As a young Catholic woman, I am tired. I am tired of finding myself without representation in my religion. The upper levels of Catholic Church hierarchy consist only of men. Only men can make Church policies, only men comprise the governing roles in the Church, and only men can lead Catholic communities on any scale. Women are marginalized in the structure of the Catholic Church, blocked from positions of leadership, and diminished in its practice. In fact, for women looking to place themselves more firmly into the structure of the Church and express their commitment to Catholicism, there is only the convent or small roles in the parish. Some nuns are notable scholars, teachers, and active community members. Other women embrace the role of Eucharistic minister to involve themselves more fully in their Church communities, an attempt to engage in the mass and an opportunity to administer communion to their fellow parishioners. However, these are the only options for women who seek greater involvement and faith expression. And of course, nuns and Eucharistic ministers are only laypeople, without the agency, leadership capabilities, and responsibilities of the ordained. There are no positions of real power for women in the Church.
This is especially disappointing as Catholicism is the largest sect of Christianity, a sect that undeniably hosts a rich history of refuge, hospitality, and generosity, but shoulders a past clouded by conquest, oppression, and inequality. In many spheres, such as stances on sexual orientation and the regulation of female bodies, I am disappointed with how little progress has been made to move away from the antiquated doctrine of the Church. But as it turns out, in some instances, the Church has turned its back on shining moments of equality in its history. In the early days of Christianity, shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, women helped further the spread of the gospel message in various ways. Evidence of the impact of women in the early church fill the epistles of Paul, a giant of the New Testament who wrote to faith community leaders around AD 60 to aid and encourage the spread of the Jesus story (“Letter of Paul to the Romans”). In Paul’s letters, many believers were women, with wealthy widows often serving as benefactors or patrons to fund the expansion of the early church. One woman noted by Paul, Phoebe of Cenchreae, even took a leadership role by serving her community as a deacon. In fact, the only named deacon in the Bible was Phoebe.
As the only named deacon in the entire Bible, Phoebe is the biblical precedent for the diaconate, the organizational body of deacons seen today. She is heralded by Paul for her generosity, leadership, and faith, and was likely entrusted by Paul to bear one of his letters to early church leaders and preach the gospel message to other faith communities (McCarty 110, 112, 114). Still, there are Catholic scholars who challenge the validity of Phoebe’s role as deacon, reminding us that this was an unordained position (McCarty 119). Scholars also call into question the gender signification of diakonos, the word used to describe Phoebe in the original Greek of Paul’s letters (Ferrone, Miller 17). However, I have found that the various descriptors used in Paul’s letter confirm her role in the early church. References to the specific community Phoebe led assert her role as an early deacon akin to male deacons today. I maintain that Phoebe was an early leader in the Christian community who actively shared the Christian story and was responsible for a community of believers. She is evidence of a female Church authority in the past, as well as a key to the argument for the female diaconate of the future.
Before Phoebe can be examined as a current model of leadership, we must engage with her historical context. Phoebe lived in a “preindustrial, agrarian world” shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, a world far different from the one the current Catholic Church attends to today (Campbell 5). Phoebe was from Cenchreae, a Greek port city that facilitated trade in Corinth and the surrounding areas (McCarty 106). In this time period and region, information and teachings like Paul’s were communicated to broader audiences through the oral tradition (Campbell 5). It should also be noted that Paul’s letters in particular sought to answer the questions of the early Christians and the communities to which he traveled, and he never formed independent theological teachings or beliefs on religion or women (Reid 20). In fact, despite the sexist rhetoric in some letters attributed to Paul, he relied on coworkers, many of them female, to help answer questions from early believers and spread the gospel (Reid 20-21). While it is possible that letters restricting women were not written by Paul himself, women in this patriarchal time period were viewed as “subordinate” to their husbands, and unable to exercise agency without the explicit consent of their husbands (Reid 21). But Phoebe would have been a prime candidate to serve as a coworker to Paul, as she was likely a literate widow who came from a position of wealth and an elevated social status with a wide network of friends and business acquaintances (McCarty 105, Campbell 95). Her social standing and financial stability would have allowed Phoebe to travel, read letters to audiences composed of other early Christians, and answer the questions of her potential converts.
