Does the Council of Nicea Reject Women’s Ordination to the Diaconate?

In yesterday’s post, I said that Canon 19 of the First Council of Nicea “ended any controversy” over whether or not women could be sacramentally ordained to the diaconate. In the comments, a few people protested that the broader context of the canon made it seem that the problem wasn’t that the would-be ordained were women, but that they were of the Paulianist heretical sect, and hadn’t followed the proper form. In other words, they claim that deaconesses were fine, but Paulianist weren’t.

Let’s look at the Canon one half at a time, and I think it’ll become clear why that’s not a tenable reading. The Canon begins:

“Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the Bishop of the Catholic Church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed.”

That’s straightforward. None of the Paulianists’ sacraments are being recognized: not their ordinations, not even their Baptisms. This is true of men and women, the laity and the would-be clerics. But the converting clergy will be permitted to be ordained , provided that they’re found blameless and without reproach.  Then the second half says:

“Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity.”

Now, to me, that’s also clear. Of all of the Paulianists (men and women, lay and would-be clerics), Nicea points to the deaconesses, and says that they’re “to be numbered only among the laity.”  Three points to be made here, that I think show why the interpretation suggested in the comments doesn’t hold up:

  1. If deaconesses were permitted, why not allow them to be rebaptized and ordained, like their male counterparts?  Why number these women among the laity, instead of just ordaining them to the diaconate correctly, as was done with their male counterparts?
  2. This interpretation make Canon 19 bizarrely redundant.  You would have to conclude that the Canon says that (a) none of the ordinations of any of the Paulianists are valid, and then (b) none of the ordinations of any of the Paulianist women are valid.  The second part would add nothing that wasn’t already the logical conclusion of the first part.  If the Paulianist ordinations are invalid, then obviously, the ordinations of Paulianist women are invalid.
  3. This interpretation would mean that the Canon wasn’t just redundant, but outright misleading.  Why single out the deaconesses and say that they should be “numbered only among the laity,” if what you really mean is that all of the Paulianist clergy are numbered among the laity?

I’m reminded of the debate of Anglican women’s ordination.  Catholics reject the validity of Anglican ordinations, and the validity of women’s ordination.  So if there were a canon addressing mass Anglican conversions to Catholicism, we’d expect it to (a) deal with the problem of how to ordain / re-ordain Anglican clergy generally, and (b) deal with the distinct problem of Anglican women claiming ordination.

In other words, Canon 19 is exactly what we’d expect if Nicea rejected both Paulianist and women’s ordinations.  But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if women’s ordination to the diaconate was permissible. That’s why I don’t think that the interpretation suggested in the comments holds up to careful scrutiny.

Update: Womenpriests’ analysis of this Canon is worse than I’d realized. They argue that the last part of Canon 19 exists because:

The Council Fathers suddenly realised that the general rule prescribed in (d) makes no sense for Paulianist deaconesses, because in their sect deaconesses were not ordained.

This ignores all of the problems outlined above (no one in their sect was validly ordained), but it also introduces the idea that the Council of Nicea made a mistake, suddenly realized it, and just kept going.


  1. The Council of Nicea stated that the women deacons of that time were non-ordained (no imposition of hands). But they did not decide whether or not the Church has the authority to ordain women deacons. A faithful Catholic may hold the opinion and may make the argument, that the Church has no authority to ordain women deacons.

    But in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II clearly and deliberately chose to teach only that priestly ordination — ordination to the sacerdotal degree — is beyond the authority of the Church. He chose to leave women’s ordination to the deaconate as an open theological question.

  2. The answer to that is in the Canon as pointed out by Ron – “since they have no imposition of hands“.

    The clear implication of that is that deaconesses who did undergo the imposition of hands were NOT to be numbered among the laity.

  3. I’m not sure I follow your analysis. Doesn’t the canon specifically say “…since they have no imposition of hand, are to be numbered only among the laity”? That doesn’t imply that the ordination is invalid to me, only that there wasn’t even an attempt by the Paulianists to ordain them.

    There was, however, an attempt to ordain others, and the canon suggests that they need to be properly ordained, much in the way we work with Anglicans now. We don’t recognize their orders, but will ordain their converted priests.

  4. In other words, [those who protested] claim that deaconesses were fine, but Paulianist weren’t.

    As one of “those who protested”, I’d like to make clear that I didn’t claim that “deaconesses were fine”, I simply corrected your out of context partial quote from Canon XIX; I then went on to point out that the evidence about women deaconesses is inconclusive either way.

  5. Mairtin (and Matt),

    If it’s the case that “deaconesses who did undergo the imposition of hands were NOT to be numbered among the laity,” then deaconesses were in the exact same position as everyone else.

