Zagano lecture on Women Deacons and The Synod

The ACU Centre for Liturgy is proud to host Dr Phyllis Zagano for a public lecture on the topic: “Women Deacons and the Synod: What Happens Now?”

Time: Sunday, August 6, 2023, 8pm EDT (USA)
= Monday, August, 7, 2023, 10am AEST.

Australia and New Zealand made their synodal wishes known: the Church can and should restore women to the ordained diaconate. The historical facts of women deacons are well known. They ministered in different ways in different places during differing eras. In 2016, the International Union of Superiors General asked Pope Francis why, given that so many women were already performing diaconal ministry, women could not be ordained as deacons today. Since then, two commissions presented private reports to the pope.

The Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod on Synodality reports: “Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?” What are the arguments for and against women ordained as deacons? What will happen in October? .”

For more information, and to register to attend, go here.







30 responses to “Zagano lecture on Women Deacons and The Synod”

  1. Chuck Middendorf Avatar
    Chuck Middendorf

    Speaking of women deacons, I’ve just learned about this initiative: St. Phoebe Day celebrations on Sunday, September 3rd.

    I’ve never heard of it before. It seems to be gaining steam in our archdiocese with pastors inviting women to give the homi…errrr… reflection, scheduling mostly women ministers, music by women composers, etc.

    The big question seems to be: celebrate it on Sunday the 3rd which is a holiday weekend, or move it a week later when more people will be at Mass?

  2. Dr.Cajetan Coelho Avatar
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho

    Diakonia is a beautiful opportunity to serve. It offers meaning to the servant and to the served.

  3. Adam Ziccardi Avatar
    Adam Ziccardi

    Thank you for sharing this info, I just found your website.
    I know the discussion is merely to ask, “is it possible?” but overall it seems suspect to me.

    It might just be my experience, but the parishes with the most women on parish council tend to be the most elderly and political, while the traditionalist parishes with no to very few women in the hierarchy are actually full of women who take lots of leadership in leading prayer groups, cookouts, family resources, etc, and do it all thanklessly. I’m inclined to think the latter produces more saints, considering the fact that I, as a man, regard some of my greatest spiritual role models to be women of this sort.

    In my historic understanding, the male diaconate was restored in order to bring about greater organization to responsibilities in the church, in order to facilitate greater service- if there are men who take pride in their office, then that’s their fault and not the fault of the creation of the office.
    However, the advocacy for an official women diaconate seems to be out of a cry for “why not us too, so we can be recognized before men and have fancy titles?” Of course there are women deacon saints recognized in the canon, but their sainthood is independent of our political structure.

    If there’s a way to formalize women’s leadership as deacons, then great- the more service the better. However, offices are meant for increased responsibilities, and recognition is for saints who have passed onto heaven- the women who serve the most tend to ask for recognition the least, and are thus saints. Any diaconate would exist primarily to formalize an increase in duties (best case), and avoid any impression of being a proud political merit badge to the parish council president (worst case.) That’s why I’m suspicious of advocacy for creating the female diaconate.

    Please don’t take anything personally, I’m young and sharing my insights, and I’m using my name too.

  4. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
    Fr. Anthony Forte

    What never existed cannot be restored. The office deaconess was not ordination or a participation in holy orders. Despite its name, it was a limited ministry for the service to woman required by modesty and had no liturgical function equivalent to the deacon.

    What are the arguments against women ordained as deacon? It is the unity of the sacrament of holy orders which our Lord himself limited to men. This whole push for women’s ordination, whether as priests or deacons, is based on the denial of the proper distinctions between men and women in God’s order of creation; the erasure of women qua women. Men and women are equal in dignity but distinct in nature.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      “The office deaconess was not ordination or a participation in holy orders. Despite its name, it was a limited ministry for the service to woman required by modesty and had no liturgical function equivalent to the deacon.”

      That’s a conclusion, not a magisterially closed argument.

    2. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      Clearly you have never read Dr Gary Macy’s book on the subject (“The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West”). The evidence shows quite clearly, without any shadow of doubt, that the Church made use of ordained women ministers in the early centuries of its life, so to talk about what never existed is inaccurate.

