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.

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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.

The full list of commission members includes:
  • 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…

*Corrections:

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 4 months ago
Is no feedback being sought from Pope Benedict XVI.... Seems discourteous.... America Magazine really ought to be pointing this fact out. in Christ,
Reyanna Rice
1 year 4 months ago
Two things regarding your comment: 1. Just because America is not reporting on feedback from the emeritus pope did not mean it has not happened and 2. Benedict did retire to a life of prayer ( his words) meaning he wants to, well, retire and pray! PF has stated in the past he does consult Fr. Ratzinger, B16 emeritus, and finds his words helpful. There is nothing that says he must consult with the emeritus pope.
William Rydberg
1 year 4 months ago
Reyanna, I do hope that you are not retired. Perforce, your argument disqualifies anybody over the age of 55 in Greece or Sweden... Its likely based upon your comments (Fr Ratzinger, etc..) that you are not a co-religionist. However for the record, filial piety is not an option for Catholics...
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 4 months ago

Mr. Rydberg: Comments speculating as to whether or not someone is a "co-religionist" risk violating points 3 and 4 of our comments policy ("keep on topic" and "be charitable"). If there is a reason that is important to the dialogue to ask whether or not someone is Catholic, you need to find a better way to do it. Thank you.

William Rydberg
1 year 4 months ago
Are you in earnest. To date, I am the only person America has admonished citing the "Policy". If you are determined to banish me for some pretext. Please outline a fair appraisal... in Christ,
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 4 months ago

I am in earnest, and no one is looking for any pretext. You comment frequently, and have with some frequency called into question other commenters status as "co-religionists"; and we do not want conversation to work that way on our pages. If you see other comments you believe deserve our attention, please point them out to us at [email protected]

William Rydberg
1 year 4 months ago
Having been a commentator on this website for a really long time in Internet terms, its my opinion that your comment represents a material change to America's Editorial Policy. It a sad turn of events in my opinion... in Christ
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 4 months ago

FYI: I just deleted another comment that you pointed out on this article for violating the "keep on topic" and "be charitable" provisions; thank you for calling it to our attention. I think that brings total deletions on those provisions to more than 10 for this morning alone. I will also point out that deletions are not publicly noticeable unless you're very carefully and frequently checking the comments section on each article. 

My decision to caution you, rather than delete the "co-religionists" comment entirely, was a courtesy because you are a frequent commenter and you were only near the edge of our comments policy, not clearly over the line. This is not a material change to the policy, merely a more substantial investment in explaining it.

If you would like to raise more questions about the comments policy, email to [email protected] is the appropriate venue. Similarly, if you'd like to raise questions about America's editorial policy, as distinct from discussing the content of an article, that should be directed as a letter to the editor, to avoid being off-topic in the comments.

Let's keep the comments boxes on-topic.

