Who’s on the Vatican Commission to Study Women Deacons

Today the Vatican announced the makeup of the commission to study the history of women deacons. There are twelve members, six men and six women. I looked around the web to assemble a few preliminary notes on who is on the committee. Please note that the information shared here is only a sketch of a few items that caught my eye and is subject to correction and amplification.

Overall, my impression is that this is a very interesting and diverse group of people. I wish I could be a fly on the wall for their meetings!

Let’s start with the women. Phyllis Zagano who teaches at Hofstra University in New York, is well known to us here in the US as a scholar who has written and published extensively on the topic of women deacons. Most recently she edited an anthology published by Liturgical Press entitled Women Deacons?: Essays with Answers. She will be a strong advocate for reading the history objectively in favor of women deacons.

Sister Núria Calduch-Benages teaches at the Gregorian University in Rome and is a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. She is Catalan. “The Bible is my passion” she says. She seems to have pastoral interests as well as impressive scholarly chops as a biblical scholar and philologist. Her special expertise is the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. I could not find anything she has written about deacons, but she is eloquent on women in the Church. Check out this video (“The Role of Women in the Church Is a Pending Issue”) about ten frames down on the link (in Catalan; no English subtitles, sorry) for a taste. You can also get to it direct, here.

Francesca Cocchini, an Italian, is a Professor at the University La Sapienza and at the Patristic Institute (the Augustinianum), in Rome. She is immersed in research on Origen and the Alexandrian tradition, but has also published books on the reception of the Pauline epistles and on Augustine. She has been associated with Sofia Cavaletti and the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I enjoyed reading a very interesting brief article by her on the Sisters of Sion website (a religious community of women committed to Jewish-Christian dialogue) concerning “Some Aspects of the Typological Method Which Are Valid Today.” 

Sister Mary Melone, SFA, also an Italian, is an expert in the life and thought of St. Anthony of Padua. She is rector of the Pontifical University Antonianum, an institution of the Friars Minor, in Rome — the first woman to head a Pontifical University. Journalist Inés San Martín, writing in Crux, observed that although she has not openly advocated for women in the diaconate, she “has long spoken of the role of women in the Church, saying it’s unfair to dismiss the request for the diaconate because it might lead to female priesthood.” An article in Rome Reports at the time of her appointment as rector, said:

Although she believes in the important role that women can develop within the Church, she rejects the definition of a specific feminine theology and distrusts gender quotas, both in and out of the Church. She is convinced that whoever really deserves it, will move forward.

She also spoke about the debate over whether women can enter the priesthood. The question isn’t open now, she believes, but she respects those who are struggling to reconsider it.

Marianne Schlosser is Professor of Spiritual Theology at the University of Vienna and a member of the International Theological Commission. She has written about Bonaventure and Catherine of Siena. She has also written about Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, and has a recent volume on the theology of prayer. You can find a compendium of her formidable published work here.

Michelina Tenace, an Italian, is Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She is an expert on Vladimir Solovyov, and teaches theological anthropology and the Christian East. She speaks on a wide range of subjects and is the author of a number of books, which you can find here.

And now, the men.

Rev. Msgr. Piero Coda, is Dean of the University Institute “Sophia,” Loppiano (near Florence), and he a member of the International Theological Commission. The Institute is a work of the Focolare movement. Coda has written about Chiara Lubich and he writes about the Trinity.

Rev. Robert Dodaro, O.S.A., an American, is dean of the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum,” in Rome. He is Professor of Patrology and an expert on Augustine. He is also known for his book on marriage: Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. 

Rev. Karl-Heinz Menke, is Emeritus Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Bonn and member of the International Theological Commission. He specializes in the nineteenth century and writes about Christology.

Rev. Santiago Madrigal Terrazas, SJ, is professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical University “Comillas,” in Madrid. He specializes in ecclesiology, especially the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, reflected in the theological works of Rahner, Congar, De Lubac, and Ratzinger. He is also an authority on Ignatian spirituality.

Rev. Aimable Musoni, SDB, is professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome. (I believe he is Rwandan, although I could not confirm this.) He is an expert on the canonization process, a consultor for the Congregation for Saints. You can see on line a paper he wrote on consecrated life in Africa: “Consecrated Life in Africa: Prophecy of Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace.”

Rev. Bernard Pottier SJ, born in Liège Belgium, is professor at the Institut d’Etudes Théologiques in Brussels, and a member of the International Theological Commission. His published work is in the fields of philosophy and psychology, and he also has an expertise in patristics (Gregory of Nyssa).

The commission will be presided over by the Mallorcan bishop and Jesuit Lluís Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Good luck, one and all!