      1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        One should not confuse disagreement with ignorance. As for Dr. Macy, he is playing games with words. He himself clearly show and acknowledges that the word “ordain” had a different meaning in the first millennium than it does now. The installation of women into various offices did not have the same character as the sacramental ordination into holy orders, even it then used the same word as is used today for the sacrament. He also argues from silence and speculation, adding many assumptions that go beyond the historical evidence.

  5. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    We don’t live in the first millennium, although many across all religions seem intent on dragging us back there.
    Some may find the news that women can vote and hold public office and even (gasp!) own businesses shocking. Of course none of this was possible in the first millennium. Men could abuse their wives and these last had no recourse. I could go on. Ah, the privileges of the patriarchy, right?
    And it was worse than that: slavery and class distinctions held fast in the first millennium. This is why Paul’s words, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free” were so shocking and liberating.
    Wanna go back? Really? Or will the Church finally catch up with the spirit and liberate itself and recognize women for its own good?

    1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
      Fr. Anthony Forte

      The all-male priesthood in the Old Testament was by divine institution and contrary to the surrounding nations. Likewise, Jesus chose only men to be apostles. Would you have us believe that this was unjust, another example of misogyny? It has also been the constant and universal teaching of the Church that the sacrament of Holy Orders, following the example of Jesus Christ, is limited to men. Are you denying the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium? Are we to follow the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ or the standards of the world; the Spirt of God or the spirit of the world?

  6. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    Well, Jesus chose twelve Jewish men, and yet here we are, sharing communion with the whole non-Jewish world. Against Jesus’ teaching, by your logic.
    Women play major roles throughout the New Testament and indeed are often in advance of even the 12 in terms of receiving and understanding Christ’s message.
    As far as the infallibility of the Magisterium…I’ve read Dante. Let’s just say mistakes have been made.
    In any case, Christ’s teachings always make sense and prove helpful and true even if they can seem initially provocative. In other words, we don’t follow Christ without reason ‘just because He says so’. The same should hold true for Church teachings. I’ve yet to hear explained WHY women are excluded from the Diaconate or the Priesthood. There must be something about them that is inherently disqualifying. Can you articulate what that is? There must be some inherent inadequacy, right? What is it?:

    People live and form their ideas within the horizon of their lived historical period. My understanding of Christianity holds that it has a liberating effect on societies within history. I think it’s a good thing that slavery has been outlawed and that women have come to have rights along with men. I think this marks spiritual progress. So yes, the Spirit of God can and does work within the world.
    I try to be careful about stating that I know what the Spirit of God wants when engaging in a discussion. And dismissing another viewpoint because “I speak for God.”

    1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
      Fr. Anthony Forte

      I do not claim that “I” speak for God but that God speaks through his church. The action of Jesus in selecting only men to be apostles—as God only called men to be priests in the Old Testament—and the constant teaching of the Church in this regard are clear. We cannot just ignore them because they do not fit one’s idea of what is right. Theology has been called faith seeking reason. We first accept what we have received in faith then seek to understand it. We do not build a faith on what one first understands and agrees with. If so, we would never accept the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist and a host of other Christian dogmas. The latter approach produces not faith but mere opinion, opinion that is not binding and becomes the subject of debate among believers.

      Likewise, the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium is a hallmark of the Church. If we do not accept it the Church ceases to be the Church. What is the point of claiming to be Catholic if one rejects what the Catholic Church teaches? And why attempt to force beliefs that are contrary to church teaching on those who do hold to Catholic teachings?

      1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        Note: that should have been “faith seeking understanding.”

  7. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    Well, again, Christ chose Jewish men as apostles. And yet the Church has allowed non Jewish born Christians to serve as priests since the days of Peter and Paul, after some discussion between the two.

    One can’t dismiss the fact that Jesus chose Jews as apostles while upholding the fact that he chose men in order to claim that only one descriptor, maleness, really matters. To be consistent, one would have to claim that only Jewish men are ordained by Christ to be priests. Or, one would have to come to a more reasonable conclusion about Christ’s choice for his disciples that took the historical moment into account.

    And then what to make of Paul’s words, “neither male nor female, slave nor free, Greek nor Jew”? The Church seems to be saying, ‘well, two out of three ain’t bad!’. Tell it to our sisters.

