Women deacons – when will we know?

Nov 3, 2018 | 6 comments

          Women deacons – when will we know?

When Pope Francis created the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate on 2 August 2016, it was generally assumed that he had enjoined it to consider the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. Not so according to Cardinal Ladaria, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the commission was set up with a focus on women deacons historical role in the early Church rather than on ordination.

In April Cardinal Ladaria wrote an article in L’Osservatore Romano reiterating and clarifying the position of the Church regarding the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood and by implication denying the possibility of the re-introducion of the diaconate to women. This may have been in response to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, who had remarked to Die Presse in an Eastertide interview: “Ordination [of women] is a question that surely can only be settled by a Council. A pope cannot decide this by himself. This is too large a question for it to be settled from the desk of a pope.”
Cardinal Schönborn’s carefully chosen words referred ostensibly – though not explicitly – to the ordination of women as priests. They could, however, be taken to encompass another question: the ordination of women as deacons, which, as Cardinal Schönborn indicated in the interview, has not (yet) been ruled out as impossible.

In a blog on the Conference of Religious Orders website last month, Phyllis Zagano, theologian and member of the commission, comments

Whether the Church in one territory or another would accept the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate is a serious question. One seminary rector commented recently that because the Church (in his view) had not yet figured out the diaconate, it would not be wise to add women to the mix. Also not long ago, an Irish priest-professor commented that the only reason to ordain deacons was a shortage of deacons. To the first objection, women comment: we can figure it out in no time. To the second objection, the obvious answer is simple: the Church needs the ministry of women.

The reactions of large parts of the Church to the prospect of women deacons is generally positive. Women see an avenue for professional ministry, the people of God see a prospect of more ministers, and the bishops see a solution to the growing disenchantment with the Catholic church.

A recent survey by The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA), reached out to all 777 U.S. religious institutes and societies of apostolic life. These included members of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM), the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), as well as 137 contemplative women’s groups. Almost three-quarters of superiors said they think it is possible to sacramentally ordain women deacons, and that the Church should do so. Only 45 percent, however, believe the Church will do so.

The lack of women’s leadership in the church was discussed during the recent Synod of bishops on young people. Although the final document does not mention women’s ordination — neither to the priesthood nor to the diaconate — it acknowledges that women have been excluded from decision-making processes even when they “do not specifically require ministerial responsibility.” Elsewhere in the document is an acknowledgement of the affirmation that “the absence of women’s voices and points of view impoverishes discussion and the path of the church, subtracting a precious contribution from discernment,” and “The synod recommends making everyone more aware of the urgency of an inescapable change.”

With this small crumb of comfort will we see a softening of the opposition to the re-introduction of the diaconate for women?

( With thanks to The Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research for permission to post this article.    They work to enable Catholics to overcome ingrained prejudices and missed opportunities on women’s equality and ministries in the church, sexual ethics, marriage, and church authority @ http://wijngaardsinstitute.com/    )


  1. soconaill

    Fascinating article – and of course we need women in leadership roles in the church.

    However, if we focus only on the issue of the shortage of Eucharistic ministers are we not in danger of forgetting that it is in fact a shortage of PRIESTLY INTEGRITY that lies beneath the crisis we are now in, and that there has been absolutely no mention of this problem at the highest level – unless we count the identification by Pope Francis of the problem of of ‘spiritual worldliness’ as at the root of that.

    Lack of integrity occurs when anyone in office is more afraid of the consequences of doing the right thing than of the consequences of merely ignoring the problem.

    Is it reasonable to expect integrity from the servants of a powerful institution, who know they will be sacked if they embarrass their employer? This is the question raised by the long-running abuse issue, especially the failure of any bishop anywhere to report an abuser to the civil authorities?

    Personally I don’t think we will solve the priestly manpower crisis until we have addressed that integrity issue – and established a separation of powers in every diocese. As long as a bishop remains both unaccountable and in control of both church patronage and church admin, don’t expect to be able to trust anyone answerable to him to be incorrupt. It takes a saint to stand against the crowd, risking even his / her own employment – and at present that is exactly what our church is – a crowd of hired Yes men – by the very nature of its present constitution.

    Are women really queuing up to join that? If so, why?

    • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

      Women have already taken on one of the most important leadership roles to emerge from our Church.


      Scroll in on Ireland and see your facilitators : Caroline Goucher, Ann Hopkins, Josephine Stroker, Miriam Mooney, Joan O’Reilley, Sylvia Thompson, Maire O’Donohue.

      These women have heard the cry of the earth and of the poor. True leadership emerges when a job needs to be done and the volunteer feels the call. I don’t see a lack of leadership – I see a misunderstanding of the term “leader”. Women have been leading the whole way through with selfless acts.

    • Martin Murray

      Really appreciated your insight here Sean. I am and will remain an advocate for clerical ministry both as priests and deacons to be opened to women. Indeed I saw it as the number one issue of reform. However I am coming around to appreciating the equally important issue of having structures of accountability for bishops and the associated “separation of powers in every diocese” as you put it here.
      Another issue currently arising in relation to this is the question “Who represents the laity?” as highlighted well in this article:-

  2. Aidan Hart

    I totally agree with you Sean that we need women in leadership at all levels in the Church.

    Since we now have a permanent diaconate women should certainly be part of that ministry. There were many female deacons in the first thousand years of the Church’s history, a point thoroughly researched by John Wijngaards of The Wijngaards Institute For Catholic Research, of which a summary is available to read at:


    However, if it is a pointless ministry as currently defined, providing no solution to the core problems of an increasing shortage of priests, an increasing number of parishes without weekly Sunday Mass and does nothing that lay people, both female and male, can’t already do, why bother? The current situation of Ministers of the Word, both female and male, taking Sunday services of The Word with Holy Communion when a priest or PD is unavailable, makes visible to the congregation the universal priesthood of all baptised Christians. It also makes many question why these leaders of Sunday services (female, male, single and married), when no priest or PD is available, are not being considered for ordination to the priesthood.

    I suspect that putting the PDs in dalmatic vestments or alb and stole to stand beside the priest at the altar during Mass, nothing to do with why the early Church instituted the permanent diaconate in the first place, makes it more unlikely that the Vatican could be seen to allow female deacons as that would make the request for female priests seem more reasonable to ordinary Catholics and for the Curia to be seen as unreasonable for holding out against it.

  3. Anthony Neville

    My understanding of the Commission is, as Cardinal Ladaria says, to examine the historical role of women deacons in the early church, with no mention of the possibility of ordination. I am not aware of any outcome to the Commission’s work to date.

    Bearing in mind there are only 24 male deacons in Dublin Diocese with 199 parishes and none in most dioceses, the Irish bishops have not engaged with the concept of deacons.

    I attended Mass in England on All Saints Day and saw a middle-aged woman in a white alb beside the priest on the altar and I thought – a deacon? But it turned out she was an altar server.

    The battle to allow women to take leadership roles in the church will be a long one.

    • Aidan Hart

      I agree Anthony, but so will the battle to allow lay men to take leadership roles in the Church. The mistake is often made that lay men are adequately represented, or over-represented, by the all male priesthood. I’m afraid that that is not the case. Their long seminary training in isolation from lay people, their total immersion in clerical culture and their ongoing separation in life style, occupation and free time from lay people means that they cannot represent adequately the views of lay men in the Church, no more than they can represent adequately the views of lay women. The Church requires representation at all levels of lay men and lay women, as well as Religious men and women.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

6 + 14 =

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This