Vatican announces commission on women deacons
In a press release issued this morning, the Vatican announced that "after intense prayer and mature reflection," Pope Francis has established a “Commission of Study on the Diaconate of Women” and named twelve members to it, six of them women, including one American—Professor Phyllis Zagano, who teaches at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.
Professor Zagano is a widely published author on the subject of women deacons whose writings who have appeared in America.
Editor's note: This post was updated at 8:15 am to include a fuller analysis of the membership of the commission and context from Pope Francis' discussion leading up to this decision. We will continue to update this post as more information becomes available.
In addition to the 12 members, he appointed as president of the commission the Jesuit priest, Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, who is Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A full list of the members is included below.
The Vatican made the announcement today, Aug. 2, and recalled that during the meeting with participants of the Plenary Assembly of Religious Superiors on May 12, the pope had expressed the intention “to set up an official commission to study the question” of the Diaconate of Women, “especially regarding the first times periods of the church.”
RELATED: Phyllis Zagano talks to "America This Week" about the possibility of women deacons.
Five of the members teach at pontifical universities in Rome; four are members of the International Theological Commission. In addition to the commission's president, Archbishop Ladaria, two other members are Jesuits. They come from different countries: four are from Italy, two from the United States, and others from Rwanda, Spain, France, Germany, Austria and Belgium.*
The commission includes members with a variety of theological perspectives. For example, Father Robert Dodaro, an American Augustinian, was an editor of a book published before the Synod on the Family with contributions from five cardinals arguing against Cardinal Kasper's position for greater openess on the question of communion for the divorced and remarried.
- Sr. Nuria Calduch-Benages, M.H.S.F.N., Member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission;
- Prof. Francesca Cocchini, Professor at the University "La Sapienza" and at the Patristic Institute "Augustinianum," Rome;
- Rev.do Msgr. Piero Coda, Dean of the University Institute "Sophia," Loppiano, and Member of the International Theological Commission;
- Rev.do P. Robert Dodaro, O.S.A., Dean Patristic Institute "Augustinianum," Rome, and Professor of Patrology;
- Rev.do P. Santiago Madrigal Terrazas, S.J., professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical University "Comillas," Madrid;
- Sr. Mary Melone, S.F.A., rector of the Pontifical University "Antonianum," Rome;
- Rev.do Karl-Heinz Menke, Emeritus Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Bonn and member of the International Theological Commission;
- Rev.do Aimable Musoni, S.D.B., professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Salesian University, Rome;
- Rev.do P. Bernard Pottier, S.J., Professor at the ''Institut d'Etudes théologiques," Brussels, and member of the International Theological Commission;
- Prof. Marianne Schlosser, Professor of Spiritual Theology at the University of Vienna and a member of the International Theological Commission;
- Prof. Michelina Tenace, Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.
- Prof. Phyllis Zagano, Professor Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.
To appreciate the full context of his decision to establish the commission, it is worth re-reading Pope Francis' responses to two questions put to him in recent times. (These answers, including the ellipses, are the official texts published by the Vatican).
First, the following is the question he was asked and the response he gave at the free-flowing Q&A session in the Vatican on May 12 with the International Union of Superiors General:
Question: […] In the Church there is the office of the permanent diaconate, but it is open only to men, married or not. What prevents the Church from including women among permanent deacons, as was the case in the primitive Church? Why not constitute an official commission to study the matter?
Pope Francis: This question goes in the direction of “doing”: consecrated women already do much work with the poor, they do many things … “doing.” And it touches on the problem of the permanent diaconate. … In effect this exists in antiquity: there was a beginning.… I remember that it was a theme I was quite interested in when I came to Rome for meetings … there was a good Syrian theologian there and one day I asked him about this, and he explained to me that in the early times of the Church there were some “deaconesses”. But what were these deaconesses? Were they ordained or not? The Council of Chalcedon (451) speaks about this but it is somewhat obscure. What was the role of deaconesses in those times? It seems—I was told by this man, who is now dead but who was a good professor, wise and erudite—it seems that the role of the deaconesses was to help in the baptism of women, their immersion; they baptized them for the sake of decorum, and also to anoint the body of women, in baptism. And another curious thing: when there was a judgement on a marriage because a husband hit his wife and she went to the bishop to complain, deaconesses were responsible for inspecting the bruises left on the woman’s body from her husband’s blows, and for informing the bishop. … There are various publications on the diaconate in the Church, but it is not clear how it was. I think I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to some studies on this theme, because I have answered you only on the basis of what I heard from this priest, who was an erudite and able researcher, on the permanent diaconate. In addition, I would like to constitute an official commission to study the question: I think it will be good for the Church to clarify this point, I agree, and I will speak so as to do something of this type.