    Paul’s words were–and are–radically counter cultural for his age. They undermined worldly understanding of status and prestige in order to advocate for a Christian recognition of worth based on faith and the Gospel. From now on a whole new system of values would take pre-eminence among believers. Obviously, the transition has been long within the Church and society. My point is that it’s…infuriating…to see secular society far outstrip the Church on the basic and obvious point about recognizing women as equal partners in matters both spiritual and everyday.

    1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
      Fr. Anthony Forte

      Your analogy is fallacious. Jesus started his ministry within a Jewish context but he clearly stated that his mission would spread beyond the Jewish world and gave the Apostles the mandate to do so. As it spread non-Jews were treated as equal to the Jews. As Paul stated, there is no distinction. All of the original apostles were Jews because all of his original disciples were Jews.

      There were, however, women among our Lord’s disciples, some with prominent roles. Yet none of these were chosen to be apostles. Jesus made a conscious decision to limit the apostleship to men even with the presence of women among his disciples, just as God had limited the priesthood in the Old Testament to men.

      As to Paul’s call for equality between men and women, he also stated that women should keep silent in the churches. There is no contradiction between equality and distinctions in roles. Men and women are both created by God and share in the same dignity, yet they have distinct roles in the order of creation. The modern world’s attempt to erase these distinctions is not based notions of equality but a rejection of God’s purpose in making man male and female. Rather than showing respect for women, the modern world seeks to erase erase their value as women, seeing value only in male roles.

      Again, the constant and universal teaching of the Church has been that Holy Orders are reserved to men. As Catholics we must accept the binding and infallible nature of Sacred Tradition. If this is not respected then the Church looses any and all authority to teach and is reduced to a theological debating society.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        The equivocal dimensions of “distinct” is doing a lot of work for that argument there, and that is likely a reason many people won’t necessarily find it as *dispositively* persuasive as you may think they ought.

  8. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    The link between the ordained deacon and the priesthood cannot be discounted in terms of both, in differing degrees, are “open only to men “as a sign of Christ the Bridegroom of His Church with is His bride, the souls of the baptized, the Church.
    In the Mass, only a priest or a deacon may read the Gospel because it contains the very Words of Christ who Himself is the Word of God incarnate. Within the sacrament of Holy Orders, the risen Christ, Head of the Church, is made sacramentally present in the proclamation of the Gospel within the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Of course this doesn’t mean in other devotions or para-liturgies a woman could not read the Gospel. Within the Mass, the Gospel proclamation takes on what Pope Francis describes the priesthood as a sign of Christ the Bridegroom.
    This is from CNS in 2013: “Francis reaffirmed Catholic teaching on male priesthood in his first apostolic exhortation, “ Evangelii Gaudium,” in November of 2013, while calling for a broader application of the “feminine genius” in Church life.
    “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion,” he said, “but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.”
    “Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.”
    However, this equal dignity cannot be equated with “sacramental power,” he said, quoting Bl. John Paul II’s words that priesthood falls “in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness.””

  9. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    So do priests all have to Jewish, applying the same logic? And I find it interesting that the unfolding understanding of doctrine recognised by the church stops short when it comes to the role of women, which is always defined by men according to the mores of current society.

    1. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      Odd question, those limited number of men God and bishops call to the priesthood must be fully initiated Catholics without canonical impediment(s).

      1. Alan Johnson Avatar
        Alan Johnson

        Not odd at all. Men are ordained because Jesus called only men.
        Using precisely the same logic he also only called Jews.
        Therefore ……

  10. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    “The modern world’s attempt to erase these distinctions is not based notions of equality but a rejection of God’s purpose in making man male and female. ”

    Making man male and female…??? This may have said more than Fr. Anthony realizes. But of course we’re all writing in the moment, and sometimes don’t parse our own words as well as we might wish. I often mis speak or write poorly on the internet, especially before having coffee or when I’m in a rush.

    Paul was precisely rejecting ‘the world’s’ system of values when he stated that the rich and poor, free and slave and all the rest are welcome to enter into a relationship with Christ and the Church. And in fact Christ always portrayed the poor, the humble, the outsider according to the world’s system of prestige, to be often closest to Him. My reading is that the Church unconsciously adopted the worldly set of distinctions that existed between men and women when it established its rules concerning, for example, women remaining silent in Church. By the way, that’s changed. So change is possible.
    The first millennium assumed the earth was the center of the universe. We all know how that played out when Galileo came along. In fact the Magisterium changes, and it’s a good thing.