Unfortunately, much of Phoebe’s history is guesswork, as Phoebe’s only appearance in the Bible is in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The current English translation in the New International Version of the Bible reads: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me,” (NIV Bible, Romans 16:1-2). Of course, Paul wrote this letter in Greek, and the English translation lacks the original’s nuance and complexities. There are three words in this passage that should be analyzed in their original language: sister, deacon, and benefactor. Or in Greek, adelphe, diakonos, and prostatitis.
First, adelphe and prostatitis. Biblical translators take adelphe to mean Phoebe was Paul’s sister in Christ, but biblical studies and language scholars such as V.K. McCarty push this further, interpreting the use of the word to indicate a “missionary partnership” between Paul and Phoebe (McCarty 113). Paul and Phoebe likely worked closely together to spread the gospel message to a number of early Christians. Paul’s references to Phoebe as “sister” is of particular note as it at least hints at the degree of intimacy shared by Phoebe and Paul. Another descriptor for Phoebe in Paul’s letter is prostatitis, which translates to benefactor, referencing not only Phoebe’s hospitality and financial generosity but her influence in her local community and on early Christians (McCarty 114). Since Phoebe was likely a wealthy widow, patronage would be part of her contribution and a sign of her commitment to early Christianity. At the very least, Phoebe “showed hospitality” in some form to Paul and other believers, whether that was through direct financial contribution or offering emissaries a place to stay in Cenchreae while they spread the word of Christ (Miller 16).
But the most complicated descriptor Paul gives Phoebe is the highly contested diakonos. Some diminish Phoebe’s role in the early church, translating diakonos to servant (Zell 105). However, other scholars have successfully challenged this argument, and claim that diakonos should be used to reference Phoebe as a true leader. Scholars like Joan Cecelia Campbell who have heavily researched the New Testament believe that to Paul, diakonos meant a “person who served as God’s authoritative spokes-person or God’s emissary” (Campbell 74). In these terms, diakonos still indicates service, but service to the community through leadership, authority, and diplomacy. Paul’s use of this term indicates Phoebe held some kind of office, even if his letter predates the birth of the current diaconate (McCarty 117, Campbell 61). Other academics seeking to downplay Phoebe’s role take issue with the gender of the word diakonos, insisting it is a masculine form and should not be applied to Phoebe (Miller 17, Ferrone). However, as theology Professor David Miller points out in a piece on Phoebe, diakonos is a “common gender” noun, meaning the gender of diakonos “change[s] based on context” (Miller 17). Diakonos undoubtedly referred to Phoebe as an early Christian leader, despite her gender.
Using all three terms Paul applies to Phoebe, we get a sense of what her role was in her community at Cenchreae. Phoebe was a firm believer in Christ who shared her wealth with the early church community and led those around her in Jesus’s teachings. In addition to her ministry at Cenchreae, scholars suggest Paul enlisted Phoebe to deliver a letter (Clark 5, Miller 17, Campbell 12). As a letter courier for Paul, Phoebe would be the one to “read [the letter] to [Roman Jesus groups] and respond to their questions” (Campbell 12). This is not so different from the ministerial responsibilities of deacons in the Church today. One of the principle roles of the modern deacon lies “in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching,” both tasks completed by Phoebe in her own community and through her work as Paul’s letter carrier (“Catechism” para. 1570).
Granted, in the brief Bible verse naming Phoebe, we have no evidence that she administered communion or oversaw marriage and funerals—duties central to the diaconate of today (“Catechism” para. 1570). While it must be acknowledged that Phoebe’s ministry and Paul’s letters predate the rite of ordination or an established diaconate in the modern sense, the diaconate could trace its earliest roots to Phoebe. When we turn from the biblical record to the historical record of the Catholic Church and the diaconate, we see “there is extensive inscriptional and literary evidence for the ordination of women as deacons or deaconesses in the early church” (Clark 3). Women like Phoebe were deacons in the early Western church until as late as the tenth century, as evidenced by their discussion in the Councils of Nicea, Chalcedon, and Trullo (“Deaconess” 554). Female deacons in this time period performed tasks similar to the deacons today: they gave homilies and proclaimed the gospel, performed baptisms, and administered communion to women (“Deaconess” 554).
