Should Women Be Ordained Catholic Deacons?

Yes, says renowned expert Phyllis Zagano (COM’70), as Vatican ponders the issue

Pope Francis has a commission studying whether women deacons, part of the church until the Middle Ages, should be revived.

By Rich Barlow

In 2020, Pope Francis created a second Vatican commission to consider ordaining women as deacons—clergy who may read the gospel and preach at Mass, baptize, witness marriages, preside at funerals, and work with the needy. (A prior commission had ended two years earlier with no action taken by the Vatican.) One media report said the move signified that “women deacons in the Catholic Church are closer to reality than ever before.”

Correction: women deacons were reality in the early church. The diaconate, male and female, was abolished in the Middle Ages, then restored for men only by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s as “a ministry of service.”

Phyllis Zagano (COM’70), a scholarly authority on, and advocate for, women deacons, served on the first iteration of the pope’s commission. Her new book, Women Religious, Women Deacons: Questions and Answers is a collection of five essays for women in religious orders who aspire to the diaconate. She wrote a longer book on the topic, Women: Icons of Christ, published in 2020. A Hofstra University adjunct professor of religion and a senior research associate in residence, Zagano summarized her argument for Bostonia.

A photo of Phyllis Zagano in a brown blazer jacket with a microphone on a podium in front
Phyllis Zagano (COM’70) says Catholicism ordained women deacons early in its history and could do so again.


With Phyllis Zagano

Bostonia: What’s the case for ordaining women deacons?

Phyllis Zagano: We have a great history of women ordained as deacons in Christianity up until the 12th century. You’ll remember that Phoebe, in Romans 16:1-2, is introduced by St. Paul; she is the only person in scripture with the job title “deacon.” What the church has done, the church can do again.

Why did deacons go away? Basically because they controlled the money, and they were very, very, very powerful between the 10th and the 12th century, particularly in Rome. The priests did not like the deacons. They wanted to get rid of the deacons. As you move through the 10th, 11th, 12th centuries, no one who is not eligible to become a priest is ordained a deacon. So there was no more permanent diaconate.

In 1976, a [church] document said women can’t be priests because Jesus chose male apostles, and secondly, women can’t image Christ. Then in 1994, another document said we can’t ordain women as priests because Jesus chose male apostles. Where did the argument that women can’t image Christ go? They dropped it. [Opponents of women deacons] say they can’t be sacramentally ordained because they can’t image Christ. They’re overlooking the fact that the argument about imaging Christ has been dropped.

Bostonia: You write, “Is the church capable of seeing women—both secular and religious women—as bearers of the gospel and as icons of Christ?” What if the answer is no? Can misogynists in the church be overcome?

Phyllis Zagano: One would hope so. I was on the commission for the study of women in the diaconate for two years. I was seated at lunch across from a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith official. I said, “Why can’t women be ordained as deacons?” He said, “Because women can’t image Christ.” I said, “Watch me.”

[His was] an heretical statement: I don’t see Christ in you, I don’t see Christ in the woman next door, the little boy, and—God help me—in Putin. The Incarnation comes to us every day, and the Resurrection comes to us every day. For them to deny the ability of women to be sacramentally ordained as deacons because women can’t image Christ—they have left the church. I haven’t. That is an example of clericalism, the understanding that I belong to a special group and you don’t.

I think misogyny in the church must be overcome. Students and young people will not deal with an organization where women are either mistreated or ignored.

Bostonia: Could diaconal ordination for women increase the church’s problem with clericalism?

Phyllis Zagano: It depends on the personality. If you’re worried about clericalism, you should have no clerics. But we need clerics. We need individuals who will serve the people of God.

Bostonia: Some critics might say that absent priestly ordination, women will inevitably be second-class citizens. How would you respond?

Phyllis Zagano: [Traditionalists fear that] if you can sacramentally ordain a woman as a deacon, you can sacramentally ordain her as a priest, and eventually ordain her as a bishop. And I say, then you don’t believe church teaching. The church teaches that it does not have the authority to ordain women as priests [because Jesus chose only male apostles]. If you say they can, that’s your argument, not mine.

