Members of Pope Francis’s study commission on women deacons spoke publicly for the first time Tuesday, saying the pope has their report and expressing confidence that when the moment comes, he’ll make the right call.
“He will know the time to say something,” said Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University, who served on the commission.
In the meantime, Zagano suggested that rank and file Catholics also have a role to play in the discussions around the subject.
“It’s up to the Church to make noise,” she said, while also warning that “to delay a positive answer” on whether women can serve as deacons “is a negative answer.”
Zagano’s remarks came during a panel discussion on “The Future of Women Deacons: Views from the Papal Commission and the American Pews,” at Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture and live streamed by Salt and Light Media.
Panelists included commission members Zagano and Jesuit Father Bernard Pottier, a faculty member at the Institute D’Etudes Théologiques in Brussels, along with Sister Donna Ciangio, O.P., chancellor of the archdiocese of Newark and principal and founder of Church Leadership Consultation. Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Light and a long-time consultant to the Holy See Press Office, moderated the event.
The commission, which was established in August 2016 and consisted of twelve members - six women and six men - and was headed by then-archbishop, now Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria, has “turned in a report and the Holy Father has it,” Zagano said.
Their mandate was to take up the historical question as to whether there were, in fact, women deacons in the early Church.
“I have no promises for you,” she said, adding that commission members were limited as to what they could say about the report’s contents. Even so, both Zagano and Pottier implied that there was general consensus among the commission about both the historical evidence and on the role women deacons could play going forward.
“The Church will call forth what it needs,” Zagano insisted.
Both Zagano and Pottier discussed the historical evidence regarding women deacons, noting that for millennia, women were ordained in such a capacity. While acknowledging that there have been differing opinions as to the nature of the ordinations and whether one was considered “blessed” or “ordained,” they insisted that the terms have historically been used interchangeably.
Further, they recalled that there were specific liturgies for women deacons being ordained, with women and men serving different roles in their capacity as deacons.
Pottier said that over 800 books and scholarly articles have been written on this historical debate that amount to “various kinds of evidence of true ordination” of women deacons over a span of twelve centuries.
He went on to insist that this is a different question than that of women priests, saying “it is true” that women have never been ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
The role of the permanent diaconate was restored during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and the number of deacons since that time has swelled to over 45,000 worldwide, with 18,000 in the U.S. alone.
Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have faced the question of women deacons, with neither signing off on it. Pottier observed that a 2002 report said it was “something the magisterium would have to decide,” referring to the Church’s teaching authority - leaving it an open question for Francis, hence the new commission.
Pottier said the commission under Francis has been able to shed “more and more evidence that it was so,” regarding the historical question of the role of women’s ordination of deacons.
Ciangio, representing a “people in the pew” perspective, offered a disclaimer that she could not speak for the 19,000 parishes across the United States, but recalled her experience of helping lead a study group exploring the question of women deacons based on a book by Zagano.
She said that she has repeatedly faced questions by Catholics over why women - who do the bulk of teaching - are unable to preach.
Reflecting on her childhood, when women were first granted the ability to serve as Eucharistic ministers, “I believed anything in the Church was possible for women,” she said.
“I’m forever open, hopeful, and hoping more will happen,” she continued.
Given the ongoing fallout from the clergy abuse crisis - where Catholics across the country have expressed a growing distrust in church leaders - all three panelists noted that the role of women’s leadership seems more timely than ever, but also expressed understanding as why responding to this issue for Francis may not be “on the top pile of his desk.”
Even so, Zagano said that in recent Church statements, including both the outcome document from this past fall’s Synod on Young People and the working document for next month’s Synod on the Amazon, there is strong language about women’s leadership that leaves her hopeful.
“This is not a question of power, it’s a question of collaboration,” Pottier challenged.
Ciangio said that as a member of the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, women have historically said that “we preach in different ways,” when asked why they don’t have formal preaching authority.
“That doesn’t satisfy me anymore,” she said.
During the question and answer period, efforts were made to expand the conversation beyond the role of women deacons.
When asked about women cardinals, Zagano remarked that in her view, it’s “easier to have a woman cardinal than a woman deacon,” as they are technically advisors to the pope and are not the rank of the hierarchy.
“Is it likely? I don’t think so. But,” she added, “it would be a game changer in saying to the world that women are equal.”
At the close of the event, an audience member interrupted pressing panelists to weigh in on women’s ordination to the priesthood. However, the panelists insisted it was unhelpful to try and conflate the topics of women’s ordination to the priesthood and the diaconate.
As recently as this summer, Francis said that the possibility of women’s ordination to the priesthood is a settled matter. He has yet, however, to formally weigh in on the diaconate.
Until then, all eyes are on Rome and eagerly awaiting word on what comes next.