This week on Peter’s Field Hospital, Dan Amiri and I had the privilege of interviewing the Catholic author and academic Phyllis Zagano.
Phyllis Zagano is an internationally acclaimed Catholic scholar and lecturer on contemporary spirituality and women’s issues in the church.
In 2016, Phyllis was named by Pope Francis to serve on the Papal Commission on women in the diaconate.
Her books include award winners Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church and Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority, as well as Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future
Her new book, Women: Icons of Christ traces the history of ministry by women in the Church, especially women deacons. In this book, she shows how women were removed from leadership, prevented from using their voices, and eliminated from official ministries in the history of the Church. This book also argues in favor of the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate, while refuting the arguments against it.
I greatly enjoyed this conversation with Phyllis. Prior to recording the podcast on Monday, we had never spoken, and I was only vaguely familiar with her background and her work on the history of women in the diaconate. One thing in particular that struck me was her love for and fidelity to the Church.
As she explains in the podcast, Zagano began her work with the Church in the early 1980s as a researcher with then-Auxiliary Bishop John O’Connor for the Military Vicariate of the United States (now Archdiocese for the Military Services). She worked with him on political and moral issues including abortion and gay rights, and it was the future Cardinal O’Connor (not many people’s idea of a liberal prelate) who first suggested that she write about women deacons.
While her conviction about the history and theological possibility of the ordination of women to the diaconate is strong, she makes it very clear in this interview that she is not advocating for anything that has been definitively ruled out by the Church. Phyllis is not suggesting that women should be ordained as priests. She is also firm in her insistence that the decision to re-institute the women’s diaconate (or order of deaconesses) is ultimately the pope’s. But she has been invited by the Vatican to take part in a conversation on a question that has been the focus of no fewer than three official Vatican inquiries in recent decades.
And to be honest, Phyllis makes a very convincing argument for the plausibility of having women deacons in the Church in the future, both because they are a historical reality and because past liturgical rites whereby women were made deacons were often identical to those of men.
This is an issue currently under discussion at the highest levels of the Church, and whatever is decided requires our assent. Make no mistake, however: Phyllis’s contribution to the discussion is a vital part of what it means to be a synodal Church. In a synodal Church, Catholics come together in good faith — with and under Peter — to discuss ideas, opinions, concerns, and the findings of scholarly research so that we may journey together in unity as the Body of Christ.
Women: Icons Of Christ by Phyllis Zagano
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.