The church needs ministry more than it needs priests. It needs ministry of charity. It is assumed that only priests can have governance and jurisdiction in the church. Actually, a cleric can have governance and jurisdiction, and a deacon is a cleric.

Who would you prefer to preach—the priest who talks about his golf game and Netflix, or the deacon who talks about running the soup kitchen? Not to begrudge priests, but I do want to hear, once in a while, the deacon who has been in prisons and ministering to people there, who has been in the hospitals visiting the sick, who is teaching catechism to five-year-olds. You need to look at the diaconate not as deacon-priest-bishop, but rather the deacon works for the bishop and the priest works for the bishop. These are separate but equal orders.

Women deacons did participate in baptism, whereas male deacons didn’t for the most part; women deacons did visit the sick. Women deacons also anointed ill women; male deacons never anointed. There are sacraments that, historically, women deacons performed that men deacons never did and still can’t do. It’s not that women are second-class citizens. It’s that the church has not appropriated the full understanding of what the diaconate is.

Bostonia: What is the likelihood that the current deliberations will result in Francis approving women’s diaconal ordination?

Phyllis Zagano: Because I do not know what the new commission is tasked with, I cannot predict what effect their work might have. I do know that the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate is a topic of serious synodal discussion around the world.

Complete Article HERE!

Hong Kong bishop ‘hopes’ for women’s ordination ‘one day’

Hong Kong’s Bishop Stephen Chow expressed hope April 13 for the Catholic ordination of women, joining several European bishops who have expressed similar sentiments in recent years.

Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong

During his homily at the Hong Kong diocesan Chrism Mass April 13, Bishop Chow said he had “turned to English, just to address our ordained brothers, and I hope one day maybe ordained sister[s] too.”

The bishop’s homily did not focus on the topic, instead calling priests and deacons to “synodality through our own ministries in collaboration with the different capacities, or different roles, among the People of God… discerning for the direction in which the Spirit wants us to move as a body.”

With an allusion to the language of Pope Francis, the bishop also called his clergy to be “shepherds…realistic yet transcending, not stuck in a specific time or space, and not being shepherds without the smell of the sheep.”

Pope St. John Paul II taught in 1994 “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Church’s canon law say that “only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination,” and that “the ordination of women is not possible.”

But there have been calls from some bishops in recent years for changes to that doctrinal position, and some argue that the Catholic doctrinal position on the prospect of ordaining women as deacons is less definitively stated.

Pope Francis has established two study commissions on the question of whether women might become deacons, one which worked from 2016 until 2018, and the other appointed in 2018.

The groups have considered the function of women identified as “deaconesses” in texts from the third century — at issue is whether such women received a kind of commissioning to serve as extraordinary ministers of baptism and the Eucharist, or whether they might be understood to have received the sacrament of sacred orders.

Francis himself said in 2016 that he did not believe women referred to in the early Church as “deaconesses” had been ordained, but were instead commissioned to assist with the full immersion baptism of other women.

And despite calls to ordain women as deacons during the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, Francis said after that meeting that women “who have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.”

But the pope condemned a “reductionism [that] would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders.”

While the Vatican’s study commission seems unlikely to change Catholic practice on the issue, several bishops in recent years have expressed support for the prospect of ordaining women as priests, including Luxembourg’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich and the president of the German bishops’ conference.

Catholics in Germany participating in the official “synodal way” project voted a preliminary measure of support in February for a call to ordain women as priests as well.

The Hong Kong diocese has not yet clarified whether Chow had in mind the notion of ordaining women as priests or as deacons.

Chow, 62, became Hong Kong’s ninth bishop in December. The bishop was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, in July 1994.

Born in Hong Kong, he attended a secondary school staffed by Irish Jesuits before he enrolled at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate. Chow earned a graduate at Minnesota in educational psychology before he entered the Society of Jesus in 1984. His novitative was in Dublin.