He returned to the question again on May 26 in a press conference on the flight from Armenia to Rome.
Question: Holy Father, some weeks ago, you spoke about a commission to look into the idea of women deacons. I would like to know if this commission already exists and what issues need to be resolved? Then too, sometimes a commission is a useful way to forget about problems; I would like to know if that is the case here.
Pope Francis: We had a president of Argentina who used to say, and he would give this advice to presidents of other countries, “When you want something to remain unresolved, set up a commission!” The first person surprised by this news story was myself, because my dialogue with women religious—which was recorded and then published in L’Osservatore Romano – was something different, along the lines of: “We have heard that in the early centuries there were deaconesses. Could this be looked at? A commission set up…?” That was it. They asked a question, they were polite and not only that, but also they love the Church, consecrated women.
I told the story about how I knew a Syrian, a Syrian theologian who has since died, the one who prepared the critical edition of Saint Ephrem in Italian. Once, we were talking about deaconesses—when I used to visit, I would stay on the Via della Scrofa and he lived there too—once at breakfast, he told me: “Yes, but we do not know what they were exactly, if they were ordained…” There were certainly these women who helped the bishop. They helped him with three things. First, with baptizing women, because baptism was by immersion; second, with the pre- and post-baptismal anointing of women; third, and this one makes you laugh, when wives would complain to the Bishop that their husbands beat them, the bishop would call one of these deaconesses to examine the body for bruises that could serve as evidence. That’s what I said. “Can it be studied?” “Yes, I will tell the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to set up this commission”. The next day [the headlines read]: “Church opens the door to women deacons!”
To tell the truth, I was a little annoyed with the media because this is not telling people the whole truth. I spoke with the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who told me: “But there was a study done by the International Theological Commission in the 1980s”. I spoke with the president of the Superiors General and told her: “Please give me a list of persons you think could be on this commission”. And she sent me the list. The Prefect also sent a list, and they are on my desk, with a view to establishing this commission. I believe that much attention was given to the issue back in the 80s and it will not be difficult to shed light on the matter.
But there is also another thing. A year and a half ago, I named a commission of women theologians who have been working with Cardinal Ryłko [the President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity] and they have done a good job, since it matters what women think. For me, what a woman does is not as important as what she thinks: women think differently than we men. And one cannot make a good and proper decision without listening to women. Sometimes in Buenos Aires I would have a meeting with my consultors; I would listen to what they had to say and then I called in some women, and they saw things in a very different light. This enriched us greatly, and the decision proved fruitful, very fine. I have to meet these women theologians; they did a good job, but things have stopped. Why? Because the office for the laity is now being restructured. I am waiting for this to happen and then to take up the second issue, that of the women deacons. Another thing about women theologians: and I would like to stress this—the way women understand, think through and see women’s issues is more important than what women do. Finally, I would repeat what I have always said: the Church is a woman, the Church is a “she”. And she is no “old maid”. She is a woman married to the Son of God; her spouse is Jesus Christ. Think about this and then tell me what you think…
Aug. 3, 2016: Robert Dodaro, O.S.A. was mistakenly identified as Italian. He is from the United States.
Aug. 2, 2016: In a previous version of this article, Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, S.J., was referred to as Father Ferrer. His correct title is Archbishop Ladaria.
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"There were certainly these women who helped the bishop. They helped him with three things. First, with baptizing women, because baptism was by immersion; second, with the pre- and post-baptismal anointing of women; third, and this one makes you laugh, when wives would complain to the Bishop that their husbands beat them, the bishop would call one of these deaconesses to examine the body for bruises that could serve as evidence."
About that third thing, Holy Father: No, it doesn't make me laugh. Not at all.
Thank you for calling our attention to the error; we've corrected it.