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Pope Francis names panel to study ordaining women deacons

Pope Francis waves at the World Youth Day volunteers and organizers at Tauron Arena in Krakow, Poland, on July 31, 2016. Photo courtesy of Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Porzycki/via REUTERS *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WOMEN-DEACONS, originally transmitted on August 2, 2016.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Following through on a pledge he made to a group of nuns last May, Pope Francis has established a special commission to study whether the Catholic Church should take the historic step of ordaining women as deacons.

The Vatican announced Tuesday (Aug. 2) that the pontiff appointed seven men and six women to the panel, a move that quickly reignited the simmering debate about the role of women in the church.

American Phyllis Zagano, an acclaimed Catholic scholar who teaches at Hofstra University on Long Island and has championed the cause of women’s ordination as deacons. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Zagano

American Phyllis Zagano, an acclaimed Catholic scholar who teaches at Hofstra University on Long Island and has championed the cause of women’s ordination as deacons. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Zagano

The members of the panel include American Phyllis Zagano, an acclaimed Catholic scholar who teaches at Hofstra University on Long Island and has championed the cause of women’s ordination as deacons.

Another woman on the panel, Italian Sister Mary Melone of the Franciscan Sisters of Blessed Angelina and rector of Rome’s Pontifical University Antonianum, has been a champion of the role of women in the church, the Catholic news site Crux reported.

Crux said Melone has rejected the argument popular with many traditionalists that ordaining women as deacons would lead down a slippery slope to a female priesthood.

The new panel will be headed by a Spanish Jesuit, Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, currently second-in-command at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which serves as a guardian of orthodoxy.

“After intense prayer and mature reflection, Pope Francis has decided to institute the commission for the study of the diaconate of women,” the Vatican said in a statement.

In addition to Zagano, the panel includes a second American, the Rev. Robert Dodaro, president of the Augustinianum University in Rome, a priest widely viewed as a conservative.

Dodaro last year edited a book, “Remaining in the Truth of Christ,” which featured essays by five conservative cardinals who sought to push back against moves by the church — and by Francis — to adopt a more pastoral and conciliatory approach to divorcees, among other issues.

Francis first remarked in May that he was willing to consider a commission to study whether women should be deacons. The new panel will also examine the historical role of women in the early years of Christianity.

“There were women ordained as deacons in the early church. That is a historical fact,” Zagano wrote in a column for National Catholic Reporter in May.

“What they did, where they did it, and how they became deacons are all well-studied. The facts of history cannot be changed.”

Deacons are ordained ministers who can preach or preside over weddings and funerals but cannot celebrate Mass.

As recounted in the New Testament, the role of the deacon was created by the Apostles so that they could deploy ministers specifically dedicated to doing charitable works and thus free themselves to focus on preaching.

In the Catholic tradition, the role of deacon was eventually subsumed into the priesthood and hierarchy, until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s revived the diaconate as an ordained order open to “mature” men over 35, who can be married.

But many say that order should include women — who have never been ordained at any level in the Catholic Church — because women deacons are mentioned in early church sources. They also say ordaining women as deacons would not necessarily lead to overturning the ban on women priests.

The question has been the subject of previous study by Rome: a theological commission that advises the Vatican in 2002 published a report on women deacons but it drew no firm conclusions on whether they could be ordained or not.

It’s not clear whether anything will come of this new papal commission on deaconesses, or whether Francis would support an opening.

He has called for creativity in ministry but he has also warned against “clericalizing” women and lay people by proposing ordination of some sort as the answer for every problem.

And speaking to reporters in June, Francis bristled at the coverage of his pledge to create a commission, saying he had not made any decisions yet.

“We had heard that in the first centuries there were deaconesses,” Francis said. “One could study this and one could make a commission. Nothing more has been requested.”

Supporters say that women are poorly represented within the church and that appointing female deacons will give women the kind of influence in decision-making that they deserve.

“The commission to study the diaconate for women is an important step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history of honoring women’s leadership,” said the Women’s Ordination Conference in response to Tuesday’s news.

The WOC, which actively works for women’s ordination as priests and bishops, said it hopes the commission will create a “new reality” for women in the church, “one that models equality and inclusion.”

“Only when women are equally included in all ordination rites — as deacons, priests and bishops — and at all church decision-making tables, can we begin to restore our Gospel values of equality and justice.”

FutureChurch, an Ohio-based organization that has campaigned for female deacons for more than a decade, also welcomed the move.

“The establishment of this commission sets the Catholic Church on a new path for creating greater equality for women in the church,” said Russ Petrus, program director for FutureChurch. “This is a historic moment.”

The Rev. James Martin, author and editor-at-large of America magazine, described the decision as “amazing” and tweeted that the ordination of women “was an historical reality that must be fully recovered.”

“Some scoffed when Francis mentioned it,” Martin wrote. “The significance of the possibility of women deacons cannot be underestimated. An ordained ministry for women in the Catholic Church.”

The pope has talked about seeking a broader role for women in the church and in May told senior members of women’s religious orders he was willing to consider female deacons: “It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree.”

(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.

21 Comments

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  • 1 Timothy 3:12 – English Standard Version
    Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.

    What needs to be studied? This is what Christ taught.

  • “What needs to be studied? This is what Christ taught.”

    Right. There is no need to engage in the evil of enlightened rational thinking when we have a book claiming what some guy taught 2,000 years ago.

  • That “guy” walked on water…..was spit upon, scourged, and crucified, then “that guy” arose from the dead and was seen by over 500 witnesses, then, “that guy” ascended to Heaven, as His will all do, if we be

  • 2 Timothy 3:16 – New International Version

    All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

  • Notwithstanding arguments about 1st or 2nd Timothy, they are included in the Canon of Scripture by all Christian denominations and should be thus heeded. The argument from the bible regarding Deacons/Deaconesses is quite clear and quite sound, there should be no objection to women filling that role in any church.

  • McKenna intentionally omitted an important part of the Vatican statement. The pope wants a study of the female diaconate “IN THE EARLIEST TIMES OF THE CHURCH.” 3 of the members are scholars in this area, 6 are priests. The pope NEVER said he was willing to female deacons.

  • It’s interesting that the guy was special enough to have “walked on water,” “arose from the dead,” and “ascended to Heaven,” but never managed to convey even one snippet of factual information that rose above the general level of knowledge during his lifetime.

  • “ordaining women as deacons would lead down a slippery slope to a female priesthood.”

    Good.

  • He is God. He is more interested in getting you and others into aright relationship and Heaven with Him. That was His entire purpose for coming, so that you could get into His graces.

  • Timothy also says that a bishop should be a married man. So what? The Catholic church knows better than Scripture.

  • From what I remember of my theology studies 40 years ago, Jesus’ message of looking after one another. i.e, feed and clothe the poor, help those who have difficulty helping themselves, basically being kind to others to bring about a more just world–a world that is just for everyone. Jesus had women friends. He spoke to the woman at the well when men didn’t speak publicly to women. He revealed himself first to women after he rose from the dead. Do you not think that women play a major part in religion, in the world? I do. I also learned that while the message is everlasting, the way it is enacted is not static – it is active and changeable. Women should not only be deacons – they should be priests, bishops, cardinals, pope. I won’t see this but hopefully another generation will. Only then will women be seen as equal to men even if they are different than men.

  • More to the point, it has since been recognized by all churches, going back to the earliest councils of Christendom.

  • Not according to Paul. Paul spent 3 years with Jesus in Arabia. Paul was setting up the church. They do not want women deacons.

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