After he was ordained a priest, Chow earned a master’s degree in organizational development at Loyola University of Chicago, and in 2006 finished a doctorate at Harvard University in psychology and human development.

As a priest, Chow served as supervisor of Hong Kong’s Wah Yah college, the secondary school from which he had graduated, until he became Jesuit provincial superior for China in 2017.

The bishop’s appointment came after almost a year of deliberation over his candidacy. He was the third candidate to have received papal approval for the job, but the first to have been publicly announced; the previous two candidates were withdrawn over political concerns prior to public announcement.

Chow met with Pope Francis in March, as the Vatican gears up for a renewal of its controversial “pastoral” agreement with the People’s Republic of China.

The Holy See agreed a deal with Beijing in 2018, and renewed it in 2020, which aimed to regularize the situation of Catholics in China. It has attempted to unify the underground Catholic Church on the mainland with the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, granting Chinese Catholics a measure of civil acceptance in exchange for government involvement in the appointment of bishops.

The agreement, which is set to expire in October, has attracted heavy criticism, with many Catholics and Church watchers questioning the suitability of granting the Chinese Communist Party a say in episcopal appointments while the government continues its genocidal campaign against the Uighur population of Xinxiang Province.

Several Catholic bishops and priests have refused to register with the government, pointing out that doing so requires affirming state supremacy over the Church, and Communist Party dogma above Church teaching.

Those clerics have been subject to a campaign of harassment, arrest and detention, with some bishops disappearing altogether.

Nearly four years into the deal’s implementation, the appointment process for bishops in China has not become noticeably more smooth for Rome: dozens of dioceses remain without bishops, and the Chinese government has taken to announcing the appointment and consecration of its own episcopal candidates, seemingly without the input or approval of Rome.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope rules baptised lay Catholics, including women, can lead Vatican departments

Italian lay woman Francesca Di Giovanni, who was named by Pope Francis as the first woman to hold a high-ranking post in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, is pictured at the Vatican, December 23, 2013


Pope Francis introduced a landmark reform on Saturday that will allow any baptised lay Catholic, including women, to head most Vatican departments under a new constitution for the Holy See’s central administration.

For centuries, the departments have been headed by male clerics, usually cardinals or bishops, but that could change from June 5 when the new charter takes effect after more than nine years of work.

The 54-page constitution, called Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), was released on the ninth anniversary of Francis’ installation as pope in 2013, and replaces one issued in 1988 by Pope John Paul II.

Its preamble says the “pope, bishops and other ordained ministers are not the only evangelisers in the Church”, adding that lay men and women “should have roles of government and responsibility” in the central administration, known as the Curia.

The principles section of the constitution says “any member of the faithful can head a dicastery (Curia department) or organism” if the pope decides they are qualified and appoints them.

Under the 1988 constitution, the departments – with a few exceptions – were to be headed by a cardinal or bishop and assisted by a secretary, experts and administrators.

The new constitution makes no distinction between lay men and lay women, though experts said at least two departments – the department for bishops and the department for clergy – will remain headed by men because only men can be priests in the Catholic Church.

The department for consecrated life, which is responsible for religious orders, could conceivably be headed by a nun in the future, the experts said. It is now led by a cardinal.

In an interview with Reuters in 2018, the pope said he had short-listed a woman to head a Vatican economic department, but she could not take the job for personal reasons.


The new constitution said the role of lay Catholics in governing roles in the Curia was “essential” because of their familiarity with family life and “social reality”.

Francis also merged some offices, created a new one to oversee charity efforts, and set up a new order of importance.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which includes lay people and abuse victims, appears to have been given more institutional influence by being incorporated into the doctrinal department, which decides on sanctions for priests convicted of sexual abuse.

But one of the commission’s original members, Marie Collins of Ireland, said on Twitter this could hurt its independence.

