Vatican commission members: Women served as deacons for a millennium

Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles, according to Phyllis Zagano, an author and professor of religion at Hofstra University, and Bernard Pottier, S.J., a faculty member at the Institut D’Études Théologiques in Brussels, in an interview this week with America. “They anointed ill women; they brought communion to ill women,” said Ms. Zagano.

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They also participated in baptism, served as treasurers and, in at least one case, participated in an annulment.

Discussing that annulment, Ms. Zagano said a woman in Syria “complained that her husband was beating her.  It was the woman deacon who examined the bruises and gave the testimony to the bishop. Well, to me, that’s an annulment—she is providing the information.”

“To say that everybody did the same thing all over I think is disingenuous,” Ms. Zagano added.

“But to say that everybody did the same thing all over I think is disingenuous,” Ms. Zagano added.

Father Pottier said he was able to find strong evidence of women deacons in church records and histories, but “not everywhere and not always because it was also a choice of the bishop.”

In an interview with Michael J. O’Loughlin, America’s national correspondent, on Jan. 14, Ms. Zagano and Father Pottier, who serve on the Vatican’s Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, discussed their research on women deacons and the early church. They emphasized that roles for women deacons varied greatly depending on geography. The two commission members were in New York for a symposium at the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture called “The Future of Women Deacons,” which convened on Jan. 15.    

Ms. Zagano said, “There was ordination…. The most interesting evidence is the fact that the ordination ceremonies [we discovered] for women deacons were identical to the ordination ceremonies for men.”

Father Pottier said women began to serve as deacons “very early” in the Eastern church but by the 10th century that ministry ended. In the West, women served as deacons from approximately the fifth century until the 11th or 12th century.

Ms. Zagano has devoted much of her career to studying the role of women deacons, most recently in Rome at the invitation of Pope Francis.

“I was able to see original manuscripts,” she said. “I was able to see original 17th-century books.” She had a chance to reread a lot of the material she had already studied and “actually found a few new things for myself.”

“It was an extraordinary experience,” she added, “because I would go home at night, and typically in the Holy Father’s house a cardinal or a bishop, or four cardinals and four bishops, would be at the dinner table. So the conversations after work were equally exciting to me.”

She added, “[Some cardinals] were very interested in the topic. Other cardinals were not that interested. And I did have a couple of complaints, mostly from Africa, that we were trying to push an American idea into Africa. I said, ‘No one is pushing anything to anybody.’”

What the Vatican will do with the commission’s report is unclear, according to Ms. Zagano and Father Pottier. The Vatican commission was not tasked with making recommendations to the pope but with researching the “historical reality” of women deacons, they said.

Asked about her hopes for role of women in the church in the future, Ms. Zagano said, “I hope that the church will not be denied what it needs.

“I truly believe that the church needs more [people in] ministry,” she said. “I speak to bishops and cardinals from South America. One bishop said he had five million Catholics and 400 priests.”

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John Chuchman
5 months ago

Women Deacons would be turned into a non-sacramental women’s auxiliary in charge of dirty work. No less than full priestly Ordination is the minimum needed.

Tatiana Durbak
5 months ago

I agree, John. There is no valid reason to deny ordination to women.

Tatiana Durbak
5 months ago

I agree, John. There is no valid reason to deny ordination to women.

Nora Bolcon
5 months ago

Agreed, No more side-stepping misogyny tricks - time to get real!

We don't need any permanent deacons - male or female. They actually deter parish growth by pushing trained lay women and men from roles they could take part in if there were no deacons. These roles include lay baptizers, officiators at weddings and funerals, and preachers or reflectors at mass. All of these any bishop can choose to let trained lay people do instead of deacons without need to obtain any special permissions from the pope or vatican.

Justice demands women be ordained priests and immediately. You want a useful fight for women deacons than only fight for women to be made transitional deacons with the same options of being ordained priests under the same guidelines and restrictions of formation that male transitional deacons undergo and are offered. Permanent deacons have no authority in our church. Don't support a distraction ministry designed to keep your mind off of what represents real justice in our church, women being ordained priests, bishops, and being made cardinals and being allowed to be made popes. NO one needs to be a permanent deacon before they are ordained a priest and almost none of our priests were ever permanent deacons. NO MORE WAITING FOR ACTUAL JUSTICE!!

John Chuchman
5 months ago

Women Deacons would be turned into a non-sacramental women’s auxiliary in charge of dirty work. No less than full priestly Ordination is the minimum needed.

Michael Bindner
5 months ago

They should not have to observe sacred continence (which is based on women as an instrument of impurity anyway) and neither should men at any level of ministry. Deacon(Ness) administrators would promise obedience to those they serve and, with clergy, elect the bishop.

Michael Bindner
5 months ago

They should not have to observe sacred continence (which is based on women as an instrument of impurity anyway) and neither should men at any level of ministry. Deacon(Ness) administrators would promise obedience to those they serve and, with clergy, elect the bishop.

arthur mccaffrey
5 months ago

I would suggest that nuns have been women deacons for centuries, but that their contribution has just not been recognized by a mysogynistic old boys club which, disgracefully, still operates in the 21st century. The conference at Fordham sounds like a gathering of anthropologists to describe a new species that has been discovered, called "WOMEN"!
You don't know whether to laugh or cry when you read stories like this, when the Vatican creates special commissions to study the role of women in the church, as if they were alien creatures. We need an AMERICAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, not a Roman one, where women have full equality at all levels from priests to Popes. The irrelevance of RCC to modern life is nowhere more obvious than in stories like this. Why can't we have a Vatican shutdown just like Trump has shut down the US government?