So why is the current Catholic Church a complete patriarchy on every level of leadership? The diaconate was only recently reinstated as a permanent order in the 1960s (“Deaconess” 554, Seton Hall University). With the reinstatement of a permanent diaconate came explicit clarifications about the gender of deacons. The Catechism quotes directly from the Code of Canon law from the Vatican, stating “Only a baptized man. . .validly receives sacred ordination” (“Catechism” para. 1577). The Church’s reasoning is twofold. First, Jesus’s twelve apostles were all men, and the twelve selected only men as their “collaborators” to spread the good news (“Catechism” para. 1577). Essentially, all who are ordained continue the legacy of the first apostles, who according to the Church, were all men. Secondly, in addition to the notion of all ordained as stand-in apostles, they are also “representatives” of Jesus (“Catechism” para. 1581). Jesus was of the male gender, and therefore, the Church again insists that the ordained must only be men.
In this argument that the ordained are representatives of Jesus and therefore must be male, ideas of gender and God in the Catholic Church come to the forefront. Jesus presented as male on earth, but it is fundamental Catholic teaching that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are one. However, neither God nor the Holy Spirit have gender. Masculine pronouns were elected to refer to God and the Holy Spirit, but both are fundamentally genderless. This complicates the gender of Jesus. If anything, Jesus by his tripartite nature embodies a non-binary gender position. After all, if Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are one, how can we truly limit Jesus to a single gender category? The blurred nature of the gender of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit render the gender of the ordained irrelevant.
And indeed, some contemporary Catholic leaders argue that gender should not be a significant factor in the ordination of deacons. Since the revitalization of the diaconate, the possibility of a female diaconate was studied twice by the Catholic Church. The first study, commenced in 1992 and published in 1995, did not see any problems with the reintroduction of the female diaconate, but left it in the hands of the Pope (“Deaconess” 554). Church officials recognized that women in the early church were in fact ordained deacons, and with some tweaking to current Church doctrine, these officials concluded that women could very well be deacons again (“Deaconess” 554). However, to the disappointment of feminist Catholics, this study was not cleared by higher Church authorities (Ferrone). The second study, penned in 2002, was less supportive of the female diaconate, but once again agreed to leave the decision to higher Church authorities (Ferrone). As for today, Catholics are in the midst of a Global Synod. The Global Synod is essentially a dialogue between all members of the Catholic Church on current issues. Catholic women like me are hopeful that talk of reintroducing women deacons under a progressive Pope Francis could cause movement.
The Church in this time of the Global Synod can not afford to forget Phoebe. In the Bible, we see Phoebe serving her community as a deacon. And to those who argue Phoebe was not an official or ordained deacon, she was still an apostle. From the Greek apostolos, the term apostle designates a person “sent out with the message of the gospel and charged to proclaim that message with the authority of the person or persons who sent them” (Miller 18). Phoebe fits all of these criteria, especially if Paul tasked her with reading a letter of the gospel to the Romans, marking Phoebe as a female collaborator in spreading the gospel. Even if Phoebe did not share the gospel message with those outside her community, Paul’s reference to Phoebe as a deacon of Cenchreae is enough to solidify her as a community preacher and resource akin to deacons of today, and enough to use her as an example of the female leadership the Church is missing today.
Phoebe could be key to the reintroduction of a female diaconate in this time of dialogue in the Church. I believe she is the missing link, the biblical clapback to those questioning early female leadership in the Church. In the two past Church studies surrounding the female diaconate, Phoebe is notably dismissed (Ferrone). Again, the controversy of the term diakonos follows Phoebe, but this is a tired argument. While one study uses diakonos in a male context, diakonos is a genderless term (Ferrone, Miller 16). Furthermore, the importance of the two words “of Cenchreae” following the word deacon point to Phoebe’s role as a leader in her community. And, once again, Phoebe was not merely a deacon. She was also a sister in faith to Paul and an important benefactor. She should not be overlooked this time around.
This is not to say that Phoebe was entirely erased from Church history between the times of deaconesses and today. Phoebe is depicted in a 1164 manuscript from a Benedictine monastery, which indicates her significance as a religious figure to emerging Catholic communities of the Middle Ages (Clark 10-14). And Phoebe’s role as a deacon or deaconess is interpreted by some scholars as foundational for the structure of communities of nuns (Clark 7-8). Anne Clark, an expert on Christianity of the Middle Ages, points to Phoebe as one of the first abbesses, or leaders of groups of nuns, believing that Phoebe led groups of other women religious in Cenchreae (Clark 7-8). Even New Testament academics like Paul Zell, who find it unclear whether or not Phoebe was an official deacon, think she could have held “recognized office” in the instruction of other women in her community or been one of many “‘sisters’ in the faith and ‘servants’ of the church” (Zell 104-105). Personally, I find this undermines Paul’s efforts in Romans 16:1 to highlight Phoebe as a prominent member of the early church. Yet, it is clear that even those opposed to drawing parallels between Phoebe and the current diaconate value her as a figure in the Christian community who impacted the lives of early believers. They just limit the scope of her leadership to women.
