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In today’s new episode of Field Hospital, Jeannie Gaffigan and I discuss the role of women in the Church with internationally-acclaimed scholar Phyllis Zagano, who has written extensively about women in church history, especially women deacons. Zagano, who was appointed the the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women by Pope Francis in 2016, has advocated tirelessly for the restoration of the woman’s diaconate—often in the face of harsh criticism from other Catholics.

Compared to other prominent institutions in the world today—including corporations, government, and even other Christian denominations—the Catholic Church has very few women in positions of leadership. This is slowly beginning to change, with women being appointed to important roles in the Roman Curia and in dioceses around the world, but there are still many obstacles to overcoming the Church’s disparity in leadership.

In his apostolic exhortation on youth and young people, Christus Vivit, Pope Francis wrote about the need to overcome obstacles and hesitancy, saying that the Church should not be “overly fearful and tied to its structures,” and should avoid being “critical of efforts to defend the rights of women.” He wrote that “a living Church can react by being attentive to the legitimate claims of those women who seek greater justice and equality. A living Church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence.” He then called for Catholics to support efforts to promote women’s rights and reciprocity between men and women, even if “not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.”

In 2019, when asked about the role of women in the Church, San Diego’s Cardinal-Designate Robert McElroy said, “My view on it is [that] women should be invited into every ministry or activity we have that’s not doctrinally precluded.” Regarding women in the diaconate, he said, “I’ve talked with a couple of bishops I know who are very careful on these questions, but have done some research on it, who believe it’s not precluded. … I think if it’s not precluded, it would be good to do.”

Phyllis Zagano’s work and research provide evidence that many women served in leadership roles in the Church in past centuries, demonstrating the possibility that women can and should serve in leadership roles today and in the future.

Click here for the US Catholic write-up on today’s episode of Field Hospital.

If you’d like to hear more from Phyllis Zagano, this is not the first time I’ve spoken with her on a podcast. Some of you may remember when Dan Amiri and I spoke with her back in 2020.

Resources

Some of Zagano’s books on the topic of women in the church include Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (2000), Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority (2012), Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate (2012), Women Deacons? Essays with Answers (2016), Women: Icons of Christ (2021), and Women Religious, Women Deacons: Questions and Answers (2022).

You can learn more about Zagano’s scholarship and the history of women in the church through these links:

This episode of Field Hospital is supported by Catholic Theological Union.


Featured image: Lawrence OP, Procession of Women Saints. (Detail of stately procession of 6th-century mosaics of women virgin martyr saints in the basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.) Source: https://flic.kr/p/hKi9Tq. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


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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.

Phyllis Zagano on women’s leadership in the Church
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