Pope Francis on Tuesday appointed Hofstra University professor Phyllis Zagano to serve on a 12-person panel to study allowing women to serve as deacons — a position that would let them, like male deacons, perform some of the same duties as priests.
Zagano, a religious scholar and leading proponent for female deacons, was the only American appointed to the commission and is one of six women named to the group. She is senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor in Hofstra’s Department of Religion.
“I am honored that the Holy Father has included me among the scholars who will study anew the question of restoring women to the Diaconate in the Catholic churches,” Zagano said. Her book, “Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church,” was published in 2000, and she is author or editor of 19 other books on religious studies.
The Vatican announced Tuesday that Francis, “after intense prayer and mature reflection,” established the “Commission of Study on the Diaconate of Women.” The group includes priests, nuns and professors who have a variety of theological perspectives.
John Teehan, chairman of Hofstra’s religion department, said, “Phyllis Zagano is one of the leading scholars in the world today on the subject of women in the Diaconate. Her appointment to the Vatican committee is a testimony to not only her work and her dedication to this issue, but also to the pope’s commitment to a serious and open evaluation of the role of women in the church. It is an exciting development.”
The announcement came three months after the pope told a May gathering of 900 leaders of orders of religious sisters from around the world that he would create a commission to look at the question of allowing women deacons.
At that gathering in Rome, Francis was asked during a question-and-answer session about the church’s exclusion of women as deacons. He responded, “Constituting an official commission that might study the question? I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”
In the Catholic Church, deacons can baptize people, officiate at weddings and preach at Masses. They cannot celebrate or preside over Masses, hear confession, or administer last rites, as priests do. Unlike priests, who take a vow of celibacy, deacons can marry.
While the commission might open the door to change, some analysts have said it is too early to conclude that Francis will permit female deacons, and have noted that the church has resisted the move in the past.
On Tuesday, Zagano, 68, said in an interview that she has “no idea” if the commission will lead to female deacons in the church and that she does not want to prejudge the work of the panel and its conclusions.
Church historians, including Zagano, say deacons, including women, were common in the early Christian church, though the position of deacon was largely phased out more than 800 years ago. It was restored in the 1960s as part of the Vatican II reforms, but only for men.
“The most recent study document on the question of restoring women to the diaconate states that the decision is up to the ‘ministry of discernment that the Lord has left his church,’ ” Zagano said. “My hope is that the results of the study will be a decision that will enable the church to speak more forcefully to the world about the dignity and place of women.”
Zagano, who joined Hofstra in 2002, has seen her work translated into Bahasa Indonesian, Czech, Italian and Spanish. She wrote a twice-monthly column that was nationally syndicated by the Religion News Service until 2010; the column, “Just Catholic,” now appears in the National Catholic Reporter and other journals around the world.
She received her bachelor’s degree from Marymount College in Tarrytown; master’s degrees from Boston University, Long Island University and St. John’s University; and doctorate from Stony Brook University.