Pope Benedict speaking with a statue of the Lady of Fatima behind him


The Revisionist History Of Benedict XVI

By Phyllis Zagano

. . . within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.
—Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

On January 25, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI published his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, a meditation on the nature of love and its exercise in the Catholic Church in the form of Christian charity. Three of the 42 sections of the two-part document focus on the historical beginnings of institutionalized charity in the Church—the diaconate—and are set in a subsection headed “Charity as a  responsibility of the Church.” The three sections, numbers 21, 22, and 23, follow the discussion of the common ownership in the early Church, which gave way of practical necessity to a broader understanding that “. . . within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.” So begins Benedict’s argument that the primary work of the Church, supported by the study of the Word and the function of liturgy, is charity.

So far, so good. No one can question Benedict’s vision for the Church as the embodiment of the admonitions and directions of scripture, aided and celebrated by liturgy. The works of charity that flow from the Word and liturgy make sense of each. In other parts of the encyclical, Benedict speaks to the Catholic Church’s institutionalized charity, from the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (the curial agency that donates to aid and relief efforts) down to the diocesan and parish levels. But in these two key sections of the encyclical, Benedict shows the Church as it lay the groundwork for all that came after and all that will come in the future.

What is astonishing is that he does not mention any women in these sections, especially the women deacons of the early Church. Their descendants in mission live today in multiple expressions of ordained ministry and religious life in the Christian churches and ecclesial communions, but their names are missing from the encyclical. Benedict begins his brief history of the diaconate:

21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5–6). In the early Church, in fact, with regard to distribution to widows, a disparity had arisen between Hebrew speakers and Greek speakers. The Apostles, who had been entrusted primarily with “prayer” (the Eucharist and the liturgy) and the “ministry of the word,” felt over-burdened by “serving tables,” so they decided to reserve to themselves the principal duty and to designate for the other task, also necessary in the Church, a group of seven persons.1 Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1–6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbour. With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.

Benedict’s rendition of the first stirrings of the diaconal functions of the Church is both serviceable and specific. The works of charity described in scripture were not merely functions of a “mechanical work of distribution.” They were to be expressions of Christian love. Clearly, he expects his vision of the past to be brought forward in his pontificate.

In this section of the encyclical, Benedict cites Acts 6:1–6, which includes a passage of ultimate interest to those who look toward the restoration of the female diaconate in the Catholic Church, as it has been restored or continued in several churches that the Catholic Church considers “sister churches,” with valid apostolic succession and orders. He recounts that the community of believers, finding a need for organized charity, called forth seven men to receive the laying on of hands by the apostles. The cited—but not quoted—verses in Acts demonstrate the action of the Church in choosing and ordaining:

The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. (Acts 6:4–5)

The reason this passage is so important to the on-going discussion of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church is that it is the community of believers who chose these first deacons, and it is the apostles who have laid hands on them. Each lends credence to the belief, buttressed by history, that the Catholic Church can call forth women to ordained ministry.

In its declaration Inter Insigniores (1976), the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gives two reasons against the ordination of women to priesthood: the “iconic argument” and the “argument from authority.” The “iconic argument,” briefly, argues that one must evidence the maleness of Jesus in order to represent Jesus, in order to be and to act “in persona Christi.” The “argument from authority” is derived from the belief that Jesus only chose male apostles.

Later, the apostolic letter of John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), presents the “argument from authority,” but drops the “iconic argument.” While the argument of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is contained in a papal letter, it is not an infallible statement, despite comment and commentary to the contrary. In fact, both Inter Insigniores and the 1995 Responsum ad Dubium to questions surrounding the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis stand only as opinions rendered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a curial body responsible to the pope. Of course, each opinion might appear to have more weight following the April 2005 papal election of the congregation’s president, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. But there is neither a de jure divino assertion of infallibility nor any clear declaration of infallibility in this matter, which rests solely on the “argument from authority.” Canonically, nothing is infallible unless it is clearly defined as such.2

The discussion of women’s ordination, as carried out in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Inter Insigniores, is only relative to the ordination of women to priesthood. Nothing is said in either document about women deacons, except that the determinations about the ordination of women deacons will be put off for further discussion. And, clearly, the “argument from authority,” the only argument left in the battle, does not apply to the diaconate. We know Jesus chose male apostles; we do not know if he chose female apostles. Jesus’ choice (or assumed choice), however, is irrelevant.

Even without the apostolic indications, the fact of women servants of the Church, women deacons, is evident in scripture and beyond, in numerous literary and epigraphical locations.

