Women deacons in history

Commentary: Pope Francis' call for a discussion of reestablishing women deacons in the church raises three very important questions.

The meaning of ordination and how women were gradually excluded

"Ordination" hasn't always meant what it does today, and that's one reason for some of the debate over women's ordination.

Visitors in the past

Editor’s note: The Vatican last January announced it had begun an apostolic visitation, or comprehensive study of U.S. women religious. The decree indicated the visitation was being undertaken to examine the quality of life of women religious. In February came news of a second Vatican women’s religious study, this of its umbrella leadership group, the Leadership of Conference of Women Religious. The studies have brought praise and have touched off considerable anxiety within the ranks of women religious.

The present Vatican investigations of U.S. communities of religious women would have astounded religious women of earlier centuries. For at least 1,200 years of Christian history, religious women would not have looked to the Vatican for oversight of their life. That prerogative belonged either to the abbess of a religious community or perhaps to the local bishop. Furthermore, bishops and religious were considered self-governing within their own communities or dioceses. Rome may have been recognized as the sole patriarch of the Western church but this did not imply that other bishops would welcome or even tolerate Rome’s interference in their affairs.