What Happened at the Synod Today about Women Deacons?

What happened at the synod today? Review for us just what Archbishop Durocher said.

zagano_headshot (1)Archbishop Durocher commented on No. 29 in the Synod document—the place of women in the Church. He made two very important and interrelated comments: 1) women should be included in Church governance; 2) women should be restored to the ordained diaconate. As a matter of fact, the only persons who can share governance or jurisdiction in the church are clerics, and the ordinary way of entering the clerical state is by ordination to the diaconate.

Whas this unexpected, or did anyone see this coming?

There is a lot of talk about women deacons lately, especially since Pope Francis has reiterated the ban on women priests. History tells us women were ordained deacons in the West to the 12th Century—and women are still ordained to the diaconate in places in the East today. There is no doctrine against women deacons.

Have you learned what the reaction was to his words?

Certainly the FaceBook posts, Tweets, and comments and questions I have received directly have been overwhelmingly positive. There will always be naysayers—but they get dangerously close to arguing that women cannot image Christ—that women are not made in the image and likeness of God. Reading the Baltimore Catechism should stop that kind of nonsense.

How significant is this? Rocco Palmo cautioned that at the beginning people throw mud at the wall but we should wait to see what sticks. Do you think something will stick here?

The concept of restoring women to the ordained diaconate has been around for a long time—in the 1987 Synod Cipriano Vagaggini was asked for an intervention on the topic. The question will stick. I think the obvious solution—restore women to the ordained diaconate—will cause some upsetment even among the bishops unless and until they realize that Pope Francis’ efforts to restore their own control over their own dioceses would allow them to ordain women deacons if they needed them, but would not require them to do so.

So is it still an open question whether women may be ordained deacons?

It is not really an “open” question in the sense that it has been proved by historical, epigraphical and literary evidence that women have been ordained, and by theologians and historians of liturgy that women may be so ordained again. As I said earlier, if the question of women priests is closed, then no one should complain about returning to this ancient tradition of the churches—east and west.

Do you have any sense how Pope Francis might react to Bishop Durocher’s statement? Francis has been criticized for his rather stereotypical understanding of gender roles, and some even say this is one of his blind spots, but others point to his statements about a greater leadership role for women in the Church.

Pope Francis often seems to have his foot in his mouth when he speaks about women—in the U.S. recently he made a mother-in-law “joke” and suggested that the mother of a 30-something son get him out of the house by refusing to iron his shirts—implying that he should get another woman to do so. However, he also told the bishops—I believe in Philadelphia—that the Holy Spirit was not to be denied. As a matter of fact, he cannot have it both ways: if he wants women in leadership (i.e. jurisdiction and governance) then he must see to it that they are ordained. Women deacons could become cardinal deacons—and cardinal deacons can head dicasteries—the major Curia offices. He has asked for a “more incisive role” for women in the church. Women deacons are the way.

What do you hope happens next?

The church moves slowly, but there are two steps to the process of restoring women to the diaconate. If Pope Francis, either on his own or in response to the request of a bishops’ conference, returns the church to the already established practice of sacramentally ordaining women as deacons, that would allow for women deacons. But the second step would be for individual bishops to decide they need women deacons in their dioceses. I would think the bishops of North American mission territories—northwest Canada, Alaska, certain states of the Far West and Deep South—would jump at the idea. Similarly, densely populated areas suffering a shortage of priests—areas that already have a flourishing diaconate—would easily see the advantage of women deacons.

Anything else you want to say?

If I may add one thing, I was invited to debate the question of women deacons at the Philadelphia Seminary of St. Charles Borromeo last November. One of the objections of my opponent—former member of the International Theological Commission Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT—was that women deacons of history only ministered to other women. The fact of the matter is that a bishop can today decide whether he wants to train, ordain and give faculties to the many women now ministering—to women and to men—or he can decide not to. The question is about how the bishop maintains and oversees the ministry in his diocese. And as far as deacons—male or female—are concerns, they are ordained not unto the priesthood but unto the ministry.


Phyllis Zagano, Ph.D. is senior research associate-in-residence at Hfostra University, Hempstead, NY, where she continues her research on women in ministry, specifically women deacons. She is author of many books and articles on the topic, most recently: In the Image of Christ: Essays on Being Catholic and Female, and the ground-breaking Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.







43 responses to “What Happened at the Synod Today about Women Deacons?”