24 responses to “Who’s on the Vatican Commission to Study Women Deacons”

  1. Brian Culley Avatar
    Brian Culley

    What an interesting group of experts. It appears that with such a diverse group of scholars there will be no foregone conclusions.

  2. john francis Avatar
    john francis

    We’ll see where things are in about three years. Maybe, five.

  3. Jordan Zarembo Avatar

    I’m very excited to read the proceedings and research. It’d be a welcome distraction from my own research 😉 I am certain that twelve people will come to twelve different conclusions.

    My only concern is that some prelates, perhaps on the conservative-traditionalist spectrum, will try mightily to derail the project. Rather than giving due respect to the researchers, some might dismiss the project as heterodox out of hand. I am confident that Pope Francis will see this project through. He might suffer, however, detractions. Pray not only for the researchers but also the Pope during what might be turbulent times.

  4. Rachel Barber Avatar
    Rachel Barber

    Rita, thanks for the research so we all have a better understanding of the perspectives that will be brought to this important subject!

  5. Peter Kwasniewski Avatar
    Peter Kwasniewski

    It’s hard not to have the reaction “been there, done that.”


    1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
      Rita Ferrone

      @Peter Kwasniewski:

      Actually there were two studies, but only the latter one was published. I wrote about this at Commonweal, in case you didn’t see the piece. Or if any of our other readers may be interested.


      Your assumption that everything to be said has already been said is unwarranted. Scholarship marches on. There is new evidence, and there have been new evaluations of the old evidence since the time it was written.

      All this is true even aside from what I see as a clear bias of the previous Vatican study — a bias against ordaining women deacons. This bias quite clearly influenced the presentation and evaluation of the historical evidence. The document also evaluates the permanent diaconate itself in a negative light, saying it has not achieved its purpose and questioning its value.

      Depends on who you ask?

      Anyway, we shouldn’t be wearied or dismayed about the need to go back over ground that has been explored before. New insights do occur!

      1. Karl LIam Saur Avatar
        Karl LIam Saur

        @Rita Ferrone:


        There’s a certain attitude about the dangers of having discussion that reminds me attitudes famously captured by Cleveland Amory and others in pieces like this:


      2. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        @Karl LIam Saur:
        “Why should I travel” she inquired, “when I’m already there?”

        Perfect. Thanks, Karl Liam!

      3. Karl LIam Saur Avatar
        Karl LIam Saur

        @Rita Ferrone:

        Btw, there’s a telling omission in that piece. The omission of “or do without” in the famous proverb quoted.

        And the famous hat story is indelible for how much it conveys in so little space.

  6. Alan Hommerding Avatar
    Alan Hommerding

    Who is being described in the white quotation box? Sorry, I have not clicked through on all the links.

    1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
      Rita Ferrone

      @Alan Hommerding:
      Alan, the quote is taken from the Rome Reports story, which is unsigned. It describes Sr. Mary Melone. There’s a video, so this may be a summary or some background information.

      1. Elisabeth Ahn Avatar
        Elisabeth Ahn

        @Rita Ferrone #14:

        Her comments about “female theology” and “gender quotas” may be from her L’Osservatore Romano interview, as reported by Vatican Insider here: http://www.lastampa.it/2014/07/03/vaticaninsider/eng/the-vatican/woman-appointed-rector-of-a-pontifical-university-for-the-first-time-ever-PUwuvLLXDjMgJOEo8p3cvK/pagina.html

        That report does not speak directly about her thoughts on priesthood and women, but does quote her saying this about the role of women in the church:

        “Women cannot measure how much space they have in the Church in comparison to men: we have a space of our own, which is neither smaller nor greater than the space men occupy. It is our space. Thinking that we have to achieve what men have, will not get us anywhere.”

        With which, incidentally, I agree wholly.

      2. Alan Hommerding Avatar
        Alan Hommerding

        @Rita Ferrone:
        Thank you!

  7. Paul Schlachter Avatar

    There’s a lot of expertise on early church history and tradition here, and also a few known for their strong advocacy. The chair is a high official of CDF, giving the question greater prominence. Comparing this commission with that high-visibility (human life transmission) commission from the 1960s:
    *Their discussions and conclusions will be divulged at some point, I believe, or at least leaked.
    *They could get their work done quickly, even by the end of 2017. The issue is much less contentious because there are no solemn pronouncements banning these discussions.
    *If a minority stands firm for the status quo, it could prevail.
    *But this pope pays close attention to facts on the ground, such as the fact that women already play decisive roles in every parish. The fact that he moved so quickly in naming commission members shows for me that he is searching for ways to increase opportunities for women in sacramental ministry. I think he is looking for a positive outcome from the commission, even complete consensus, to help him in his own decision, and I pray for such an outcome.

