Discussion seeks to contribute to the question in the larger world

In light of the commission instituted by Pope Francis to study women and the diaconate in May of 2020, the Notre Theology Department and the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism co-sponsored a panel conversation on Wednesday, September 8 titled, The Question of Women and the Diaconate: A Conversation with Dr. Phyllis Zagano and Anna Keating.

Jenny Wiertel and Sophie McDevitt Funari, graduate students in the Master of Divinity program, proposed and organized this event. The idea for coordinating a discussion on women and the diaconate originated in the classroom: Feminist and Multicultural Theology with Sr. Cathy Hilkert and Orders and Ministry with Prof. David Fagerberg raised questions that Wiertel and Funari hoped to address in a panel discussion. Additionally, Wiertel and Funari drew inspiration from attending an event with Discerning Deacons at St. Mary’s College last fall:

“Through attending these classes and events, we started having lots of conversations with each other about women and the permanent diaconate. Since the worldwide Church is actively discerning this question, we started to think of ways we could invite others into the conversation and create space for this conversation on Notre Dame’s campus,” Jenny Wiertel told the Rover.

When Funari and Wiertel brought their idea to the Notre Dame Theology Department, Prof. Timothy Matovina, chair of the department, agreed to sponsor the event. Matovina explained: “We were delighted to cosponsor a conversation on women and the diaconate, organized by two of our Master of Divinity students, as the new Vatican commission that Pope Francis instituted is in the process of examining this same question. Our event was an occasion to reflect both on that specific question as well as the wider participation of women in the Church.”

Dr. Kathleen Sprows Cummings, the director of the Cushwa Center expressed similar enthusiasm for the panel discussion: “When M.Div. students Jennifer Wiertel and Sophie McDevitt Funari approached me to ask if the Cushwa Center would help them organize an event exploring women and the diaconate, I was absolutely delighted to pledge moral and financial support. The Catholic Church’s future, in this country and throughout the world, depends on its ability to engage women as leaders. At Notre Dame, we should be doing everything we can to encourage creative conversations about how to do so.” 

The panel, intended to provide both pastoral and academic perspectives on the question of women in the diaconate, featured Dr. Phyllis Zagano, adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University, and Anna Keating, author and Notre Dame alumna. 

“We invited Dr. Phyllis Zagano because she is the preeminent scholar on the topic of women and the diaconate and has published numerous books and articles,” Wiertel noted. In addition to her extensive scholarship on women deacons, Dr. Zagano belonged to the original Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women (2016–2018).

“We invited Anna Keating because she wrote an article over the summer called Callings Unanswered in ND Magazine. This article discussed the topic of women and the diaconate and the specific experiences of women in ministry. She also wrote the book, The Catholic Catalogue on living Catholicism in daily life. Anna is also an ND alumna [‘06], so we were excited to bring her back to campus to speak with us,” explained Wiertel.

The incorporation of pastoral and academic perspectives reflected Wiertel and Funari’s hopes for the lecture. “Ultimately our desire was that this event would be a moment of discernment, where we could listen, learn, and dialogue with God and on another about this important topic in our Church.”

In her presentation at the lecture, Anna Keating addressed three questions: (1) Are women deacons a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church? (2) Is there a need for women deacons in our Church today? (3) What is at stake if we do nothing and maintain the status quo in which women are not able to serve as ordained ministers in the Roman Catholic Church?

Addressing the first question on women deacons in Church tradition, Anna Keating drew upon Romans 16:1–2 in which St. Paul sends St. Phoebe, explicitly named diakonos, to minister to the church in Cenchreae as well as documents from the Council of Nicaea (325), the Council of Chalcedon (451), and papal letters in the 11th century.

Keating replied to the second question regarding the Church’s need for more deacons by sharing various stories from her pastoral experience. “There is a huge need for more deacons,” Keating stated. “If it was good enough for Paul to send St. Phoebe, then it is good enough for me.”

In response to the third question of what is at stake in the woman diaconate discussion, Keating stated, “Working in the Church is a great way to lose your faith if you’re a woman.” She continued, “Of course, having women deacons would improve the Church for women and the working conditions for women in the Church, but it is so much bigger than that. When the Catholic Church is the best version of herself it is a good thing for the entire world.”

The second panelist, Dr. Zagano detailed the historical evidence for women deacons in the history of the Church and responded to the two primary objections against women being ordained as deacons: (1) “imaging Christ” (2) the unicity of Holy Orders.

“Women deacons certainly ministered to women, especially in baptism and bringing the sacrament to ill women. There is also some evidence that women deacons anointed ill women. It is impossible to say that women deacons performed any or all liturgical tasks during the Mass throughout the history of the Church, although there is sufficient evidence that they did perform liturgical tasks including the fact that there were several complaints lodged against their participation in the liturgy,” Dr. Zagano told the Rover.

Women can image Christ, Dr. Zagano insisted. “The diaconate is in recent times known as the ordained order in which individuals act and are in persona Christi servi. The mistake in reasoning when one says women cannot image Christ confuses the human male Jesus and the Risen Lord. All persons are made in the image and likeness of God, and Christ is God.”

Regarding the unicity of orders, Dr. Zagano explained, “The cursus honorum (course of honor: tonsure, porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, priest) developed during the Middle Ages, and by the 12th century no one could be ordained deacon unless he (and only he) was to be ordained priest. Coincidentally, the diaconate as a permanent ministry for men disappeared, becoming mostly ceremonial. Today, some say that because a woman cannot be ordained priest (Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 1994), neither can she be ordained deacon. But there is historical, liturgical, and epigraphical evidence of women sacramentally ordained as deacons, and there are some 47,000 men ordained to the permanent vocation of deacon throughout the world.”

The discussion of women and the diaconate has gained national and international momentum. “[Many] of U.S. diocesan synodal syntheses and most national synodal discussions mention the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate,” Dr. Zagano told the Rover. Moreover, the German Synodal Assembly voted to restore ordained diaconate by a large majority while the Australian Plenary Council voted to implement the diaconate for women should the universal law of the Church allow it.

William Smith is a junior from St. Charles, Minnesota studying Theology and Philosophy. There are few things he enjoys more than gorgeous hikes, good conversation, and great literature. When he is neither hiking nor conversing nor reading, you may contact him at wsmith22@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoebe_(biblical_figure)