become married permanent deacons to serve the needy formed a group in Freiburg, Germany. The permanent diaconate has grown to an order of 35,000 men worldwide, most of whom are married.
In the fall of 2009, the Catholic Church in Ireland began training its first group of candidates for the permanent diaconate. The permanent diaconate is most developed in the West, with about 16,000 permanent deacons in the United States alone. But about a year ago eight married men were ordained in the second class of deacons for the Archdiocese of Bombay, India.
But what about women deacons? The church has long enjoyed the ministry of women who performed the traditional diaconal tasks of catechesis, ministering to the sick, and assisting the poor. In modern times these tasks were undertaken mostly by women religious, who built Catholic health care and education in the United States and who still provide the backbone personnel for thousands of social service ministries.
But these women ministers are laypeople, not clerics, and are not part of the hierarchical structure of the church. They cannot preach. They cannot baptize except in an emergency. They cannot witness marriages. …