The time for the female diaconate is now. If the Catholic Church hopes to appeal to my generation, they need to strive for inclusivity in many spheres. An interviewee in Cecilia González-Andrieu’s America Magazine article “With a Church in Crisis, Why Do Catholic Women Stay?” points out the weakness of the current Church best, criticizing “the church’s failure to avail itself of the tremendous gifts of women in its liturgical life and governance” (González-Andrieu). The constant diminishment of Catholic women’s voices, denial of female leadership in the Church, and the dismissal of historical figures like Phoebe is disappointing. I elected to write about Phoebe and the female diaconate because the switch to inclusivity should be easy, and now is the time to finally correct the Church’s course. The studies are supportive, the historical evidence is overwhelming, and the biblical precedent is clear. Nothing is stopping the Church but the Church itself.
As a young Catholic woman, I am tired. I am tired of finding myself without representation in my religion. But I remain hopeful. Discovering Phoebe expanded my knowledge of the early church, exposed me to new opinions, and left me with a newfound hope. I truly believe that one day, women will be further incorporated in the Church, offering their voices to bring the Church up to speed on issues of sensuality, female autonomy, and sexual orientation. Of course, the Church still has a long way to go in many respects, but I believe change can be enacted to bring women into positions of prominence, change that will hopefully spark more change within the Church. The reinstatement of a female diaconate could very well take place within my lifetime, and I want to be part of the push for this change. This is a Catholic women’s rights issue that can be resolved. All the solutions and evidence needed to correct the Church’s course were out there waiting for me, for the Church, for all Catholics. The Church is tiring. But more than anything, the Church gives me hope. And now, I have hope for the Church.
Campbell, Joan Cecelia. Phoebe: Patron and Emissary. Liturgical Press, 2009.
Clark, Anne L. “Remembering Phoebe in the Twelfth Century: The Forgotten Deacon in Paul’s Letter to Romans.” The Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, vol. 45, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1-28. Project MUSE.
“Deaconess.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2003, pp. 554-555. Gale eBooks.
Ferrone, Rita. “Saint Phoebe, Pray for Us: Will the Church Get Women Deacons?” Commonweal, vol. 143, no. 12, 2016, p. 7. EBSCOhost.
González-Andrieu, Cecilia. “With a Church in Crisis, Why Do Catholic Women Stay?” America Magazine, American Jesuits, 19 Apr. 2019.
“Letter of Paul to the Romans.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Aug. 2020.
McCarty, V. K. “Phoebe-Paul’s Sister in Gospel Leadership: Rom. 16.1-2.” International Congregational Journal, vol. 15, no. 2, 2016, pp. 103–120. EBSCOhost.
Miller, David J. “What Can We Say about Phoebe?” Priscilla Papers, vol. 25, no. 2, 2011, pp. 16–21. EBSCOhost.
“Part Two, Section Two, Chapter Three, Article 6.” Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed., Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997.
Reid, Barbara E. “Women and Paul: was Paul an Egalitarian or a Chauvinist?” America, vol. 199, no. 15, 10 Nov. 2008, pp. 20-22. Gale OneFile: Religion and Philosophy.
“Romans 16.” The Bible. New International Version, Bible Gateway, 2011.
Seton Hall University. “Celebrating 50 Years of the Permanent Diaconate.” Seton Hall University, 2 Feb. 2018.
Zell, Paul E. “Romans 16:1, 7: Phoebe, a Deacon? Junia, an Apostle?” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, vol. 111, no. 2, 2014, pp. 102–07. EBSCOhost.
About the Author
Anna Wiss is a rising sophomore at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. As of right now, she is planning on majoring in English and hopes to pick up a minor in another field along the way. Anna’s mom is an MDiv who always encouraged critical thinking about the Catholic faith, which motivated Anna to research Saint Phoebe and the female diaconate.