    Every one of the people addressed in Canon XIX suffered from a defect in form in their sacraments, rendering them invalid. So that view would suggest that the Canon is redundant and misleading, or in the view of “womenpriests,” it’s evidence that the first half of the Canon was a mistake.

    That’s just not a tenable reading of the passage, since it doesn’t make sense for both haves to be there. “Imposition of hands” refers, not to the form of the sacrament, but to sacramental ordination itself. Regardless of the ordination ritual that the Paulianists followed, the deaconesses didn’t have the “imposition of hands” because they couldn’t be sacramental ordained.

    Otherwise, why not treat them exactly the same as the Paulianist deacons?

    In Christ,


  6. Joe,

    What a Council does not do and does not say, is not an infallible teaching. The Council did not decide the question of whether or not the Church has the authority to ordain women to the deaconate. They only ruled that the role, at that time, is among the roles of the laity.

    Your position is a tenable theological opinion, but the Magisterium has not yet decided the question. The definitive teaching of the Church on this question so far, is as stated in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that the Church does not have the authority to give priestly ordination to women.

  7. I am certainly not well-versed in the documents of church councils or even this debate, and I’m new to this blog. But I’m curious. In CCD we were taught that the ministerial priesthood (distinctly different from the priesthood of all believers) belongs in fullness to the Bishops who receive “complete” Holy Orders. Priests are extensions of the Bishops and do not act alone. Deacons are extensions of the bishop and priests, receiving Holy Orders in a more limited capacity. It was my impression that while bishops, priests, and deacons have varying degrees of ministry, all are part of the same continuous role of doing the work of the apostles (either occupying the office fully as a Bishop or working as an extension of that office). All are part of the same “Holy Orders” even if they don’t receive the fullness of the priesthood as the Bishops do.

    It makes no sense in my mind to claim that the diaconate, being an extension of the priesthood and bishop, would be open to women when the others are not.

  8. Sorry (to be more clear and to subscribe :)), what I meant to say in that last line is that the term “the priesthood” (ministerial priesthood) was, in my understanding, referring not just to priests but to Bishops, those we also call priests, and deacons and it makes no sense that the diaconate would be treated so differently than the others by ordaining women.

  9. Sarah,

    That’s how I view things, too. But it should be noted that the diaconate isn’t part of Christ’s priestly ministry. A deacon is ordained “not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry” (CCC 1569, quoting Pope John Paul II, who in turn, was quoting Hippolytus’ Traditio Apostolica).

    So some advocates for women’s ordination to the diaconate claim that it’s possible precisely because it’s not “sacerdotal.” Others push for it precisely because they think it is. In either case, I think the advocates are mistaken, and that ordination to the diaconate is similarly impossible.

    God bless,


    P.S. This distinction between the sacerdotal Orders (bishops and priests) and merely ministerial Orders (deacons) is one reason why most resources refuting women’s ordination don’t address the diaconate. Many of the arguments don’t apply.

  10. RonConte is right, so far as I can see. And I think it’s terribly dangerous ground to start reading novel and convenient interpretations into ancient documents, asserting that such-and-such a modern political squabble is actually settled by a centuries-old document even though no one has ever thought that it did any such thing.

  11. We see that instinct in Constitutional interpretation all the time, by the way—we’re told, gee, you know, we don’t even need to discuss this or that contentious political issue, because actually the Fourteenth Amendment settled it—even though the society that ratified the amendment would have been too busy being astonished to be much offended by the notion that they were doing any such thing, and no one has ever thought that the amendment decides this hitherto-undreamed of issue. If the council settled the question, gee, that’s pretty much a silver bullet in the womens’ ordination business—so you’d think that perhaps Ordinatio Sacerdotalis would cite it, and certainly Inter Insigniores would have. Novel arguments based on ancient texts, when addressing perennial questions, are really worth a pause.

  12. Simon,

    I agree with the principle you outlined, but think you’re applying it all backwards. It’s the supporters of women’s ordination to the diaconate who are left trying to resurrect poorly-documented historical events to argue that some women somewhere served in the diaconate. And I’m still inclined to say that the arguments against women’s sacerdotal ordination are distinction from the arguments against their diaconal ordination — and both Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis were restricted to the sacerdotal question.


    The link you cited says: “There is, I think, no evidence that women Deacons ever had a role in the Eucharistic rite like that of male Deacons. Canon 19 of the First Council of Nicea seems to imply that women Deacons are not ordained, but are lay people.” True, it suggests that Chalcedon changes things, but it’s mistaken here. Ron Conte (who disagrees with my view on this) actually answered the Chalcedon argument a little bit ago on his own blog. Quoting him:

    “The Council of Chalcedon refers to women deacons with the term ‘ordained’ (or I think more literally ‘laying on of hands’), but this does not necessarily mean that women deacons were ordained. There were (and still are) several other ecclesiastial orders in the Church other than Bishop, priest, deacon. And the term ordained or laying on of hands was used for those lesser orders (even though those individuals do not receive the Sacrament of Orders). So the Council’s assertion has not been interpreted by the Magisterium as an assertion that women can be ordained.