Lena Dalvi
1 year 4 months ago
William: thank you. My sentiment exactly.
Lena Dalvi
1 year 4 months ago
Maybe following the steps of humbleness and respectfulness of Pope Francis is the way?
Michael Toner
1 year 4 months ago
Pope Benedict is no longer pope - no need for consultation
William Rydberg
1 year 4 months ago
Among Catholic's filial piety still has weight. The Church of Christ is not a late 20th Century American Corporation. It is the body of Christ Jesus-God come in the flesh... Try not to be discourteous please !
Lena Dalvi
1 year 4 months ago
Well said! As I read and read the comments, one astounding opinion comes to light! The self serving and arrogance of the followers who are posting who are only thinking of what they want for themselves and not the church. No wonder Americans were branded the Buffet Catholics! How embarrassing.
Lena Dalvi
1 year 4 months ago
The word " RESPECT" might have something to do with it?
James Sullivan
1 year 4 months ago
Great Francis!!! Yea!!!! I give this pope TWO THUMBS UP!
Elizabeth Korves
1 year 4 months ago
Did I miss something? I don't remember hearing/reading about this commission of women theologians mentioned in the last paragraph.
Reyanna Rice
1 year 4 months ago
His reference was to a group of women theologians he worked with as Archbishop in Buenos Aires. It would not have been reported widely behind Argentina.
Reyanna Rice
1 year 4 months ago
And I may be mistaken in my previous comment. In re reading the paragraph he is referring to a council on the laity and it seems a recent reference. Not sure what group of women theologians he might have in mind...
Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
I'm not too hopeful. - First, the idea of looking at women deacons didn't originate with the pope ... he was asked about it by women religious and his response was to propose a commission. And creating a commission *does* seem to be a way of giving the illusion of progress without actual progress - look at the pope's sex abuse commission. - Second, the idea of women deacons was brought up a few years ago by Kasper but his idea was that they not be ordained and not have the same duties as 'real' deacons. Even that limited role was shot down by Marx and others. - Third, the idea of women as deacons was brought up at the synod of the family by Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher and then promptly buried with never another mention. - Fourth, the commission is not created to study the idea of women being ordained deacons now in the church, but it's an historical study of what it meant to be a woman deacon in the early church. - Five, this seems like just a delaying tactic to keep the idea of full equality for women in the church (women priests) at bay.
alan macdonald
1 year 4 months ago
You have coloured yourself with so much bias, it is impossible for you to look at this issue rationally.
Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
I don't think I'm biased. The pope's words and actions speak for themselves - he has said a lot of bad things about women and he refuses to let them have any kind of equality of opportunity in the church. A majority of Catholics would like women to be priests, and many Catholic academics and the 1976 pontifical biblical commission have said there's no scriptural reason why women can't be priests. But the pope says the door's closed. The only way he will allow women to be deacons is if they are not ordained. Sorry I'm tired of pretending that there's any fairness in all this.
alan macdonald
1 year 4 months ago
I rest my case.
Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
So biased is defined as 'disagreeing with you'? ;)
David Cornell
1 year 4 months ago

"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.

Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
Indeed :(
Reyanna Rice
1 year 4 months ago
I do not think for one minute Pope Francis finds abuse of women a laughing matter. What he probably finds amusing was a Bishop who considered himself so delicate as to not be able to look upon the brused and suffering body of one of his flock. This was back in the day when many priests even some bishops were married.
Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
I don't know, he's said some rather negative things about women since he's been pope ... http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201412/lost-translation-7-reasons-some-women-wince-when-pope-francis-starts-talking-29575
Reyanna Rice
1 year 4 months ago
And most of them were bombarded out of context. There is no way this man is as misogynistic as some claim he is. Nor does he have issues working with or being around very intelligent women. I have read much of his writing, many stories from women who have known him and watched enough footage to know he loves and respects women. His young adult years were normal spent in tango halls, dating and parties. His old friends have told stories "out of school" as the saying goes about the years they hung out with him in a group with about ten others. I would describe his manners as those of an old fashioned gentleman but nothing machismo. He is the type to let a woman go through the door first and hold it for her. I saw him do that exact thing with Michelle Obama when he was in the US. It is nothing that bothers me both in words and deeds and I self describe as a feminist. And yes he does love the Madonna, fiercely and loyally. These are things that we sometimes no longer understand in our hyped up culture.
Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
I don't believe he does "love and respect" women. I've been paying attention to all he has said about women since he became pope - he's a complementarian who believes women's main role in life is having babies, he's against women using contraception, he refuses to even consider women as priests, and he's made a whole number of disparaging remarks about women, from calling them strawberries on the cake to saying that they're made from Adam's rib. It's not just me who believes this about him. Here are just a few of many links ... - "Pope Francis' woman problem" ... http://www.latimes.com/opinion/la-oe-moss-pope-francis-women-20141208-story.html - "It's time to be honest about Pope Francis and women" ... https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/its-time-be-honest-about-pope-francis-and-women - " Pope Francis: Sexism With a Human Face?" ... https://www.thenation.com/article/pope-francis-sexism-human-face/
Reyanna Rice
1 year 4 months ago
No he does not believe a woman's main role is having babies. He unequivocally asserted that in Amoris laetitia, stating a woman had a right to pursue a career outside the home and should be granted the means from her employer to do so. He is not against couples using the meanes that work for them in spacing their children. He said this directly on the plane back from the Philippines. He stated that a couple needs to work through what options work for them in consultation with their doctor and pastor. He has never said an absolute no to ABC. Yes, he supports HV but reiterates the decision of conscience that Paul VI put in it. All the things you say that were disparaging about women have been completely taken out of context....all of them. He no more thinks women comes from Adam's rib than he thinks they come from little pink unicorns. If you had read the whole story/ interview from which this was taken out of context you would know better. You can provide all the links you want back to me...I have probably already reread them. They are just opinions. I have read the full texts of where he has made the statements, even translating many of them. I have watched countless hours of video with him interacting with all kinds of women. What you are asserting has little basis when you move past the soundbytes. He loves and respects women and is no misogynist I.e. one who hates women.
Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
Yes, that bit he wrote at the beginning of Amoris Laetitia should win an irony award ... "I would like to stress the fact that, even though significant advances have been made in the recognition of women’s rights and their participation in public life in some countries much remains to be done to promote these rights. ... I think of ... their lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making." This is exactly the situation that exists for women in the church, a situation which he is perpetuating. But anyway, I give up on the argument since neither one of us will change our minds.
Lena Dalvi
1 year 4 months ago
Crystal Watson: so it was written in the bible that women came from Adam's ribs. Sorry, the bible cannot be rewritten to comply with Americans fasination to PC and feminism. The Pope was repeating was written centuries back and shall not be modified to consoles individual needs to be recognized. The Pope has already softened his tone on Contraception which is a jump to modernization. In the Catholic Faith men are priests, he is trying to accommodate all the flocks but he can't perform miracles. American Catholics want Catholicism how they want it the way the want it it not how the church and the faith is supposed to be.
Lena Dalvi
1 year 4 months ago
Riyanna Rice: what is amusing about a Bishop respecting another woman's body whether he was married or not? Maybe a woman was not comfortable with their Bishop looking into her body esp. during those times? In my opinion that would be the proper way of investigating such alligations. This really must be a cultural thing.
Gerald Ladouceur
1 year 4 months ago
Wonderful news. I wrote an article that was publushed in the National Catholic Reporter about the early diaconate that certainly included women. My only question: why were there no actual deacons appointed to this Commission? Not even one?
William Ditewig
1 year 4 months ago
Dear Gerald, I agree that this is a rather startling omission. Ah, well, we will be participating from afar! LOL! God bless, Deacon Bill Ditewig
William Ditewig
1 year 4 months ago
Dear Editor: Perhaps this has been corrected elsewhere so I apologize if I've missed it. However, there are in fact two Americans on the Commission. In addition to Dr. Zagano, Fr. Robert Dodaro of the Augustinianum is also an American and not an Italian as reported in the original piece. Thank you, Deacon Bill Ditewig
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 4 months ago

Thank you for calling our attention to the error; we've corrected it.