  1. Joshua Vas Avatar
    Joshua Vas

    I think there seems to be two parallel tracks re: the last answer. If I might give a sympathetic reading of Butler’s position – which I was not there for, and so am deducing from what is quoted – I would hazard that Butler’s argument was not that because deaconesses ministered to women in history that they have to now (which appeared to me to be what Zagano responds to). That would be (in my humble opinion) to be a rather trivial argument to have raised.

    Rather, Butler’s argument would seem to be that that historical fact of ministering in a role with a certain limitation indicates something about the very nature of the ministry of deaconesses, which I suspect she sees to be a qualitative difference.

  2. Alan Hommerding Avatar
    Alan Hommerding

    Whether or not women were ever ordained deacons in the (early) Church and/or what limitations there may have been or not been on their ministry is, ultimately, immaterial. We have to stop this idolization of the historical record. Be informed by it, yes, but don’t try to justify or thwart every ecclesial step with it. The Holy Spirit moving through the Body of Christ has done, and can continue to do, new things.

    1. Suzanne Lehman Avatar
      Suzanne Lehman

      @Alan Hommerding:
      “So then brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” [2 Thess 2:15; see 1 Cor 11:2]

      It’s not idolization of historical record but rather an attempt to re-discover lost traditions so that we can properly “test everything; hold fast what is good” [1 Thess 5:21]

  3. Pat Woodbury Avatar
    Pat Woodbury

    Well done report. I want to question the historical record- in the early church ,yes ,women deacons ministered to women but was this so later? And was/is it so in the eastern churches?

  4. Joshua Vas Avatar
    Joshua Vas

    To you, Alan, but clearly not to those who, far from practicing what you dismiss as “idolization” of history, believe that the tradition reveals the working of the same Spirit and constitutes something more than simple historical record. Equally clearly, that is real issue at stake – or so it seems to me from reading some of the writings of both women cited here – the value to be assigned to the tradition. I find the epistemological question of ‘what the Holy Spirit is saying today’ to be often answered rather less convincingly.

    1. Alan Hommerding Avatar
      Alan Hommerding

      @Joshua Vas:
      I am not dismissing nor discrediting how the Spirit moved in the tradition; but as people in that particular time and place were not bound by precedent (there never had been any such thing as an order of deacons, after all), neither must we. We are the Spirit-filled Body of Christ in this day, age, time, and place; and that same Spirit continues to be present and continues to inspire and continues to reveal.

  5. Deacon Sean Smith Avatar
    Deacon Sean Smith

    I don’t believe that there is a man anywhere that would be ordained a deacon if his motivation was jurisdiction and governance in the Church! Try running that past your formation board or bishop! If that is the vision of diaconate being sought, and sadly, it is the only one described in this post, that doesn’t sound anything like why I was ordained!

    Being ordained so one can be in charge, then promoted (Cardinal Deacon) so one can be even more in charge sounds like the worst example of clericalism and careerism I’ve ever heard! And that’s what Pope Francis would be expected to champion? I don’t think so.

  6. Michael Ryan Avatar
    Michael Ryan

    Female deacons are inevitable. The fact that there is no serious shortage of male deacons may slow the process.

  7. Ann M. Desmond Avatar
    Ann M. Desmond

    Archbishop Durocher offers a ray of hope to women. We have so few champions in the hierarchy and I thank him for his support. I have always believed that my daughters are no less precious than my sons in the eyes of God. We deserve a place at the table and with God all things are possible.

  8. Phyllis Zagano Avatar
    Phyllis Zagano

    The question was about Abp Durocher’s suggestion that women should be included in governance, so the answer addressed that point. To say that the responses presented a flawed view of the diaconate is to forget what question was initially posed.

    1. Deacon Sean Smith Avatar
      Deacon Sean Smith

      @Phyllis Zagano:
      My response really has nothing to do with including women in governance. It has to do with the idea that the diaconate should be reduced to a vehicle to achieving that end, for a woman OR a man!

      The premised is flawed, so any case you build on it is flawed.

      1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        @Deacon Sean Smith:
        Deacon Sean,
        Every woman in ministry I know has been giving of herself heart and soul in service without the whiff of a prayer for governance or jurisdiction, ever, in her entire life. They do it without even any guarantee that they will have jurisdiction over their own ministry and they may in fact have that ministry taken away at a whim. Yet they do it. And have been doing it. And continue to do it. For you to get into a huff and attribute imaginary motives of vainglory and ambition to women in ministry who may someday be ordained deacons is unworthy. The scholar interviewed here who has studied this subject deeply and published upon it extensively has rationally and reasonably pointed out that if Archbishop Durocher wants women to share in governance, as he has said he does, and if Pope Francis wants a “more incisive role for women” as he says he does, the inclusion of women in the order of deacon brings the church closer to realizing this potential gain for the church. I don’t see any problem with that. “Reduced to a vehicle”? Sorry, but I do not see any such reductionism in Dr. Zagano’s remarks.

