What happened at the synod today? Review for us just what Archbishop Durocher said.

zagano_headshot (1)Archbishop Durocher commented on No. 29 in the Synod document—the place of women in the Church. He made two very important and interrelated comments: 1) women should be included in Church governance; 2) women should be restored to the ordained diaconate. As a matter of fact, the only persons who can share governance or jurisdiction in the church are clerics, and the ordinary way of entering the clerical state is by ordination to the diaconate.

Whas this unexpected, or did anyone see this coming?

There is a lot of talk about women deacons lately, especially since Pope Francis has reiterated the ban on women priests. History tells us women were ordained deacons in the West to the 12th Century—and women are still ordained to the diaconate in places in the East today. There is no doctrine against women deacons.

Have you learned what the reaction was to his words?

Certainly the FaceBook posts, Tweets, and comments and questions I have received directly have been overwhelmingly positive. There will always be naysayers—but they get dangerously close to arguing that women cannot image Christ—that women are not made in the image and likeness of God. Reading the Baltimore Catechism should stop that kind of nonsense.

How significant is this? Rocco Palmo cautioned that at the beginning people throw mud at the wall but we should wait to see what sticks. Do you think something will stick here?

The concept of restoring women to the ordained diaconate has been around for a long time—in the 1987 Synod Cipriano Vagaggini was asked for an intervention on the topic. The question will stick. I think the obvious solution—restore women to the ordained diaconate—will cause some upsetment even among the bishops unless and until they realize that Pope Francis’ efforts to restore their own control over their own dioceses would allow them to ordain women deacons if they needed them, but would not require them to do so.

So is it still an open question whether women may be ordained deacons?

It is not really an “open” question in the sense that it has been proved by historical, epigraphical and literary evidence that women have been ordained, and by theologians and historians of liturgy that women may be so ordained again. As I said earlier, if the question of women priests is closed, then no one should complain about returning to this ancient tradition of the churches—east and west.

Do you have any sense how Pope Francis might react to Bishop Durocher’s statement? Francis has been criticized for his rather stereotypical understanding of gender roles, and some even say this is one of his blind spots, but others point to his statements about a greater leadership role for women in the Church.

Pope Francis often seems to have his foot in his mouth when he speaks about women—in the U.S. recently he made a mother-in-law “joke” and suggested that the mother of a 30-something son get him out of the house by refusing to iron his shirts—implying that he should get another woman to do so. However, he also told the bishops—I believe in Philadelphia—that the Holy Spirit was not to be denied. As a matter of fact, he cannot have it both ways: if he wants women in leadership (i.e. jurisdiction and governance) then he must see to it that they are ordained. Women deacons could become cardinal deacons—and cardinal deacons can head dicasteries—the major Curia offices. He has asked for a “more incisive role” for women in the church. Women deacons are the way.

What do you hope happens next?

The church moves slowly, but there are two steps to the process of restoring women to the diaconate. If Pope Francis, either on his own or in response to the request of a bishops’ conference, returns the church to the already established practice of sacramentally ordaining women as deacons, that would allow for women deacons. But the second step would be for individual bishops to decide they need women deacons in their dioceses. I would think the bishops of North American mission territories—northwest Canada, Alaska, certain states of the Far West and Deep South—would jump at the idea. Similarly, densely populated areas suffering a shortage of priests—areas that already have a flourishing diaconate—would easily see the advantage of women deacons.

Anything else you want to say?

If I may add one thing, I was invited to debate the question of women deacons at the Philadelphia Seminary of St. Charles Borromeo last November. One of the objections of my opponent—former member of the International Theological Commission Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT—was that women deacons of history only ministered to other women. The fact of the matter is that a bishop can today decide whether he wants to train, ordain and give faculties to the many women now ministering—to women and to men—or he can decide not to. The question is about how the bishop maintains and oversees the ministry in his diocese. And as far as deacons—male or female—are concerns, they are ordained not unto the priesthood but unto the ministry.


Phyllis Zagano, Ph.D. is senior research associate-in-residence at Hfostra University, Hempstead, NY, where she continues her research on women in ministry, specifically women deacons. She is author of many books and articles on the topic, most recently: In the Image of Christ: Essays on Being Catholic and Female, and the ground-breaking Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.


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