Andrew Boyd
5 months ago

"Ms. Zagano and Father Pottier" ... I think you mean Prof. Zagano and Father Pottier. If you are going to address someone with a doctorate and a professorship as "Ms." you should probably address the Jesuit as "Mr.", otherwise don't do that.

PHYLLIS ZAGANO
4 months 4 weeks ago

Ah, you're sweet. I did mention that to them but apparently that is what they do over there. Too bad. Makes them sound very sexist.

Gerard Baumann
5 months ago

For the first millennium priests could marry, as well ! I pray that we begin the ordination of women deacons . I pray it is the first quick step to ordaining women priests !

Gino Dalpiaz
4 months 3 weeks ago

PRIESTLY CELIBACY IS A PRECIOUS JEWEL

Gerard Baumann says that “for the first millennium priests could marry!” This is just not true. Apparently, Mr. Baumann hasn’t kept up with his studies in this area.

Most modern church historians are now convinced that priestly celibacy goes as far back as the apostles. After his monumental and seminal book on priestly celibacy (The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy), Dr. Christian Cochini, professor at Sophia university in Tokyo, has pretty well convinced his fellow scholars that priestly celibacy is indeed of apostolic origin.

After reading this trail blazing book, the eminent French theologian, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, wrote: “This work is of the first importance. It is the result of serious and extensive research. There is nothing even remotely comparable to this work in this whole 20th century.”

Christ himself, the incarnate Son of God, was not married and, in fact, recommended “celibacy for the kingdom.”

Mister Mckee
5 months ago

This is very OLD wine being re-packaged in NEW media wineskins. If either of the two researchers cited can actually claim to have found something NEW since Peres Vagaggini and Martimort, then that would be news!
https://www.uscatholic.org/womendeacons
https://www.amazon.com/Deaconesses-Historical-Aim%C3%A9-Georges-Martimort-ebook/dp/B0711G7TMJ
OOPS! My bad. I forgot that we are dealing with a Vatican Commission, so maybe it really is NEW news!

Kevin Besse
4 months 4 weeks ago

Phyllis Zagano should be referred to as Dr. Phyllis Zagano. Is it a slight that she is never properly named in the article?

Colin Donovan
4 months 4 weeks ago

This is pretty much old news. It has long been known that women, for reasons of the modesty of other woman, assisted priests in the sacraments. In none of the cases is there a suggestion of ordination to a holy order whose essential characteristic is that it is a sign of Christ the Servant.

Rather, they supplied, and do today, for a ministerial function for a just reason which bishops can determine. Woman have and can baptize. They can't confirm, but as a layman neither can I. They can't confect the Eucharist or absolve sacramentally, though they can distribute Holy Communion, hold communion services, and can assist at the altar, distribute sacramentals like the ashes, serve on tribunals and be chancellors if qualified etc.. So can any lay person do these things if permitted.

Neither the previous papal commission on this subject, or previous scholarship of merit, has arrived at any other conclusion or developed evidence to contradict it. If this all the commission has, status quo ante!

Jane Malhotra
4 months 3 weeks ago

"And I did have a couple of complaints, mostly from Africa, that we were trying to push an American idea into Africa." This strikes me as a little peculiar. So I'm pretty sure the Catholic Church has been pushing lots of non-African ideas into Africa--and the rest of the world--for nearly 2000 years. Is women's equal dignity merely an American idea, or can we see it modeled in the words and actions of Jesus, who for example revealed his risen self first to a woman, Mary Magdalene, and told her to go and tell the others? Was Dr. Zagano dining with African men or women, I wonder?

KATHERIN MARSH
4 months 3 weeks ago

Dear Editors,
Once the Church determined that God calls only men to the priesthood, the Church answered the question about women priests.
When I read that the Church “had” women deacons until about 1200 AD, I felt surprised. What did that look like? Why did it end?
I would also like the question of male ordination to a “permanent” diaconate explored in more detail. I understand that these are men who believe that God calls them to ordination, a type of “priesthood.” And that God also calls them to Sacramental Marriage. I thought that concurrent with ordination of lay men to the diaconate, the Roman Catholic Church was exploring the option of ordaining married men to the priesthood. That the lay male diaconate was “holding pattern” and a viable option either way while exploring that issue of married priesthood. And the point that nuns have done for centuries what the male deacons now do, is a valid point, too.
Furthermore, the point that female diaconate could become a woman's auxiliary is a valid contraindication to a female diaconate. I also believe ordaining the wives of male permanent deacons is contraindicated. This issue of Cardinals is very interesting.
Who would the Bishops ordain to be female deacons? Women who come and say they have a calling to ordination? That they have a calling to do the service to the servants that the women have done since the church began but which formally became the purvue of male diaconate when the church ordained married men? That is a messy paradigm because it continues the status quo, but confers a title. We would necessarily have to recognize about eight women in each parish and confer a title on them. Or begin to ask which Corporal Work of Mercy is more important. That is a misuse of power.
If we ordain women it should empower the woman to rally Catholic resources and be able to access Catholic resources to publicly address an area where there is a vacuum in Catholic voice. It should be that rare woman who, when there is no leader needs to emerge.

Todd Witherell
4 months 3 weeks ago

It is not justice or prudence, but rather inertia and patriarchy, which resists women’s full ordination to the Catholic priesthood.

Todd Witherell
4 months 3 weeks ago

It is not justice or prudence, but rather inertia and patriarchy, which resists women’s full ordination to the Catholic priesthood.

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