Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian


A diverse Church, especially one with women deacons, is like a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Such was the analogy theologian Phyllis Zagano made in her presentation on the female diaconate. Zagano, who served on the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women, addressed approximately 300 people at Immaculate Conception Parish, Hampton, Friday, Sept. 13 as part of its Bishop Keane Institute. She is a senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University in New York.

For nearly two millennia, the Catholic Church has grappled with the issue of ordaining women deacons. In the 2011 book “Women Deacons Past, Present and Future,” which Zagano co-authored with Gary Macy and William Ditewig, Macy pointed to the Bible, documents, written history, councils and headstones in graveyards as evidence that there were female deacons in the early centuries of Christianity.

Proof of existence

He wrote that the first references to women as deacons are in two biblical passages: in the Letter to the Romans in which the apostle Paul calls “our sister Phoebe” a deacon and in First Timothy which outlines the traits of female and male deacons. As further proof, there are letters from clerics to deaconesses such as those from St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, around 400 A.D and Pope Gregory II between 715 and 730 A.D.

Macy also wrote that female deacons “were much more prevalent” in the Eastern Church than the Western (aka, Latin). (Catholic News Service defines the Eastern Catholic churches as those “with origins in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa that have their own distinctive liturgical and legal systems” and “have the same dignity, rights and obligations of the Latin Church.”)

Zagano said the practice of having women deacons in the early Church was widespread and their duties varied. In some regions, deaconesses helped with immersion baptisms of women because of decorum; and when a woman went to the bishop with a claim of spousal abuse, a woman deacon was responsible for examining the bruises on the woman’s body and informing the bishop.


History shows that having a female diaconate was controversial even in the early Church. For example, Macy wrote, the Council of Nimes in 394 and the First and Second Councils of Orange held in 441 and 529 sought to abolish the office of the female diaconate.

In her presentation, Zagano said that “gradually over the centuries, we have bishops and popes and other people screaming that they (women) can’t do it” because women were largely seen as “dirty” due to menstruation and therefore were viewed unfit to handle sacred vessels and vestments and to stand behind the altar.

Macy wrote that women deacons in the Eastern Church were no longer ordained in the 11th century, and the 12th century “contains the last reference to a woman deacon” in the Western Church. Zagano said “eventually” the only person who could be ordained as a deacon in the western Church was in formation to become a priest.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) restored the permanent male diaconate as a separate vocation from priesthood. (Transitional deacons are in formation to be priests; permanent deacons will remain deacons.) Likewise, if the female diaconate is reinstituted, women will be ordained as permanent deacons and therefore not in line for priesthood.

Naysayers suggest that women don’t need to be ordained deacons because they are “already doing everything a deacon does,” Zagano said. While that is true for social services and parish administration, deacons are able to baptize, witness marriages, conduct wake and funeral services, and preach homilies at Mass unless a religious superior or bishop has not granted that right.

Pope has issue studied

In August 2016, in response to a request of the International Union of Superiors General (IUSG), Pope Francis established a commission to study the diaconate of women on which six priests, four laywomen and two women religious served. They completed their work in 2018, and last May, Pope Francis delivered an amended version of their report to ISUG president Maltese Sister Carmen Sammut who leads the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. He also offered to provide, upon request, the written personal opinions of commission members.

According to translated comments of his May 10 audience with 850 IUSG members in Rome, Pope Francis said the commission was unable to agree on some points regarding the history of the female diaconate, so the document he gave Sister Carmen was “the result” of what they agreed upon. The National Catholic Reporter reported later that day that the commission members will continue their studies on the issue individually, and in his address, Pope Francis said he would call the commission back “shortly” to “see what they have moved forward on.”

“This needs to be studied because I cannot issue a sacramental decree without a theological, historical basis,” the pope said at the ISUG meeting.

‘Driven by needs, not wants’

Zagano said a restoration of the female diaconate must be driven by the “needs, not the wants, of the Church.” For example, due to the dwindling number of priests, deacons are needed across the world to proclaim the Gospel and bring sacraments to Catholics in areas where priests are overburdened.

She added that “a vested woman proclaiming the Gospel in St. Peter’s” would be “saying something very serious about the value of the woman,” and that a female diaconate would “show the world that the Church believes what it teaches, that women are made in the image and likeness of God.”

There is evidence that change might be coming regarding the role of women in the Church. In October 2015 Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher urged the Synod of Bishops on the Family to consider allowing women to serve as deacons.

The 2018 Youth Synod addressed sexual discrimination and maintained that there should be “a female presence in ecclesial bodies at all levels” because, as Zagano quoted from its document, “the absence of the feminine voice impoverishes today in the Church’s journey” and “the vocations to the permanent deaconate call for greater attention because the full potential of its resource is meant to be tapped.”

If Pope Francis decides to allow a female diaconate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and bishop conferences worldwide would decide — as they did when the permanent diaconate for men was reinstituted — whether to adopt the practice for their countries. Each diocesan bishop would decide if he would include it in his diocese.