The time has come for women to reclaim their roles as deacons in the Catholic Church.

That was the assertion of a panel of scholars who came together on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.

The issue of whether women can become deacons is one that the Vatican had studied twice since the early 1990s. In 2016, Pope Francis announced a third commission, made up of six women and six men, to study its feasibility.

A New Look at an Old Idea

Phyllis Zagano, Ph.D., and Bernard Pottier, S.J., two members of that commission, spoke Tuesday at a Fordham panel event, The Future of Women Deacons: Views from the Papal Commission and the American Pews.

Zagano, a senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of Women Deacons? Essays with Easy Answers (Michael Glazier, 2016), said evidence of the existence of women deacons, who share many responsibilities with priests, in the churches’ earliest days is indisputable.

Documents available in Vatican libraries from the fourth and fifth centuries make clear the existence of a position that was separate and distinct from the priesthood, and was therefore open to all, she said, and specifically referenced women.

“The earliest ordination for deacons is in the apostolic constitution, which directs the bishop to lay hands on [a woman being ordained]in the presence of the presbyterate, the male deacons, and the woman deacons, and to pray a prayer that parallels the ordination of the deacon, including the Epiclesis, which is the calling down of the Holy Spirit,” she said.

“God is asked to bless her in regard to her ministry. The ordaining bishop places a stole around her neck. As I’ve said to many people, ‘If she wasn’t a deacon, they would call her something else.’” she said, but the responsibilities would have been the same.

An Upheaval Leads to Shifting Attitudes

In the middle of the 18th century, she said, scholars began rejecting the idea of a female deacon, and quibbled over whether these women had been “ordained” or “blessed.” Zagano said the words were used interchangeably at the time.

“For me, if a bishop was laying hands on a woman, invoking the Holy Spirit, putting a stole on her, giving the chalice, and calling her a deacon, I don’t know what else to say,” she said.

So why did women deacons disappear? Father Pottier, a faculty member at the Institute D’Etudes Théologiques in Brussels, said the Great Schism of 1054, when what is now the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches split, was key to the change.

“The Western church began to think by its own, without the mystical spirituality of the East, that rationality and legalistic thought was more important,” he said.

The upside of this was the rise of immensely influential philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, he said.

“On the other side, we lost a little bit of what the sacrament is. What is the spirituality and the grace of the sacrament? The West wanted to do everything clear, and everything simple. So the sacrament of ordination became very simple. You have cursus honorum, a sort of scale you have to pass by all the steps, and not miss one. A deacon became only a step to priesthood,” he said, and therefore, something reserved for men.  But he cautioned that this needn’t be the end of the story.

“Our faith has roots in the Bible, in the New Testament, in the person of Jesus Christ, and in what the church has done. We do not have to be afraid of history. In history, we do not have a source of rigidity and immobility,” he said, but rather an example that change is possible.

A View From the Pews

Panelist Donna Ciangio, O.P., said conversations she’s had with lay members of the Archdiocese of Newark, where she is chancellor, have convinced her that parishes need women deacon now.

“I asked a few parishioners about the possibility of women deacons, and the first answer I got was, “Aren’t you and Sister Sandy deacons already?” she said.

Where the issue really rears its head is when she works with couples who want to have their child baptized in the church.

“We ask them, is there anything that keeps you from embracing the church wholly? One woman said to me, ‘My children ask me, ‘Why can’t women be priests or deacons?’ I have no answer that satisfies them,’” she said.

Sister Ciangio also recently oversaw the creation of a study guide to help Catholics better understand this issue, titled Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future, (Paulist Press, 2012), which Zagano co-wrote. She invited 12 parishioners from the diocese to come together to read it.

“As we discussed each chapter, they became more and more interested, but they became more and more agitated,” she said, noting that none were aware of the existence of women deacons in the past.

“The group became convinced that it’s no longer acceptable not to have women deacons in parishes or significant leadership positions in the church.”

What Next?

What if Pope Francis decides this is not the right time to let women become deacons again?

The panel has presented its report to the pontiff and is waiting for a response. Zagano said that given the church’s dire need for those who can minister to the faithful, even a delayed answer will be a negative answer.

“I think it’s up to the church to make noise. The pope has said in other cases, make noise. Well, make noise,” she said.

“I have a sense that he will know the time to say something. We have from May 6 to 10 a triennial meeting of the international union of superiors general, the women who originally asked him to examine this issue. If I were the pope, I wouldn’t want to walk into a meeting with 900 nuns without an answer.”

The panel event was sponsored by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture. David Gibson, the center’s director, said the topic is a timely one given the upheaval the church has faced recently.

“Elevating and broadening the role of the women in the church, as Pope Francis has said we must do, is especially critical today if we’re to answer the call of the spirit in this time of epochal change and challenge for the Catholic church,” said Gibson.

“It is a call that our nation and our world must respond to.”

The panel was moderated by Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., president of Salt & Light Media, and was streamed live on Salt & Light.



Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.