      2. Elizabeth Pike Avatar
        Elizabeth Pike
      3. Deacon Sean Smith Avatar
        Deacon Sean Smith

        @Rita Ferrone:
        I have also had a wonderful experience of women in ministry! On that point, we are in absolutee agreement! But if you read the post (not your experience or mine, but the post itself), you will see no such discussion. Sadly, the post does not respond to the lived experience for most of us that have been ministered to by women, or by deacons.

        Here’s a quick word count:
        Ministry (2) – in the last paragraph, and not in the context of care for people, as you and I experience it, but as juridical notion
        Ministering (1)
        Ministered (1)
        Minister (0)
        Service (0)
        Care (0)
        Poor (0)
        Mercy (0)

        Governance (3)
        Jurisdiction (2)
        Leadership (2)

        So, I think it is more than fair to say that this posting is reducing the diaconate to a vehicle for “advancement” rather than a vehicle for ministry. And as I commented originally, I don’t know any formation board that is looking for that characteristic in deacon candidates, male or female!

        A post about women as deacons because of the character and call of diaconal ministry, and the needs of the Church, would be very different than this post!

  9. Adam Booth, C.S.C. Avatar

    I think there are plenty of things that many people think, but no-one with anything to lose ever says, simply because no-one with anything to lose has yet said it. Then, a cardinal says, and suddenly people’s mouths start opening.

  10. mary ann steppke Avatar
    mary ann steppke

    Yes yes and yes to women deacons so needed May the Holy Spirit lead the way starting today

  11. Teresa Berger Avatar
    Teresa Berger

    As to the history of reclaiming the diaconate for women: it is much older than the 1980s. Just one example: Dr. Josephine Mayer, a historian active in the Liturgical Movement in Germany, gathered and published all the (then known) ancient sources on the subject and on that basis argued for a restoration of the diaconate for women — in 1938!

  12. Amy Jones Avatar

    Thank you for your important work, Dr. Zagano!

  13. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    Perhaps the question of women deacons, among many other pressing issues of our day, should be brought before an ecumenical council. Here the nature of Holy Orders can be debated between Roman bishops, both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox eparchs, and Christ’s faithful. Lay scholars not just of Orders specifically but also of theology, liturgy, and ecclesiology in general should also be given time to address the question of women deacons. Also male and female clergy of other Christian churches should be permitted to share their understanding of the ministry of women in their denominations.

    An ecumenical council would likely outlast Pope Francis’s papacy. The Church, and specifically the curia, must be prepared to place aside issues of quotidian government to focus on the council proceedings. Still, I consider the possibility of women deacons to be important enough for a sacred constitution. Could all the bishops of the Church place aside enough time for a council? Perhaps this effort is unavoidable.

  14. Denice DeAntonio Avatar
    Denice DeAntonio

    As a nurse, have worked for a Christian Health care facility. Women as well as men were ministers. There was a history of women as Deaconess. I think there are many needs in the Church. And we need to look at creative ways of meeting those needs. We also need to find a way a women can minister.

  15. Theresa Hennessy Avatar
    Theresa Hennessy

    I feel there will always be controversy within the thoughts, ideas and beliefs within the Church and the Religious. With that said, women have played such an invaluable physical, emotional n spiritual role throughout religious history they should be allowed to grow n hold titles similiar to Priests.

  16. Lynette castiglion Avatar
    Lynette castiglion

    i feel why not have a woman what is wrong with woman taking a bigger role in the church perhaps if you open it up to woman you will get more decons coming into the church and in the past there woman priest as well if it is a woman’s calling go for it

  17. Theresa Maccarone Avatar
    Theresa Maccarone

    The primary reason that I want to see women deaconesses is so that we can hear women preach the Joy of the Gospel during the Liturgy of the Word. According to canon law, preaching at the time reserved for the homily is a function of ordination. Pope Francis has repeatedly stated that many priests give boring homilies. What makes Catholic homilies so boring is hearing from men all the time. There are many scripture readings such as the visit of Mary to Elizabeth that cry out for a homily by a women.

