Advocacy for Women Deacons by Alum Phyllis Zagano, a World Expert, Goes before Global Vatican Gathering
Conservatives fear women priests will inevitably follow
A “high-stakes” global gathering of bishops and Catholic leaders convenes October 4 at the Vatican to consider Church attitudes on contemporary issues. A BU alum’s scholarship advocating for women deacons will be part of the discussion, roiling conservatives who fear women priests will be next.
Phyllis Zagano (COM’70) has researched and written about deacons: clergy who work with the poor and may baptize people, witness marriages, preside at funerals, and read the gospel and preach at mass. The role dates back to ancient times and included both genders; St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, commended “our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church.” The diaconate was abolished in the Middle Ages, to be revived by the 1960s Second Vatican Council—for men only.
The Rev. James Martin, a prominent American Jesuit who will be one of 364 voting members at the Synod on Synodality, announced this summer that he would take Zagano’s work to the Vatican. Once the synod begins, he said, “If someone says the ‘initiation’ of women deacons or the ‘invention’ of women deacons, I will say, ‘the restoration.’ That is one thing I’ve learned from Phyllis Zagano.”
Martin is among 50 participants selected by Pope Francis for the synod, meeting until October 29, which will consider the Church’s treatment of women, migrants, the poor, LGBTQ+ Catholics, and divorced Catholics, among other topics. For the first time ever in a synod, women and laypeople will be granted a vote. A second session will be held in October 2024. Francis must approve any proposals to emerge from the two-part synod.
Zagano, a Hofstra University senior research associate in residence, is a former BU faculty member whose latest book is Just Church: Catholic Social Teaching, Synodality, and Women (Paulist Press, 2023).
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
With Phyllis Zagano
Bostonia: Based on what you hear from your contacts in the Church, are you hopeful that the synod will vote for women deacons?
Zagano: I do not know if the term “vote” applies. As I understand it, the synod will be discussing various matters, including the possible “inclusion of women in the diaconate.” I believe the synod will be presenting proposals, and the proposal one would hope for is for the Church to make a doctrinal statement about restoring women to the ordained diaconate. Is it possible or not? If not, then the Church should make a definitive statement to that effect. At present, there is no doctrinal statement about women deacons, and the people of God deserve an answer.
Bostonia: Conservatives say that deaconesses were not the same thing as deacons, per the [Vatican’s] 2002 International Theological Commission (ITC) report: “The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church—as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised—were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.” How would you respond?
Zagano: The 2002 ITC report seems to rely on sparse historical data and includes some 18 sentences taken or paraphrased without attribution from a book by Gerhard L. Mueller, then a theology professor in Germany. Several rites exist for the ordination of women as deacons, and at least one liturgy is known to have been used for both male and female deacons. The tasks and duties of women deacons, called deaconesses in the East, varied from time to time and place to place, so that sentence from the [ITC] conclusion is misleading. The third and final sentence states that the question of women deacons is up to the “ministry of discernment” for the Church to decide. The current synod is an exercise in discernment, and it has the question of how to include women in the diaconate before it.
Bostonia: One document prepared for the synod cited sexism and misogyny as problems in the Church. Does that reality—plus traditionalists’ fear that reinstating women deacons will inevitably produce pressure to ordain women priests—mean that the women’s diaconate faces an uphill struggle?
Zagano: There is already pressure, as you put it, to ordain women as priests. But that discussion is separate from the discussion of women deacons. Pope Benedict XVI made the distinction clear with his motu proprio [a type of papal document], Omnium in mentem (2009), putting into canon law what was already stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The diaconate is not part of the priesthood; it is a separate and distinct order. One does not necessarily imply the other, and there are now some 47,000 men ordained to the diaconate as a permanent vocation.
Bostonia: The Vatican solicited global Catholics’ opinions about Church needs before the synod, and clericalism [clergy claiming undue authority and power] was a big concern. If the synod attends to that concern, how might that affect the chances of approving women deacons?
Zagano: Clericalism—including clerical narcissism, authoritarianism, sexism, and misogyny—is a cancer in the Church and affects much more than the question of restoring women to the diaconate. The refusal of the Church to restore women to the diaconate is a by-product of clericalism, which denigrates not only women, but all laypersons, male or female.
Bostonia: What would approval say about the Church in the 21st century? Conversely, what would refusing to resurrect the women’s diaconate say?
Zagano: For the Church to approve the restoration of a Church tradition of ordaining women as deacons would be a great step forward into the 21st century, for women, certainly, for the people of God, and for all the women of the world. The Church would be saying that women, made in the image and likeness of God, can be, and serve, in the person of Christ the servant. Given the documented history of women ordained as deacons, I do not think it is possible for the Church to say “No”; it is only possible to further delay promulgating a definitive answer to this request of the people of God.
Bostonia: However the discussion turns out at the Vatican, can you say something about what it means to have this global synod consider your scholarship?
Zagano: Of course, it is humbling to be connected so strongly to the contemporary discussion, but my own work builds on the scholarship of others before me, [back to] the 17th century. The conversation is not new, but it has matured to the point that it cannot be ignored. One can only hope that the Holy Spirit gives the synod, and the entire Church, a push in a positive direction.