On the women deacons issue, a US expert has said that the Pope is waiting for a more forceful demand for that ministry to come from the faithful.

– “Bishops seem to all be waiting for someone else to tell them that it’s ok to ordain a woman as a deacon”

On the question of women’s ordination, “I think the Holy Father is waiting for the voice of the Holy Spirit to speak more loudly in the Church, and I think it’s up to the People of God [to decide they want female deacons] and to explain that to their bishops, because the bishops seem to all be waiting for someone else to tell them that it’s ok to ordain a woman as a deacon”, Phyllis Zagano, a professor at Hofstra University in New York, told America in an interview July 1.

Zagano, who is perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the female diaconate in the early Church, reflected on conversations she has maintained “with senior cardinals in Rome” and in the US, and revealed that “there is very little objection” within the hierarchy to women deacons, at least in theory.

The problem, however, as Zagano put it, is that “the Church is like a battleship: you’re not going to turn it on a dime”: that is, that it takes time and long processes to bring about changes in the institution as major as the reintroduction of the female diaconate.

– “The same discussion has been circling in the Church for 400 years”

One of the the processes that has been set in train on the women deacons issue is the new commission Pope Francis set up in April, ostensibly to remedy the lack of consensus that plagued the first papal commission that studied the issue from 2016 to 2019.

Zagano was a member of that first commission, but she has not been included in the second.

Far from taking that exclusion from the second commission as a slight, the expert praised the new commission’s members as being “qualified to answer a single question that I still think needs to be determined on behalf of the Holy Father, which is what is the mission, the ministry, of the diaconate”.

In other words: “What does the deacon do today and if you describe that, then what about that can a woman not do?”, Zagano explained.

Though the expert said she feared that the second women deacons commission will again “present somewhat of a mixed bag” in terms of conclusions, she was sanguine about the dearth of definitive answers on the female diaconate and recalled that “the same discussion has been circling in the Church for 400 years, in terms of the history: were women or were women not sacramentally ordained, and that is an unending loop”.

“So if you are going to base the whole discussion only on deciding whether 400, 500 or 1,000 years ago women were actually sacramentally ordained, I don’t think that there will ever be a resolution”, Zagano cautioned.

However, the academic said the new commission will still serve the Church well if it can clarify such questions as “how the deacon relates to the bishop and to the people of God, and what are the tasks and functions of the deacon today”.

That, and also keep in mind that for centuries women were sacramentally ordained for Church ministry.

Going once again through the historical evidence on which she is a global authority, Zagano recalled that “we have ancient and medieval documents that show that women were ordained, by their bishops, within the sanctuary, during the Mass, in the presence of the clergy, through the imposition of hands, by the invocation of the Holy Spirit… The women self-communicated from the chalice and the bishop placed a stole around their necks and he called them deacons. So these women were ordained in ceremonies identical or nearly identical to the ceremonies of men”.

In terms of what women deacons actually went on to do after their ordination, Zagano pointed out that “it is impossible to say over 1,200 years that every woman deacon in every territory and land did the same thing as every other one”.

Some common points, however, she said included anointing women in baptism, visiting the sick, anointing ill women and bringing those moribund women viaticum, all until the female diaconal ministry vanished into obscurity for reasons unknown to historians around the time of the Middle Ages.

Furthermore, “we know in certain places and certain territories when you had abbess deacons that they preached, that they had actual jurisdiction over their territories”, Zagano also affirmed.

– Resistance to women deacons “is rooted somewhat in misogyny and somewhat in ignorance”

Though the historical evidence for the female diaconate in the early Church is all in place for experts like Zagano, there’s one final stumbling block to the reintroduction of that ministry in the Church today, and that’s the erroneous theological assumption, still held by many Catholics, that only men can image a male Jesus in ordained ministry.

Zagano described that problem as one of “a naive physicalism, a thinking about the Christ as only the human male Jesus”.

But she added “we are all made in the image and likeness of God, so if you tell me that I can’t image the risen Christ… well, I’m sorry, please check… the Catechism: I am made in the image and likeness of God”.

Another obstacle Zagano described to the reintroduction of women deacons is the “resistance” she said “is rooted somewhat in misogyny and somewhat in ignorance”. “Ignorance”, that is, “that ordaining a woman a deacon doesn’t necessarily mean that she will be ordained a priest”.

“Even Pope Benedict XVI in a 2009 document, Omnium in mentum, clarified and actually modified canon law to basically say that the diaconate is not the priesthood. Which is what is said in the Catechism, which is what is said by the Vatican Council in Lumen gentium, so the magisterial teaching of the Church is that the diaconate and the priesthood are separate orders”, Zagano clarified.

Not that that watertight argument satisfies at all those detractors of the female diaconate, who continue to “diminish the discussion” and subject Zagano and other advocates of women deacons to a barrage of harassment.

But commenting on that hate, Zagano said “it just proves my point: that women are in large part ignored by men in the Church, women are disparaged, women are treated badly…” – all because of the all-too-widespread theological conviction – that turns out to be wrong, because harmful – that women cannot image the divine.

More on Novena on the women deacons debate:

Renowned German Benedictine and Pope ‘guru’ claims “there are no theological reasons against the priesthood of women”

Vatican female deacons commission member: “Why not include women in the college of cardinals?”

Cardinals gaslight women seeking equality in Church, blame their desire for “power” on “clericalism”

German nuns describe search for sacrament during COVID-19 beyond “dependence” on ordained men

German theologian claims ‘Querida Amazonia’ seeks to end “clerical monopoly”, clear way for women cardinals


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.