    For example, Chalcedon also says:

    “Canon 6. Neither presbyter, deacon, nor any of the ecclesiastical order shall be ordained at large, nor unless the person ordained is particularly appointed to a church in a city or village, or to a martyry, or to a monastery. And if any have been ordained without a charge, the holy Synod decrees, to the reproach of the ordainer, that such an ordination shall be inoperative, and that such shall nowhere be suffered to officiate.”

    The ecclesiastical orders are priests, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, lectors, and doorkeepers. Bishops of course are ordained, but as the successors to the Apostles, they are considered separately. Notice that the term ‘ordained’ is used for all the orders, even though only Bishops, priests, and deacons are ordained in the modern sense, with the Sacrament of Orders.”

    So if Nicea views deaconesses as laywomen (which your link concedes), and Chalcedon isn’t somehow repealing the earlier Council, then it seems that women’s ordination to the diaconate is still impossible.

    God bless,


  13. Joe, I agree that the question of ordination to the priesthood is separate from the question of ordination to the diaconate, for the reasons someone noted above: the Church teaches that deacons aren’t ordained to the priesthood. But that door doesn’t swing both ways: What I was saying above in relation to II and OS is that if a council had settled that women can’t even be ordained to the diaconate, then a fortiori they can’t be ordained to the priesthood, and so one would expect an exploration of why the latter is impossible to cite the former if that question had been decided. II and OS are restricted to the sacerdotal question, but if Nicea had decided the antecedent question, one would think they’d have said so.

    And with respect, I can’t agree that it’s being applied backwards, because it is in fact your (novel) argument—that Nicea decided this contentious question, hitherto unnoticed by anyone—that’s under consideration. And FWIW, I don’t think the supporters of female permanent deacons need to cite historical progeny—they merely need to demonstrate that the issue is merely disciplinary (à la clerical celibacy) rather than belonging to the deposit of faith (à la OS, the major contribution of that document to the debate being to ground the issue in doctrine and to settle the doctrinal question).

  14. Simon,

    I agree on the two-way door. If the view I’ve put forward on Nicea is right, then women’s sacerdotal ordination is (even more) out of the question. It’d be sheer guesswork for why Nicea isn’t mentioned in the two more recent documents dealing with sacerdotal ordination, but it could well be simply that there were better and more direct arguments, specific to the nature of the priesthood.

    As for this being my “(novel) argument—that Nicea decided this contentious question, hitherto unnoticed by anyone,” it’s anything but. Jack, the last commenter, included a link addressing this very question, and womenpriests has a rebuttal on their website against this very Canon: see the “Update” at the bottom of the post. So no, this is no brilliant insight on my part.

    God bless,


  15. Hi Joe,

    I agree with your comment that ‘some desire women’s ordination to the diaconate because it’s *not* a sacerdotal role, and some because it *is*.’ I would be in the former camp. I wonder if a lot of the complication in this issue stems from the fact that the diaconate has become (for most) merely a step on the way to priesthood rather than a distinct (non-sacerdotal) ministry? It almost seems that the role originally defined for deacons (ie church servants) as per your original reference to Acts 6:3 would be absolutely fine for women to engage with if it didn’t carry the now-loaded word ‘deacon’ with its almost-priest status conferred by ordination.

    I am sure it’s mostly the women who do the food-prep for church events after all :).

    But to return to the serious point, it seems to me that before the issue of deaconesses can be resolved, one must agree on what a deacon is, and whether ‘ordination’ in ancient texts refers to a setting apart solely for a sacerdotal role (as opposed to being ordained as a doorkeeper for example), and whether laying-on-of-hands is always the same as ordination to a sacerdotal role, or whether the laying on of hands in Acts 6:6 is an act applicable to any sacred church role without implying any link to priesthood.

    ps For what it’s worth I don’t read Canon 19 the way you do, but agree with ronconte and Mairtin. I do think however I’m possibly reading into it the conclusion I wish to see since I’m ignorant of the Paulinists and the reaction to them.

  16. Joe,

    Reading Canon XIX is important, but it did not happen in a bubble. The Council of Laodicea (360AD) says in Canon 44: Women may not go to the altar. According to the same council, the role of a deacon was to serve at the altar and to provide the Chalice for the faithful during Communion.

    The Synod of Laodicea is not an ecunmenical council. It does, however, provide a historical backdrop for any discussion of deaconnesses. To that end, it appears that deaconesses weren’t part of the ordained clergy, nor were they part of ecclesiastic orders.

