Women Deacons?

Essays with Answers

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Phyllis Zagano
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , April
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


During the triennial plenary meeting with the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in May 2016, Pope Francis responded to a question about the restoration of women to the diaconate by establishing a commission to study the historical information available on the topic. Constituted equally of women and men (a first for any pontifical commission), it included no deacons, and only three members who had published on the topic previously. The most prolific of which is Phyllis Zagano, editor of this collection of essays, Women Deacons? Essays with Answers.

As we await the results of the commission, likely to be shared by Pope Francis during the May 2019 plenary of the UISG, it is helpful to review this collection, which was published just a short time before the last meeting, during which the call for a commission was made. Especially now, it tends to be forgotten that a previous pontifical investigation covered much of the same ground, but never made results public. The International Theological Commission published a non-authoritative study text on the diaconate in 2002, which glossed over the question of the diaconate of women, and addressing this lacuna is the purpose of this work: “This collection is aimed at presenting the entire story, the majority of which the ITC may have accepted between 1992 and 1997 but which it eventually eviscerated in 2002” (xvi). Zagano also notes some problematic translation issues with the text in English (xi-xii).

This collection consists of a dozen essays which range in date of original publication from 1969 to 2011. Four were originally in English, the others newly translated: five from Italian, three from French. Three of the ten authors were also members of the International Theological Commission: Yves Congar, Philippe Delhaye, and Cipriano Vagaggini. Only Zagano appears in the current commission on the question of women and the diaconate.

The questions posed are the major historical questions regarding women in the diaconate: Were they ordained to the major order of deacon, or merely consecrated to a minor order other office known as deaconess (or both)? What were their tasks and functions? In the as yet incomplete restoration of the diaconate today, could women be included?

While a clear consensus emerges that women were in fact ordained to the diaconate in a similar, if not identical, way to their male counterparts, rather than being merely consecrated akin to subdeacons and other later “minor orders,” each of the contributions is careful and nuanced. Cipriano Vagaggini’s contributions (chapters 5 and 6) are perhaps the most compelling in presenting the evidence that the ordination of women to the diaconate was a) real ordination and not mere consecration, and b) to a major and not a minor order. There were certainly distinctions in the tasks and ministry men and women performed in the context of the diaconate in the Byzantine tradition, but this clearly has more to do with sociocultural traditions and the segregation of the sexes than anything innate to the order itself.

Yves Congar makes a similar assessment, echoing his contribution on the topic during the Second Vatican Council. While restating his stand against “the feminine priesthood,” he is equally clear that there is no such objection to including women (again) in the diaconate (chapter 11, especially 223-24).  In fact, none of the essays make the common mistake of assuming that the question of women in the diaconate inevitably leads to, or even relates to, the question of women in the presbyterate or episcopate. Zagano’s own essay addresses this clearly:

Even though the distinct roles of deacon and priest have been codified, confusion as to their relationship remains, giving rise to the argument that ordination of a woman as deacon presages ordination of a woman as priest. Such opposition ignores the fact that the diaconate has been restored as a permanent (as opposed to “transitional”) order in the church. For the tradition to be fully remembered, it must include women. (217-18)

Peter Hünermann’s “Conclusions regarding the Female Diaconate” (chapter 12) offer the most comprehensive overview of questions and discoveries that the other articles engage in depth, and would serve as well as the introduction to the collection to orient the reader.

If the consensus to the first question “were women ordained to the diaconate?” is basically yes, there is also general consensus that women could be included in the diaconate as it continues to be restored. Greater variance comes in the question of the tasks and roles of women deacons and deaconesses in the past, as well as what shape a future implementation of the order might look like, but part of this is owed to the sources themselves.

While there are ecumenical sources, especially Orthodox and Anglican, with some Lutheran engagement, a more broadly and systematically ecumenical reading of the questions of the diaconate could be included. Besides reference to a single Armenian deaconess ordained in the 1980s (41) and the decision of the Maronites in the 18th century to allow deaconesses to anoint the sick (99), there is little engagement with the developments of women in the diaconate in the Orthodox and other apostolic churches of the East.

There is also little critique offered in this collection the incomplete status of restoration of the diaconate since the Council—signified in part by the lingering priority on the minority “transitional” diaconate—and the effect that has on the problems surrounding the question of the diaconate of women. Nevertheless, this collection represents an essential addition to any bibliography of the diaconate or any engagement on the questions related to women and that ministry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew James Boyd is a lecturer in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue at the Pontifical Beda College and Assumption University in Rome.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University and founding co-chair of the Roman Catholic Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion. The author or editor of eighteen books in religious studies, including Catholic Press Association and College Theology Society book award winners, Zagano is also the series editor of the Spirituality in History Series published by Liturgical Press.


Phyllis Zagano

Just a brief update: Pope Francis gave a portion of the Commission report to the UISG sisters in May 2019, saying they could "do with it what they wished." They have not published the section, but have said it was the "history" section of the report. One correction: the subdiaconate was a major order, supressed in 1972 by Pope Paul VI through Ministeria Quaedam.



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