Catholic Scholar Promotes Female Deacons During Talk
Message Aligns with SHU’s ‘All-inclusive’ Mission
There are encouraging signs that women eventually may have more significant roles in their parishes, according to Catholic scholar Phyllis Zagano, who discussed the possibility at Sacred Heart University recently.
Zagano is at the forefront of that potential change; she has been appointed to a papal commission set to meet in Rome later this year to address the topic.
She said restrictions that prevent women from serving as deacons or holding other significant roles in the Catholic Church reinforce that they are second-class citizens. “No matter how welcoming of women, parish ministries are incomplete and at odds with the needs of the modern church,” said Zagano, who is a lecturer on contemporary spirituality and women’s issues in the church.
Anthony Ciorra, interim vice president of Mission & Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart, introduced Zagano, noting that, at the University’s founding in the early 1960s, the Vatican Council fathers acknowledged the importance of women in the church and encouraged their participation. That acknowledgment aligns with Sacred Heart’s all-inclusive mission, he said.
Despite recent activism, the possibility of women as priests remains closed, Zagano said during her discussion. However, she said, the new papal commission is encouraging for those who want to see women hold roles in the Catholic Church.
The commission comprises six men (all priests) and six women, and all are published scholars, she said. Though she is unsure what the outcome of their meeting will be, she said if the question of women as deacons had been left to the International Theological Commission, which was created in 1967, “it would have gone unanswered, as it has for the past 20 years.”
A key argument against women as deacons is that women do not match Christ’s image, said Zagano. “But that’s contrary to the understanding that all people are made in the image of Christ,” she said.
She pointed out that there is documented evidence in history that women have been ordained as deacons, and that ordination rites of male and female deacons have been identical. Female deacons also have been acknowledged with the title “Deaconess.”
Zagano also noted ways in which women deacons would enhance parish life. New annulment procedures present the need for women deacons as single judges and clerics, she said. Their presence in remote areas, to perform baptisms and witness marriages, also would be key, particularly where a priest may only visit once or twice a year. Moreover, a woman living her life as a deacon would bring new perspective to a parish, with women being the face of the community’s everyday life and symbols of charity, Zagano suggested. Women wishing to be served by women would receive a degree of justice as well, she said.
Zagano holds a bachelor’s degree from Marymount College, a doctorate from the State University of New York Stony Brook and three master’s degrees—in communications from Boston University, literature from Long Island University and theology from St. John’s University. She is the author or editor of 20 books on religious studies, including Holy Saturday and Women and Catholicism, and she is the winner of two Fulbright awards.