The Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate may remain uncertain about whether women should be ordained to the diaconate, but the majority of American Catholic women are not: Six in 10 American Catholic women support the possibility for women to be ordained as permanent deacons,according to our national survey published last year in partnership with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.In our nationally representative sample of 1,508 women, one in five indicated that they may support women deacons but want to learn more first. Twelve percent said they “didn’t know,” and 7 percent said that they would not support it.
Support for women deacons was more likely among women with more education, women who identified as Democrats, non-Hispanic white women and those who attend Mass less often. The idea of women deacons received less support from women with less education, Republicans, Hispanic/Latino women and frequent Mass attendees. Women who were part of the Vatican II (born from 1943 through 1960) or Post Vatican II (born from 1961 through 1981) generations were more likely to support women deacons than women born before or after those generations, but that was because the oldest and youngest generations were more likely to express uncertainty around the issue. There was not a significant difference among generations with respect to those who responded with a firm “no.”
These figures are especially interesting in light of another recent study, released by CARA this January, on the U.S. bishops’opinion on the possibility of women deacons. As a group, they were somewhat less enthused than our survey respondents: Just 33 percent of bishops in the United States thought the church “should” ordain women as deacons. But 54 percent of U.S. bishops said that if it were allowed, they would “consider” ordaining women as deacons in their dioceses.
Six in 10 American Catholic women support the possibility for women to be ordained as permanent deacons, according to our national survey published last year.
For many bishops the question has less to do with whether women “should” be ordained deacons than whether they can be: only 41 percent saying they believed it is “theoretically possible” to ordain women. Just 27 percent of bishops thought the church will move ahead with ordaining women to the diaconate.
And yet the majority of bishops also stated that they could use the help: 61 percent of bishops said women deacons would be “somewhat” or “very helpful” in liturgical celebrations; 71 percent said they would be somewhat or very helpful for word ministries (which include proclaiming the Gospel and preaching); and 73 percent said they would be somewhat or very helpful for charity ministries.
If the bishops think women deacons could be helpful, why isn’t there more enthusiasm for them? The sticking point for some may be the question of whether women deacons were sacramentally ordained in the past. Scholars agree on the existence of women deacons in the early church, but the implications of their roles then for the church today may give some pause. Phyllis Zagano, who is a leading expert on women in the diaconate and a member of the Vatican study commission, has written that there is ample historical evidence confirming the sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate and that ordaining women to the diaconate today does not necessitate ordaining women to the priesthood. But not all members of the commission agree.
Scholars agree on the existence of women deacons in the early church, but the implications of their roles then for the church today may give some pause.
Of course, ordaining women deacons cannot be the sole answer to more fully including women in church structures, liturgies and ministries. The data show that the bishops largely seem to recognize this. The question of women deacons aside, 97 percent of bishops in CARA’s January survey said they believe “somewhat” or “strongly” that their diocese is “committed to increasing women’s involvement in ecclesial leadership.”
That is something that many Catholic women will be happy—and possibly surprised—to hear. Based on our statistics, many women have not perceived that commitment at the parish level. Just under one-fifth of Catholic women in the America survey (18 percent) felt that women were “very much” involved in decision-making at their parish. Thirty-five percent felt that women were “somewhat” involved. For women who attended Mass frequently, the percentage who agreed “very much” was 32 percent, versus 11 percent for those who attended a few times a year or less. This may indicate that those attending Mass frequently are more likely to be more aware of the women in those leadership roles, who are often behind the scenes and may be the ones making significant decisions.
We also asked women whether they felt the priests in their own parishes were doing a good job including women in decision-making. When framed in this more personal way, women felt more positive. “The more one believes women are involved in the decision-making of the parish, the more likely they are to believe priests are doing a good job,” Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and a senior research associate, said via email. “Yet, even among those who disagree, there are some who still feel the priests are doing a good job.” The more strongly women “do not feel their parish or priest do a good job of inclusion with decision-making, the more likely they are to support female deacons,” he said.
It is often said that the church measures time in centuries, so perhaps a few decades spent on the question of women deacons can seem short in this context, but the issue still has an air of urgency, especially when considered in the context of evangelization. Our survey showed that many women who identify as Catholic are disengaged from the church: Only 24 percent attended Mass weekly or more, for example. And of the women surveyed who said they had thought about leaving the church, nearly half (48 percent) cited “the status of women in the church” as “somewhat” or “very much” a reason.
A liturgical and ministerial role that is visible at Mass on a weekly basis, like that of a woman deacon, could go a long way toward engaging many of the women who feel distant from the church and toward more fully incorporating the gifts of women into the church—something that has benefits for all Catholics.
[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of women deacons.]