    And yes, I agree with Karl’s comment above about the word “distinct”.

    1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
      Fr. Anthony Forte

      I was using the term “man” in the generic sense of human being, as it is understood in standard English. But, of course, you knew that.

      Yes, all are welcome to enter into a relationship with Christ and the Church, but one does not need to be ordained to do that. Otherwise all of the laity would be excluded.

      In reserving Holy Orders to men the Church was following the example of Jesus Christ. So, for your position to hold, you must say that Christ himself unconsciously adopted the worldly set of distinctions, as well as they being mandated by God for the priesthood in the Old Testament.

  11. Fr. Philip Sandstrom Avatar
    Fr. Philip Sandstrom

    It seems incomprehensible to me that almost never in discussions of the topics concerning
    male & female roles even misunderstanding St Paul, that the proper distinction which agrees that “equality” and “identical” are not cognate words, but do establish that they do not make for
    “sameness’ but rather for a ‘differentiation’ that is more than ‘superficial’. Certainly our ‘equality’ of value before the Lord insisted on by St Paul does not deny what other gifts, as Paul indicates in lists of the ‘gifts in the Spirit’ making up the Body of Christ within the Church as the
    Bride of the Lord.

  12. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    “I was using the term “man” in the generic sense of human being, as it is understood in standard English. ”

    Yes. I’m going to suggest that if we dig down into the assumptions contained in all that, we’ll begin to get into how the Church might move forward. Of course, this isn’t merely a matter of changing how we speak , or playing ‘gotcha!. I know that Father Forte has deep respect for women in his parish and everywhere. I’m sure he has women parishioners who love him dearly. That’s not the issue.
    We know that women aren’t a subset of humanity. Today we honor the Coronation of Mary as the Queen of heaven and earth.
    Enough said.

    1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
      Fr. Anthony Forte

      There are assumptions and there are false assumptions, e.g. that the generic use of “man” implies a inferiority of women and excludes women, rather than being the original meaning of the word, derived from the German “mann” which had only the generic meaning. I find this suggestion offensive, particularly when the interlocutor knows quite well that that was not the intention of the speaker, being dishonest and manipulative. So-called inclusive language is polemical rather than inclusive, implying an injustice towards women that I do not accept, which is why I do not use it.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Ah, perhaps it is meet, if not just, that we’re having a dispute over inclusive usage in the final week of comments on this blog.

        FWIW: as not all uses of “non-inclusive” language are polemical, likewise not all uses of “inclusive” language are polemical – and assuming they are is a reactive polemic itself.

        We live in a time where usage on the ground, as it were, in this regard is quite broad and coexisting: it’s not settled to either polemical pole. If it’s not the job of the Church to speed up shifts in usage, it’s likewise not the job of the Church to decree prematurely that it’s never going to happen within its garden walls.


      2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        PS: Even NPR broadcasting people in Boston still use “man” in its general sense (alongside “inclusive usage”). It’s not anywhere near archaic yet – but it is also capable of being used polemically.

      3. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        I am sad to see the comment section leaving Pray Tell. It is one of the few places that a true dialogue can occur between the two sides of the church. Despite all fine rhetoric about dialogue and inclusivity, most blogs are exclusive echo chambers for one view or the other. Pray Tell, although not always perfect, has been one of the few exceptions. It will be diminished without the comments and they will be missed. If the Church is going to move forward, the two sides will need to learn to each other rather than just about each other.

  13. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    I agree that it is very disappointing to see the plug being pulled on the comments of forum readers. I will probably be among those who will stop coming to Pray Tell as a result. I am grateful to Fr. Anthony for the gift of this forum and its many comments over so many years.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur


      Also, while this is not an American blog, and whil there is plenty of online discussion & commenting presence of conservatively/traditionally inclined American Catholics, there is not so much left online for the rest of American Catholicism. It represents another withdrawal from the online world that will skew that world more in a direction away

    2. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      This is sad. I have learned so much here from all sides of the debates. Both theory and practice, if I might put it that way.
      My life as an RC church musician will be so much the poorer without these civilised, charity-filled and illuminating discussions.
      Thank you Fr Anthony for it.

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