The apostles, not Jesus, appointed the first deacons, and these deacons were called forth by the community. The first seven are named in scripture, and they are inarguably male. But what about the rest? What about those who followed them? What about Phoebe, deacon and patron of the church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1–2), what about Paul’s co-workers Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom. 16:12), and Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2–3), and Mary, a co-worker of Paul (Rom. 16:6), and Junia, a notable apostle (Rom. 16:7)? Even without the apostolic indications, the fact of women servants of the Church, women deacons, is evident in scripture and beyond, in numerous literary and epigraphical locations throughout the history of the early Church.

Yet here in the specific discussion of the diaconate Benedict ignores the women servants of scripture, and further ignores the many women of later historical record. He presents the fact that the work of charity became an essential part of the mission of the Church, and lists the works for which mostly women are credited:

22. As the years went by and the Church spread further afield, the exercise of charity became established as one of her essential activities, along with the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the word: love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel.

Who ministered in this regard? Who cared for widows and orphans? Who visited prisoners? Who cared for the sick and needy of every kind? These efforts, Benedict points out, are as essential to the Church as the liturgy and the Word. The fact that even a few women are mentioned in scripture is overwhelming evidence that they were much in abundance in the diaconal works of the Church.

Later, well after the three sections that specifically mention the diaconate, Benedict names two women who provided the selfsame diaconal service he speaks to here: Louise de Marillac (1591–1660), patroness of social workers, who founded the Company of the Daughters of Charity, and Teresa of Calcutta (1910–1997), foundress of the Missionaries of Charity. Louise de Marillac, a widow, formed a congregation of women under the direction of Vincent de Paul that avoided the constrictions of enclosure usual to vowed women at the time by creating a custom—adhered to by the Daughters of Charity to this day—of making annual vows instead of perpetual vows. Their unusual practice allowed them to be free to serve the poor, much as women deacons of antiquity were. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity even more starkly renounce the comforts of monastic enclosure, and move about to care for the poor in the most abject of situations. The works, the charity, of these religious congregations were initiated in response to a cry for help from the community of believers—the poorest of their respective times and places—and were and remain most evidently diaconal in nature.

Benedict praises these women, but he does not connect them directly to the ordained diaconate as it developed in the early Church. As he continues his history, he writes again of the duty of charity in terms that could describe their works—“The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word”—referring to the words of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Ignatius of Antioch. Given the external and internal evidence for the growth of diaconal works of charity as integral to the very function of the Church itself, Benedict then turns to the legal structures that codified this work, yet the section of his encyclical that discusses the history of the diaconate in the early church is convoluted and conflated. He jumps from the mid-fourth-century development of diaconal service in Egyptian monasteries to the sixth-century standing of the diaconate as a separate corporate function with civil standing, such that civil authorities entrusted the diaconate with the service of charity. By the sixth century, he writes, every diocese and monastery had a diaconate:

23. Here it might be helpful to allude to the earliest legal structures associated with the service of charity in the Church. Towards the middle of the fourth century we see the development in Egypt of the “diaconia”: the institution within each monastery responsible for all works of relief, that is to say, for the service of charity. By the sixth century this institution had evolved into a corporation with full juridical standing, which the civil authorities themselves entrusted with part of the grain for public distribution. In Egypt not only each monastery, but each individual Diocese eventually had its own diaconia; . . .

Yet Benedict eliminates the ample evidence of women in the earliest diaconal structures, women for whom literary records and epigraphical evidence remains. While he has not yet named any individual deacons—if he did, he might be forced to include women—the works he describes were clearly carried out by women. Ute E. Eisen, in the book Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies, analyzes 18 examples of epigraphs dating from the second to the seventh centuries,  including the sixth-century Roman inscription:

By the gifts of God and the blessed apostle Paul, Dometius, the deacon and manager of the treasury of the holy, apostolic, and papal chair, together with Anna, the deacon, his sister in the body, has presented this vow to the blessed Paul.3

Other inscriptions and copious literary evidence both cited and repeated by Eisen and published elsewhere refer to women deacons. However, Benedict skirts the evidence and concentrates on the male deacons. His writing is reminiscent of the 2002 document of the International Theological Commission, a seven-chapter chronological exploration of the history and theology of the diaconate that leans away from returning women to the diaconate without issuing a definitive finding. Benedict addition-ally headed the International Theological Commission until his election as pope.

