Religious scholar Phyllis Zagano’s longtime hope of women becoming deacons in the Catholic Church may have its best chance in centuries of becoming reality.
Zagano, a Hofstra University professor, arrived in Rome on Saturday, eager to start her work on a 12-member commission appointed by Pope Francis to examine the question of opening the all-male diaconate to women.
For several days, Zagano will stay in the same residence where the pontiff lives as she embarks on a mission that likely will last years.
Permitting women deacons — a practice that ended centuries ago — would be a historic event for the church, experts say.
Proponents say it would give greater equality to women, help fill the gap left by a priest shortage and energize an institution that has lost adherents in the United States and elsewhere.
Critics, however, warn that such a move could open the door to women in the priesthood, a step traditional Catholics adamantly oppose.
Deacons perform some of the same functions as priests, such as baptizing people, officiating at weddings and reading the Gospel and preaching at Mass. They cannot hear confession, administer last rites or preside over Mass, as priests do. Unlike priests, who take a vow of celibacy, deacons can marry.
“Everybody is excited about the discussion. And I’m excited about the discussion,” said Zagano, who was appointed by the pope in August. “It’s a discussion that needs to go on in the church worldwide.”
Zagano is spending the next few days in Rome, and on Thanksgiving will move into Santa Marta, the Vatican residence where Francis opted to live instead of the nearby palatial apartment previous popes occupied. Two days of initial meetings with the commission, which includes priests, nuns and professors, will follow.
Santa Marta is where cardinals from around the world stay when they travel to Rome to select a new pope. Zagano joked that she has no idea whether she will bump into the pope in Santa Marta’s cafeteria, where he typically eats with Vatican workers.
Zagano, 69, is a leading authority on women deacons, a topic she has written several books about. She is a graduate of Sacred Heart Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Hempstead, and holds a doctorate from Stony Brook University. She also has taught at Fordham and Boston universities, won two Fulbright fellowships and writes a column for The National Catholic Reporter called “Just Catholic.”
“It’s terrific that she was appointed to the commission,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst at The National Catholic Reporter and author of “Inside the Vatican.” “She was the obvious American choice. She’s very knowledgeable. She’s done a lot of research and work in this area. And she’s got very strong views.”
Zagano has argued for years in books, in the classroom and on the international lecture circuit that the early Christian church had women deacons, and the time has come to restore them to that role.
“It’s nothing new, but it’s something I think would be of great assistance to the people of God,” she said. “Does the church need ordained women? I say it does.”
She said she was surprised the morning of Aug. 2 when she arrived at her office at Hofstra, checked her email and found a long list of congratulatory messages. Puzzled, she scrolled until she found the news release, in Italian, announcing the commission — “and the last thing is my name.”
It wasn’t a total shock. She had been in touch with the international group of leaders of women’s religious orders that had posed a question about women deacons to Francis at a gathering of 900 nuns in Rome in May. That prompted the pontiff to say he would create the commission.
The day its members were announced, she learned from the nuns’ group — the International Union of Superiors General — that they had nominated her.
Zagano will keep her job at Hofstra, doing commission work when she can, including traveling to Rome periodically for meetings with fellow members. She’s uncertain what the commission will recommend or what the pope will ultimately decide.
“I think it will be an objective look at the question of women in the diaconate in the Catholic Church,” Zagano said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Best chance in 800 years?
Some experts believe the commission represents the greatest chance since medieval times that women will be restored to the diaconate.
“This is the best possibility we’ve had in centuries, since they stopped ordaining women deacons” about 800 years ago, said Santa Clara University theology professor Gary Macy, author of “The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination.”
Francis is “seriously open to the question,” said Macy, who also co-authored a book on women deacons with Zagano. “Otherwise, he would not have appointed people to the commission who are in favor of ordaining women deacons.”
In the early church, women deacons were needed for some obvious reasons: full-immersion baptisms were done in the nude, so women deacons were needed to baptize women catechumens, or converts to Christianity, said Deacon William Ditewig, former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The diaconate was so strong that more than a dozen popes were deacons who never served as priests — they went straight from deacon to pontiff, Zagano said.
Eventually female deacons were phased out, and the diaconate for men was turned into a transitional step in the process of becoming a priest. But with the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, the permanent diaconate for men was restored, partly as a way to complement the work of priests by having deacons who live in the community and do “hands-on” work, such as ministry in prisons and hospitals, Ditewig said.
It was in the United States where the diaconate took off, as the ranks of priests dwindled. The number of permanent deacons worldwide rose from 309 in 1970 to about 42,000 today, including 18,000 in the United States, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
At the same time, the number of American priests dropped from about 58,600 in 1970 to 37,600 today.
While Zagano believes the numbers support her argument, it’s unclear whether a majority of the commission will agree with her.
The panel comprises six men and six women: six priests, four laywomen and two nuns. They will travel from Madrid; Bonn, Germany; Florence, Italy; Brussels; Vienna; and Hempstead — where Zagano works. Others live in Rome.
While some members have previously expressed openness to the idea of women deacons, others have questioned it. Zagano called them “a very interesting group of people; very erudite.”
Experts divided on issue
Some experts strongly doubt Francis or pontiffs to follow will approve women deacons.
“It seems unlikely, because the deacons are part of the threefold ministry” that also includes priests and bishops, said R.R. Reno, editor of the Manhattan-based First Things religious journal.
Francis himself in October ruled out permitting women to serve as priests, after a long line of pontiffs with the same opinion.
Reno added that Francis may also oppose the idea of women deacons because he has an anticlerical streak in general and would look askance at ordaining women as deacons.
Creating a commission to look at the issue may be Francis’ way of politely discarding the notion, Reno said. “Anybody that’s been a college professor like I have says one way to kill an idea is to create a committee.”
Reno and Dr. Edward Peters, professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, believe opening the diaconate to women would open the door to the priesthood.
“I do not think the Catholic Church is headed for a female diaconate,” Peters said.
Zagano argues that there’s a clear difference between the priesthood and the diaconate.
“It could appear to the uninformed that women deacons mean women priests, and it just doesn’t,” she said. “It’s just a totally different vocation.”
She will have her work cut out for her on the commission if she hopes to convince the other members to support women deacons, said Reese of The National Catholic Reporter.
“The key will be to somehow explain theologically why you can have women deacons but not women priests, because that is what the conservatives are most concerned about, that this is simply the camel’s nose,” Reese said.
The commission’s work is likely to last at least several years, he said, and then its recommendation would wind its way through the Vatican and to the pope, who turns 80 on Dec. 17.
“I would be willing to bet it is not going to happen during this papacy,” Reese said. “But the groundwork may be set for it to happen in the next papacy, depending of course on who becomes pope.”
Confidence in Francis
Msgr. John Alesandro, a nationally recognized canon law expert who has served as the No. 2 official in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said Francis could come out in favor of the idea.
“He certainly has not dismissed it out of hand, that’s for sure, otherwise he wouldn’t create a commission,” Alesandro said.
Some women in the church are excited by the possibility of women deacons.
“I think it is a great idea,” said Sister Margaret Smyth, head of the Hispanic Apostolate on the North Fork. “All churches, all families, need a feminine dimension and a male dimension, because each side brings something different to it.”
“The majority of church people are very open to it,” Smyth said, “and they see the need for it because of the shortage of clergy.”
As Zagano heads to Rome, she’s filled with enthusiasm for what could be a triumphal capping of her life’s work.
She says she’s serene rather than anxious — confident that ultimately Francis’ wisdom will prevail.
“Whatever Pope Francis decides will be the right decision,” she said. “I’m convinced of that.”