Dr. Phyllis Zagano, the world’s preeminent scholar on women in the diaconate and the lone American woman on the new committee, told me that she doesn’t yet know the specific mandate of the committee. But many have speculated that Francis will ask the committee to study whether or not the Church should allow women to participate in the modern-day diaconate.
Though some have considered the question out of bounds and a slippery slope to ordaining women as priests, Zagano notes that this committee is well within the wishes of both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Zagano recalled that in 2002, the International Theological Commission, under the authority of John Paul II, essentially “kicked the can down the road” on whether or not there could be women deacons in the Catholic Church. The concluding document noted that the “question pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.”
Seven years later, Benedict XVI made important theological distinctions between the priesthood and diaconate that clarified and codified that deacons aren’t “mini-priests.” Deacons’ role and function are different in kind from that of priests and bishops.
Though Zagano said she doesn’t know where the road will lead on this conversation, she does hope important questions are resolved. “I think it’s important that we pick up where others have left off and answer Pope Francis’s call to give more definitive answers on the history of women in the diaconate and possibilities for the future,” she said.
If Francis’s first three years are Bishop of Rome are any indication, Zagano’s hopes might very well be answered.