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar

      I doubt that there will be a Humanae vitae-esque endgame, where Pope Francis completely rejects the findings of the commission. However, those who strongly support the ordination of women to the diaconate may have to accept some significant concessions. One might be a decision not to ordain women to major orders but merely to create an instituted ministry. “Deaconesses” is an ugly word, and I apologize for using it (and hope that the Vatican never does). Still, a ministry similar to the historical Protestant understanding of that term is not an impossibility. This all people must prepare for on some level.

      @Paul Schlachter:

      Paul: “Their discussions and conclusions will be divulged at some point, I believe, or at least leaked.

      Certainly there will be leaks. However, I would hope that the Vatican attempts to hold these proceedings in a most secure camera. The problem with leaks and rumors is the possibility that the trend will appear to go in one direction only to take a completely different direction in the apostolic constitution. I doubt that many in the mainstream Church wish to revisit the tumult of 1968.

  8. Elisabeth Ahn Avatar
    Elisabeth Ahn

    @Paul Schlachter:

    I think he is looking for a positive outcome from the commission…

    I don’t think Pope Francis is looking for any particular outcome. That’s just not his style. He was asked to form such a committee; he responded positively to this request, and now we have the committee.

    It would surprise me greatly if the outcome of this committee’s findings were to lead this Pope to issue a decree that allows women to be ordained as deacons in the exact same way as men currently are.

    That said, one could be assured that whatever will be, will not be: “been there, done that, nothing new will come out of it.” Something will come out of it — something that will please neither the extremist “keep women away from the altar” traditionalists/conservatives nor the “ordain women” progressives/liberals.

    Anyway, thanks also to Rita for this very nice summary.

  9. David Philippart Avatar

    It would have been nice to have deacon on the commission.

  10. Luisa Navarro Avatar
    Luisa Navarro

    Comillas is not in Madrid.

    1. Vic Romero Avatar
      Vic Romero

      @Luisa Navarro:

      “Comillas is not in Madrid.” ?

      Your comment would have been much more helpful, if you had added where Comillas is, or where you say it is. 🙂

    2. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      @Luisa Navarro:

      Even the most cursory Google search turns up this (the opening quote is from Wikipedia):

      Comillas Pontifical University is a private university in Madrid, Spain. It is a Catholic university run by the Society of Jesus. Comillas is the only Spanish university that appears in the Times Higher Education 2013 ranking.

      Address: Calle Alberto Aguilera, 23, 28015 Madrid, Spain

      Not much doubt about where Comillas is, it seems.

  11. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    Last comment, promise. I’m more than a bit surprised that one of the invited scholars isn’t a linguistics scholar and philologist. Linguistics and philology can provide insight into textual variation between and within codices. In turn, theologians can utilize this information to understand, for example, the way an ordination ceremony differs for men and for women.

    At its worst, however, this science can fall into a futile intellectual introversion. Ultimately, superficial arguments over the possible context of articles (this sentence just has to have an implicit τὸ in it) or whether or not a word begins with a breathing will not necessarily enhance the proceedings. Still, even the adjunct contribution of a classical/ecclesiastical languages specialist might enhance the necessary theological discovery.

    1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
      Rita Ferrone

      @Jordan Zarembo:
      Jordan, please comment as frequently as you like!

      Sister Núria Calduch-Benages is a philologist, but she seems to have a degree in German philology, so I do not know if that would answer your concern.

      On another front, however, I do hope they will consider the recent philological study by Yale scripture scholar John Collins. Here is the description from Oxford University Press. I have not read the book, but if his insights are valid, it could change the frame for evaluating quite a bit of the textual evidence, especially for Phoebe, the only person in the New Testament who is actually called a deacon.

      Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources

      This is the first comprehensive study of the Greek word ”diakonia,” from which the word ”deacon” is derived. Diakonia and its cognates appear frequently throughout the New Testament, but its precise meaning has long been disputed. Today, it is usually translated ”service” or ”ministry.” As Collins shows, this understanding of diakonia has been important to the development of a modern consensus about the nature of Christian ministry. Collins conducts an exhaustive study of diakonia in Christian and non-Christian sources from about 200 BCE to 200 CE. He finds that in all such sources the word is used to mean ”messenger” or ”emissary,” and has no implications of humility or of helping the needy. This discovery undermines much of the theological discussion of ministry that has taken place over the past fifty years.

      1. Elisabeth Ahn Avatar
        Elisabeth Ahn

        @Rita Ferrone:

        … the word is used to mean ”messenger” or ”emissary,”…

        This is very interesting.

        And apropos of nothing perhaps, my very much non-expert self thought, immediately, of Mary Magdalene.

  12. Donna Eschenauer Avatar

    Thank you for your work here. It is always good to understand who is actually working on these commissions.

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