The 2002 International Theological Commission document Le Diaconat: Évolution et perspectives on the surface appears to be a reasoned exposition of the historical diaconate.4 In the French original, it makes careful distinctions between the masculine and the feminine, between what it terms diacres and diaconesses,  eschewing the term “woman deacon,” and attempts to create an inequality between the orders of the men and women deacons. But, despite selective use of history and theological opinion, the document does not exclude women from the history of the  diaconate, or from the sacrament of order. In fact, the document explicitly states that the matter of women deacons is something the Magisterium must decide.

Arguably, the Magisterium has already decided in favor of women deacons—there are conciliar documents of the fourth and fifth centuries that allow for the ordination of women deacons. Modern discussion and documents of the Catholic Church regarding women deacons are well below the level of conciliar document, especially those canons of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451). Current discussion in Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches looks toward these early canons and practices.

Benedict’s curious avoidance of the feminine, as he continues his brief recitation of the history of the diaconate, digresses from the work of charity to the institutionalization of works of charity:

this institution then developed in both East and West. Pope Gregory the Great († 604) mentions the diaconia of Naples, while  in Rome the diaconiae are documented from the seventh and eighth centuries.

The jump to Rome in this brief rendition avoids the well-established female diaconate in the East, which produced numerous women deacon-saints, from the fourth-century Deaconess Olympias to the ninth-century Irene of Chrysovalantou, and later. These women, ordained to the diaconate prior to the definitive split of 1054, are deeply revered in Orthodoxy, and certainly well known to the Eastern Catholic Churches. Their works were strikingly similar to those of male deacons, and their remembrances speak to the personal and institutional kenosis Benedict speaks to with this encyclical. Benedict does not mention specific deacons of the early church beyond the deacon-martyr St. Lawrence. Benedict retells the story of St. Lawrence to underscore his point that the charitable activity “on behalf of the poor and suffering” was among the earliest essentials of the Church:

But charitable activity on behalf of the poor and suffering was naturally an essential part of the Church of Rome from the very beginning, based on the principles of Christian life given in the Acts of the Apostles. It found a vivid expression in the case of the deacon Lawrence († 258). The dramatic description of Lawrence’s martyrdom was known to Saint Ambrose († 397) and it provides a fundamentally authentic picture of the saint. As the one responsible for the care of the poor in Rome, Lawrence had been given a period of time, after the capture of the Pope and of Lawrence’s fellow deacons, to collect the treasures of the Church and hand them over to the civil authorities. He distributed to the poor whatever funds were available and then presented to the authorities the poor themselves as the real treasure of the Church. (Cf. Saint Ambrose, De officiis ministrorum, II, 28, 140: PL 16, 141). Whatever historical reliability one attributes to these details, Lawrence has always remained present in the Church’s memory as a great exponent of ecclesial charity.

And that is all Benedict says, directly, about the diaconate, which Rome restored as a permanent ordained ministry more than 30 years ago. Yet these three sections of the encyclical form the nucleus of his intentions for the Church in the coming years. Some may consider his discussion as an antidote to the legalisms for which he is known, but in the larger body of his personal theological writings the theme of charity fits precisely. Rather than present an ordinary, perhaps political, policy statement, Benedict has instead avoided the type of document one might expect and written a meditation on the Church’s raison d’être. Still, he eliminates a significant portion of the history of how the Church has achieved his stated goals in the past.

In fact, he has not given much credit to women at all. In the whole 15,000-word document—a document that is impossible to think about without thinking about women—he names only four: Louise de Marillac, Teresa of Calcutta, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, her cousin. Surely the notion of love incarnate in the Church is at least 50 percent female.

And there is a deeper point. Those most in need of charity may be in need of it because of the Church’s ignoring of the history, words, and voices of women. Beyond material poverty exist intellectual, spiritual, and psychological poverty. Each is within the capacity of the Church to address in a systematic institutionalized manner. One start might be the restoration of the ancient practice of the female diaconate, which would incarnate the Church’s words that all are made in the image and likeness of Christ. Perhaps the Church would better recall the need for it to recognize the dignity of women, and that “within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.”


  1. In the Latin text of this document, “virorum.” The Lukan text cannot be understood inclusively, especially since it probably describes an ideal, rather than historical, situation.
  2. Canon 749.3: “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.”
  3. Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Liturgical Press, 2000), 165.
  4. The International Theological Commission document has been published in French: “Le Diaconat: Évolution et perspectives,” La documentation catholique 23 (19 Janvier 2003): 58–107; and Italian: “Il Diaconato: Evoluzione e Prospettive, “La Civiltà Cattolica 2003, no. 1, 253–336. An unofficial English translation is From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles (Catholic Truth Society, 2003). The official French language document is posted on the Vatican website.

Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University, author of Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad).

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