Michael Barberi
1 year 4 months ago
It is about time that this issue is finally being studied by a diverse Papal Commission. Let's pray that it will eventually lead to women deacons.
Lisa Weber
1 year 4 months ago
This is a wonderful development! The most important thing for women deacons to do will be to preach at Mass. There is hardly a justification for limiting the role of women deacons to what deaconesses did in the early church because the role of women was never really developed.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year 4 months ago
Just women deacons? Why not also women priests and women bishops? There is no dogmatic impediment, and we need them! Would Jesus, in today's global Church, choose 12 males to represent the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel? Let's hope and pray this will not be another exercise in window dressing. Redemptoris Mater, ora pro nobis.
Monica Medina McCurdy
1 year 4 months ago
I appreciated the reporter's question, to paraphrase: Will the result of this commission be to get mired in study, whose conclusions may not see the light of day? I take Pope Francis at his word that he indeed wants to find the answer to this question: Should we continue the modern church's practice to exclude women from the diaconate which seems inconsistent with the "primitive" church's experience of including women in performing certain deacon duties? My enthusiasm for his pronouncement is muted by the Church's doctrine that women and men are essentially unequal, which results in women being barred from top positions of leadership. Pope Francis' perception that "women and men think differently" and stopping his analysis there, further reinforces the idea that women are lesser than men. Women and men could in fact think differently but not because there's any biologoical or organic differences that cause us to think "differently." If there are differences noted, it could be because women have been subjugated, abused, denied human rights, sufffered immeasurable loss including one's life at the hands of men and the patriarchal structures that protect them. It troubles me that Pope Francis would off handedly think it "funny" that wives who were beaten by their husbands would need a female deacon to examine her bruises. I would hope that the commission would conclude that one role of the deacon, female or male, is to preach from the Word of God that would call out the structures that supports treating women as 2nd class citizens.
Tim O'Leary
1 year 4 months ago
Monica - I know complementarity goes against the modern ideology of sameness, or interchangeability, but it is unfair to equate a recognition of difference with an inequality of dignity. I think you misread the Church's understanding of the sexes, which is not that they are unequal in dignity, but that they are different, from the very genes and whole chromosomes in every single cell all the way up to the phenotypic biology, psychology, parental and spiritual roles. Furthermore, there is not sufficient attention to the fact that a denial of complementarity and an ideology of sameness has negative consequences for women rights, and that is playing out in the abortion debate (where millions of girls are being selected for termination), the transgender-restroom debate (it is only girls' and womens' privacy and security that might be affected by opening up all restrooms to all people), diversity arguments in education and the workforce (there would be no positive benefits of sexual diversity if the sexes were the same & interchangeable), sports (why not demand women compete on co-ed teams, and pay accordingly?), military (the current push to register all 18-year old women for the draft, even against their will is crazy - must 90% of women be considered failures if they cannot compete with men soldiers on physical tests?), dating norms and sexual crimes, parental rights & children's rights (men and women should not get the exact same benefits and rights on parental leave, and it is crazy to say that a man can be just as good a mother as a women, or that children do not benefit from a father and a mother). A priest and a married man are not even the same, in terms of spiritual roles. In the Church, the priesthood is not open to most men - those who are married, those who do not have a vocation, etc. The infallible and definitive teaching that Jesus reserved the priesthood for a subset of men certainly runs counter to the sameness ideology. But, if one accepts that the Church is protected from error by the Holy Spirit, then we can put our efforts together to end all unjust discrimination of women. A very practical way to do that, without denying doctrine, is to increase the role of the laity in Church governance. So, think about focusing on that. And we can ask God why he made two sexes when we see Him in heaven.
Michael Barberi
1 year 4 months ago
Monica, Clearly, women in ancient times when Jesus choose 12 men to be his apostles could not own property, inherit, and had limited credibility. Many scholars have debated the reasons why Jesus choose 12 men to be his apostles and it is not completely clear to me if this meant that women could not become deacons or ordained priests. What is clear is that the magisterium, in particular St. Pope JP II, believed that only men can be ordained priests. However, it is not absolute why women cannot become deacons. As to married men, the magisterium had no issue accepting married Episcopal priests. They are doing just fine in many Catholic parishes. We all have different gifts and belong to the same Body of Christ. No one gift of the Holy Spirit is considered superior in God's eyes. A priest is not superior to a good and faithful married person and a man is not superior to a woman in God's eyes. We are all sinners and seek to love God and neighbor in different ways and as best we can. I do not want to get into a protracted debate on these issues because it will not be productive, nor will such arguments convince those with differing opinions. I do hope that the Pontifical Commission will lead to women deacons.

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