    Further, to say that deacons are not part of the sacerdotal order is partly correct, however you still need to account for this phrase in the Synod of Laodicea, Canon 24: “No one of the priesthood, from presbyters to deacons, …”

  17. The role of deacon differs from that of priest in significant ways, which is what makes the question of women’s ordination to the deaconate still an open question.
    1. Deacons do not stand in persona Christi. As Joe says above, it is not a role of priestly ministry.
    2. Deacons do not administer any Sacraments other than marriage and baptism — and both of these Sacraments can be administered by lay persons in extra-ordinary circumstances
    3. The role of deacon is a role of service, whereas the role of priest is one of leadership. So the type of role given to a deacon is not incompatible with verses on women’s roles in Scripture.
    4. I would further suggest that, if women are ordained as deacons, they should have a distinct role even as compared to male deacons (as was the case with historical non-ordained women deacons).

  18. As one who is interested in the question of the “ordination” of women to “the diaconate” and who has followed until now this thread and the subsequent one in silence, I’m disappointed that there is no mention in either thread of those two most excellent books on the subject, Martimort’s *Deaconesses: An Historical Study* (Ignatius Press, 1986) and Gerhard Ludwig Mueller’s *Priesthood and Diaconate* (Ignatius Press, 2002) — Martimort was one of the premier French patristic scholars of the last century, while Mueller is now Bishop of Regensburg, and by all accounts high in the favor of the pope. Martimort’s book concludes that deaconesses were not female deacons (even though the Byzantine Rite clearly assimilates the ordination rite of deacons to that of deaconesses), and that it would be a bad idea to revive the “diaconissate” today; Mueller’s that ordaining women to the diaconate is as impossible and invalid as ordaining them to the priesthood. (And since I am always praising and recommending Martimort’s book, I will admit that it has one or two lacunae that I wish he had treated more thoroughly, first, that Phoebe the diakon of the Church of Cenchreae was neither a “female deacon” nor even a “deaconess,” and, second, that the ancillae mentioned in Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan were not deaconesses, either — Martimort thinks that deaconesses originate din the late 2nd or early 3rd century in Syria/Mesopotamia.)

    And as to my own opinion, I will simply write, with apologies to Cato the Elder, “Ceterum censeo, ‘Ordinationem Diaconalem’ esse promulgandam,” and that in parallel to, and completion of, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.”

  19. \”The Council of Chalcedon refers to women deacons with the term ‘ordained’ \

    Something that the average reader–especially from a non-Orthodox or non-Byzantine background–might miss.

    There are two words for ordination in the Byzantine tradition: Cheirothesia for minor orders and elevations and certain other blessings, and Cheirotonia for the orders of deacon, priest, and bishop.

    That of a deaconess is called CHEIROTONIA, and the prayers are basically the same, as you can see.

    Furthermore, Cheirothesia for the minor orders take place OUTSIDE of the Divine Liturgy. But CHEIROTONIA must always be conferred during the Divine Liturgy.

    Think about it.

  20. “There are two words for ordination in the Byzantine tradition: Cheirothesia for minor orders and elevations and certain other blessings, and Cheirotonia for the orders of deacon, priest, and bishop.”

    For the past 1400 years or thereabouts, those two words have had that dstinct meaning in ecclesiastical Greek. However, the two words mean almost precisely the same thing: hand-touch; and until about the 600s one can find those two words used in very fluid ways, such that one can find cases in which “cheirothesia” seems synonymous with “cheirotonia” and other cases in which their respective meanings seem precisely the opposite of what they mean today.

    So your argument proves precisely nothing, since (a) there haven’t been deaconesses in the Byzantine tradition for upwards of 900 years, and (b) just as the denotational distinction between “cheirotonia” and “cheirothesia” emerged slowly, so did the hard-and-fast rule in the Byzantine tradition about “minor orders” being conferred outside the Liturgy, and “major orders” within it.

    So you have barely begun to make a coherent agrument; and, what is more, one would them have to go on to argue why the almost-but-not-quite equivalence of the ordination rites for deacons and deaconesses in the Byzantine tradition should be more weighty in any Catholic assessment of the issue, than the fact that in the equally ancient Syriac rites it is clear that “deacons” and “deaconesses” are totally different offices, and that “deaconesse,” whatever they may be, are not “femele deacons;” and the other fact, that while the existence of bishops, priests and deacons are constitutive for the existence of a local church, this is not the case as regards deaconesses. Some churches have never, ever had deaconesses, notably the Roman Church; and in others, throughout the whole Latin West and in Armenia and Ethiopia, ther eis no trace of them before ca.400/500 AD.

  21. I’ve heard a well-known OCA priest (I forget his name at the moment, it’s been a few years) say that the Orthodox consider a deaconess to have “the same kind” of office as a deacon, but they don’t consider either to have Holy Orders.

    Along with ecclesiastical divorce, I suspect that is one of the barriers to reunification.

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