While the Secretariat of State kept its premier position as administrative, coordinating and diplomatic department, the centuries-old high status of the doctrinal office was placed below that of the department of evangelisation.

The pope will head the evangelisation office himself, highlighting the importance he gives to spreading and reviving the faith.

Francis has already named a number of lay people, among them women, to Vatican departments.

Last year, he for the first time named a woman to the number two position in the governorship of Vatican City, making Sister Raffaella Petrini the highest-ranking woman in the world’s smallest state.

Also last year, he named Italian nun Sister Alessandra Smerilli to the interim position of secretary of the Vatican’s development office, which deals with justice and peace issues.

In addition, Francis has named Nathalie Becquart, a French member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters, as co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, which prepares major meetings of world bishops held every few years.

Complete Article HERE!

1st German Catholic diocese allows women to perform baptisms

By The Associated Press

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Essen has become the first in Germany to allow women to perform baptisms, citing a lack of priests.

The diocese said in a statement Monday that Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck tasked 18 lay ministers —17 of them women — with conferring the sacrament of admission into the Church at a ceremony over the weekend.

Until now only priests and deacons — functions the Catholic Church reserves for men — were allowed to perform baptisms.

“Time and again, the Church has reacted to external circumstances over the past 2,000 years,” said Theresa Kohlmeyer, who heads the diocese’s department of belief, lithurgy and culture.

The measure is temporary and will initially last for three years.

Munich report on sex abuse heightens Catholic Church divide over sexuality

Benedict XVI’s supporters believe attacks on the emeritus pope’s handling of sexual abuse while archbishop of Munich are aimed at reinforcing progressive views on sexuality and priestly celibacy.

With the towers of the cathedral in the background, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, bids farewell to the Bavarian believers in downtown Munich, Germany, Feb. 28, 1982. The Vatican on Jan. 26, 2022, strongly defended Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s record in fighting clergy sexual abuse and cautioned against looking for “easy scapegoats and summary judgments,” after an independent report faulted his handling of four cases of abuse when he was archbishop of Munich.


Supporters of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI rose to his defense in the past week after a report on decades of sexual abuse in his former archdiocese in Munich accused the retired pontiff of covering up and ignoring abuse by Catholic priests there.

But some believe the defense of Benedict is less about his legacy and more about the deepening polarization in the Catholic Church and its approach to homosexuality and priestly celibacy, issues that are both now center stage in Germany.

“I don’t think the report is going to change the mind of people either way” when it comes to Benedict, said Bill Donohue, longtime president of the Catholic League, a conservative watchdog and promoter of the church.

Benedict “is hated by the Catholic left because he is the one who really enforced the Scriptures of the Catholic Church as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith,” said Donahue, referring to the prelate’s tenure during the papacy of St. John Paul II as an enforcer of Catholic dogma, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger earned the title “God’s Rottweiler.”

“The impending schism in Germany is far more serious than this,” said Donahue, who called himself proud to be called “the Rottweiler’s Rottweiler.”

A report from the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, published Jan. 10, found that bishops who oversaw the diocese between 1945 and 2019, including Ratzinger, failed to punish clergy and laypeople who committed sexual abuse.

More importantly for many Catholics, however, is the movement in the wider German church that has involved the country’s Catholics in wide-ranging discussions of the most pressing issues facing the institution, including sexual abuse, for nearly three years. The “Synodal Path,” as the discussions are known, followed a 2018 report that scandalized Catholics in the country when it found more than 37,000 cases of clerical abuse in Germany over the span of 68 years, leading to a massive exodus of faithful.

The Synodal Path discussions ended in early February under the shadow of the revelations from Munich. Even after Benedict responded contritely to the accusations, German Catholics felt “disappointed,” said Claudia Lücking-Michel, vice president of the Central Committee for German Catholics and a delegate to the Synodal Path.

While the Synodal Path addresses a wide array of topics facing the local church, including female ordination and power structures, the question of homosexuality “is currently at the very center of public discussion,” Lücking said.