    It’s true that their are many ministerial opportunities for women in the Church that do not require ordination. However, the Holy Father stated in the Joy of the Gospel that he wants the church to create “broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”

  18. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    I suggest the deacon is missing an important point. One big reason that women do not participate in much ecclesial decision making is that may not exercise the jurisdiction canonically limited to clergy. A motive for restoring the vocation of women deacons is that this objection could be overcome. The primary motive, of course, would be greater opportunities for ecclesial ministry and service. I wonder if the deacon is even aware that for centuries deacons were promoted to service as bishops of Rome. It’s an important office and ministry and women should not be denied access.

    1. Deacon Sean Smith Avatar
      Deacon Sean Smith

      @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      “The primary motive, of course, would be greater opportunities for ecclesial ministry and service” is assuming something not in the original post.

      “The deacon” is aware of everything you mentioned, and “the deacon” said not one word about whether women should be deacons! “The deacon” has said, repeatedly, that anyone, man or woman seeking to be ordained a deacon to exercise power (which is the only purpose actually talked about in this post) should not be a deacon.

    2. jane Coll Avatar
      jane Coll

      @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      The point about juridicial powers is a vital one in this debate. Deacond do not have juridicial powers (read their ordination rites), which is why they cannot hear confessions – they do not have the power to loose and to bind. Hence women can be ordained deacons without contradicting the teaching of St Paul.

  19. Betty Harrison Avatar
    Betty Harrison

    My husband was ordained 20 years ago but during formation the wives could become commissioned in Pastoral Services . This required us to take all the courses, do all the home work and complete an internship. Mine was to cancer patients in the hospital. We took homiletics and gave reflections ( homily for men reflections for wives) we did every thing our husbands did in formation. The week before ordination the wives who choose to complete program were commissioned by our Bishop McDonald and we were encouraged to follow our own ministry as well as help our deacon husband. My husbands ministry became our ministry and my training helped me to support and help him. The classes that followed us the women were given choice but were really not encouraged to be commissioned. The third class no one even told the wives about this option . We had a new Bishop and new deaconate leader. If women are not to be ordained and wives must attend deaconate formation why not give them incentive to work in their own ministry by offering Pastoral Care Certification? I still have to complete all the continuing education, retreat and daily office requirements to keep my commission. I keep records of this now rather than Deaconate office . The Lord called both my husband to His Service, he as an ordained Deacon and me to pastoral Care and to support Him in his calling. Thanks and God Bless all the women who are married to the ordained!

  20. Marie Olwell,ssj Avatar
    Marie Olwell,ssj

    Well said, Phyllis. My questions: How can the Church speak about equality in other areas and not in its ” own house” regarding women.

  21. Susan Mulheron Avatar
    Susan Mulheron

    Speaking as a canon lawyer, I can tell you that the question of the clerical state and exercising the power of governance is the the issue when it comes to women exercising authority in the Church. It is true that canon law (currently) links the power of governance to the power of orders, but it also clearly includes exceptions for laity (both men and women) and is a fairly recent development in the law. It would be simpler and less controversial to disconnect these than to move forward with women deacons. My recommendation is not to get distracted with the suggestion that woman deacons are necessary in order for women to exercise power of governance in the Church, because it’s a red herring. As was noted in other comments, a deacon is ordained for service, not for governance.

    1. phyllis zagano Avatar
      phyllis zagano

      @Susan Mulheron:
      see C. 129. No lay person can fully obtain any office that requires clerical orders. The question was about governance, which is a part of service.

  22. Fr. Michael Erwin Avatar
    Fr. Michael Erwin

    Our last ecumenical council directed us to connect the church to the trends of our current times.

    In viewing history from a distance, we can see that the last 100 years have been about the integration of women into leadership. Most countries in that time period brought women into voting, public office, and workplace leadership. These shifts have been a substantial element to many of the other cultural shifts we have seen in that same time period.

    Given this, a conversation about women in leadership in the Catholic Church seems in order. Women are already doing the majority of ministry in our parishes and schools. Having women deacons who care for the poor, preach, baptize, witness marriages, and much more would add something very important to our cultural shifts.

    This synod gathered to protect and encourage families would already benefit from the presence of such women deacons. The synod should recommend a formal look into the expansion of this ministry. In my opinion, the conversation is worthy of an ecumenical council; the natural next step from Vatican II.

  23. Juan A. Escarfuller Avatar
    Juan A. Escarfuller

    Excellent discussion! The primary motive of ordained ministry in the Church for both, women and men, should be that of SERVICE. The governance of the Church should be left to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and not to the political struggle for the sake of gender equality. I would love to see women ordained to the diaconate, preach from the pulpit, and expand the scope of their ministry so badly needed in the Church worldwide but, not for the sake of political power within the Church governance per se. This particular motive is in contradiction with the vocation of those, women and men, called to SERVE in the Church at any level of ordained ministry or as simple good practicing Catholics.

