Fulfilling a promise he made last May to an assembly of nuns, Pope Francis on Tuesday instituted a commission to study the possibility of female deacons in the Catholic Church, including a prominent American scholar who’s long been advocating for women to have this role.
The Vatican announced Tuesday the creation of a “Commission to Study the Women’s Diaconate,” a body that will include 13 members. It’ll be headed by Spanish Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, currently the secretary, meaning the number two official, of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Six of the remaining members are women: American professor Phyllis Zagano, Spanish Sister Nuria Calduch-Benages of the Missionary Daughters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Italian professors Francesca Coccini and Michelina Tenaci, Italian Sister Mary Malone of the Franciscan Sisters of Blessed Angela of Foligno, and German professor Marianne Schlosser.
The inclusion of Zagano, who writes a regular column for the National Catholic Reporter, suggests the pope is at least open to considering the arguments for ordaining female deacons, as she’s a long-time advocate on this issue, convinced it’d be a way of including women in the church’s governance and ministry.
Writing for Harvard’s Divinity school last year, she said that the current practice of not ordaining women deacons is a “merely ecclesiastical law,” meaning it’s a regulation, not a doctrine.
In an article titled “Ordain Catholic Women as Deacons” for the school’s summer edition of their biannual publication, Zagano also wrote that “given the many evidences of women deacons throughout history, the restoration of women to the diaconate seems to be something Francis could do easily.”
The Vatican’s Tuesday statement said the setting of the commission was in response to Francis’ expressed intention of creating such a body on May 12, when he said it’d be good to do so, especially to study the role “in the early times of the Church.”
Although the Bible speaks only of male priests- Jesus’ 12 apostles- there’s a female deacon mentioned, Phoebe, and for a long time it was an accepted practice, although there’s debate about whether those female deacons played the same roles as deacons do today, and also whether they were considered clergy.
When the permanent diaconate was instituted again in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, however, it was only applied for men.
The last time the Vatican issued a document on the female diaconate was in 2002, by its International Theological Commission.
The document was inconclusive, stating that male and female deacons had different roles in the early church, that priesthood and the diaconate are separate ministries, and that the issue of admitting women to the diaconate was something for the church’s “ministry of discernment” to decide.
Zagano is not the only voice on the commission in favor of female deacons.
Although less open about it, Italian Sister Mary Malone of the Franciscan Sisters of Blessed Angelina and rector of Rome’s Pontifical University Antonianum, has long spoken of the role of women in the Church, saying it’s unfair to dismiss the request for the diaconate because it might lead to female priesthood.
On his way back from Armenia last June, Francis was asked about the creation of this commission. He denied that his recent agreement to create a study body on the issue means the Church has “opened the door” to the idea, and said that more important than the “functions” women hold is the Church’s determination to hear their voice.
At the time, Francis expressed surprise at the magnitude of the reaction to his decision to create a commission to study the question after a recent meeting with the superiors of women’s religious orders from around the world.
“The next day, it was as if the Church had opened the door to women deacons, but that’s not true,” he said, saying its primary role will be to ascertain the role of female deacons in the early Church.
“I believe this theme has been studied a lot, and it won’t be difficult to shed light,” the pope said.
More important, Francis said, is making sure the voices of women are heard in the decision-making process.
“Women think in a different way than us men, and you can’t make a good or correct decision without hearing women,” he said.
The pontiff said he’s committed to trying to boost the role of women in the Vatican, but that effort is to some extent on hold awaiting the absorption of the Pontifical Council for the Laity into a new, larger department dedicated to laity, the family and life. Francis did, however, recently appoint a woman, veteran Spanish journalist Paloma Garcia Ovejero as his deputy press chief.
In its present form, deacons are allowed to administer two sacraments: baptism and marriage. They’re also able to preach homilies at Mass, deliver Communion, and impart many but not all the blessings in accord with the liturgical books.