The report, she said, “was the last drop that made the cup overflow.”

While many Germans identify clericalism — the abuse of power by Catholic clergy — as the main culprit for the church’s systemic failure to respond to sexual abuse, some Catholic conservatives blame the presence of homosexuals in the church.

“We have a homosexual scandal here, not a pedophilia scandal,” Donohue said. “Clericalism may have something to do with why some bishops were enabled, but it has nothing to do with why a man would put his hands on a minor.”

Equating homosexuality with pedophilia is strongly contested in the Synodal Path discussions, according to Lücking. “Homosexuality has nothing to do with pedophilia,” she said.

While the majority of Catholics in Western countries agree that homosexuality should be accepted in society, the question of homosexuality and priestly celibacy is more controversial in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. As the Vatican struggles to adapt church teaching with modern understanding of sex and sexuality, the issue has the power to tear the global church apart.

“This report and the entire sexual abuse scandal, a sad page for the church in Germany, is being exploited to bring about a new church,” said the Rev. Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai, a Catholic priest from Cameroon who teaches theology and philosophy at Boston College.

According to Agbaw-Ebai, who wrote his dissertation on Benedict, the Munich report offered Benedict’s detractors “their pound of flesh” and strengthened the position of those who want to push Catholic doctrine toward the demands of modernity.

Germany’s Synodal Path is the surest sign of that push. On Feb. 5, its plenary assembly approved four documents proposing a “reevaluation of homosexuality” and challenging Catholic doctrine forbidding female ordination and requiring priestly celibacy.

“The synod has changed,” Lücking said, “you can feel the difference at the plenary. There are more and more bishops saying we have to act, we have to change, there is no other way out of the crisis.”

On Feb. 3, the current archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, supported a renewed study on priestly celibacy and told the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, “For some priests, it would be better if they were married.”

Cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich, archbishop of Luxembourg, meanwhile, has proposed that the church’s teaching on homosexuality “is no longer correct.” Hollerich has been named by Pope Francis to oversee the Synod on Synodality, a self-examination of church practices underway in dioceses around the world that will conclude with a summit at the Vatican in 2023.

The concern for Catholic conservatives is that the progressive stance of German prelates will influence Francis’ ambitious reform efforts for the church as a whole.

In Germany “you have a rebellion going on,” Donohue said. “This synod process that is going to go forward is an open invitation for people to exploit any friction in the Catholic Church,” he said, adding that progressive Catholics “will use Benedict as another weapon in their arsenal.”

But Agbaw-Ebai contends that “what is happening in Germany is clearly a result of the actions and statements of today’s Vatican,” pointing to Francis’ willingness to engage with the Catholic LGBTQ community early in his pontificate.

The pope’s position on this issue, however, has been ambiguous. During a closed-door meeting with Italian prelates in May 2018, Francis suggested that bishops should “keep an eye” on homosexual tendencies in people entering the seminary, stating that “if in doubt, better not let them enter.”

Francis’ words seemed to echo a 2005 document published by Benedict stating that people with “deep-seated” homosexual tendencies should be barred from entering the priesthood.

Donohue agrees that the pope, despite his outreach to LGBTQ Catholics, has done little to change the official Catholic position and has put a firm halt to requests for female ordination and the blessing of same-sex couples. “It’s one thing to be pastoral, it’s another to change the doctrine,” Donohue said.

He said he buys Benedict’s prediction that the church is destined to shrink to a small group of true believers. It’s unlikely that conservative Catholics will be the ones to leave, he said, unless the Vatican embraces “radical teachings” like those discussed in Germany. He blames the Vatican for allowing the German Synodal Path to “raise people’s expectations in a regrettable way.”

For Lücking, if the Vatican doesn’t take the proposals of the Synodal Path, then “the Catholic Church in Germany will become a minority, a sect,” but she said she still harbors “the illusion” that what is happening in Germany may still clear the path for progress.

“It might not be tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but it will happen one day,” she said.

Complete Article HERE!