    1. Elizabeth Pike Avatar
      Elizabeth Pike

      @Juan A. Escarfuller:
      I certainly agree that the motive of ordained ministry should be that of service and that the governance of the church should be left to the Holy Spirit, as you suggest. However, I wonder if what others in this debate are trying to get to is that perhaps we are limiting the work of the Holy Spirit by maintaining some of the limits that we have put on the role of women in the church. I wonder if in the insights of Cardinal Durocher the Holy Spirit is indeed working in His wonderful way and showing us a path, as the church, to minister to the world today. Perhaps, as some suggest, this line of thinking is driven by a desire for power, but perhaps it is driven by the call of the Holy Spirit and the needs of the church. I cannot pretend to know the answer, but I would rejoice if it were the later.

  24. jane Coll Avatar
    jane Coll

    I have just come across this debate. I am so pleased that the comments are thoughtful and civilised – this is not always the case! In addition to my reply to Fr Jack Feehily, I would like to make a couple of points:
    women deacons in the early church served women – but the male deacons served men, so this did not make them any less deacons than their male counterparts. They also did far more than assist at baptisms

    The Armenian Church has always had ordained women deacons and we accept their sacraments

    There are Vatican documents detailing the ordination rites for women deacons and, yes they do include the laying on of hands.

    This debate is not about equality or power but about serving the Church. Deacons are servants of the bishop. All organisations need a balance of male and female, from the domestic family to the United Nations. Having female deacons would give the Church a much needed source of balanced opinions and talents.

  25. jeff armbruster Avatar
    jeff armbruster

    @ Rita Ferrone: +2…hundred.

  26. Susan Mulheron Avatar
    Susan Mulheron

    I had made an important edit to my comment that didn’t seem to make it to the actual post. The sentence should read “I can tell you that the question of the clerical state and exercising the power of governance is *not* the issue when it comes to women exercising authority in the Church.”

    Hopefully that was evident from the context of the rest of the comment. Sorry for any confusion.

  27. Marie Olwell,ssj Avatar
    Marie Olwell,ssj

    #38 Marie B. Olwell ssj on October 9, 2015
    Well said, Phyllis. Even though the Church speaks of equality in other areas. It does not address the inequality concerning women in all of the Church ministries.

  28. Halbert Weidner Avatar
    Halbert Weidner

    PTB readers can surely look this up. I am too lazy to grab a book from my libary but when I studied this question ten years ago I saw a Greek Orthodox bishop with an island in his diocese taken over by hostile Turks who expelled the Orthodox priests and deacons…all male…solved the problem by ordaining women deacons. The Turks were not expecting this and since the place of the deacon is extremly important in Orthodoxy it saved the Orthodox Church on the island. That Orthodox Bishop got into trouble for this not because it was against doctrine but because he decided to do it on his own without consulting the other bishops. Now instead of being in trouble he is up for canonization and the Greek Orthodox are studying formalizing the return of the diaconate for women. At least, this is what I remember.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      @Halbert Weidner:
      St Nektarious of Aegina (d, 1920, canonized 1961), who ordained two deaconesses in 1911 to serve a women’s monastery on an island without a priest?


  29. jeff armbruster Avatar
    jeff armbruster

    I have no reason to think that the motive behind this initiative is NOT service. Of course it is. Women have been serving selflessly in the Church since its inception. It seems wrong to me to attribute some kind of power grab or political correctness to what is essentially an appeal for further opportunities to serve. That I happen to think that this will also renew the Church, and that, happily, the Holy Spirit is capable of bringing new things to fruition in history is beside the point, if you wish.

    Oh and by the way the same objection concerning ‘power plays’ could be made about men wanting to become deacons. In that case, to be consistent, no one can serve!

  30. Phyllis Zagano Avatar
    Phyllis Zagano

    This discussion got off the rails with interjections by one person. The deacon, male or female, is ordained to service of the Word, the liturgy, and charity. Archbishop Durocher focused on charity–the charitable service in authority. It is important to recall that Francis’ motu proprio regarding annulments stipulates a single judge and no second instance, which effectively removes women from any part in the proceedings. That single judge must be a cleric. Women ordained to the diaconate would be (and have been) clerics. It is, as has been noted earlier, about keeping the faith alive, not about fighting over who does what at the altar of the Lord. See: http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/summerautumn2015/ordain-catholic-women-deacons

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