Women Religious Ordained as Deacons?

Phyllis Zagano is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women and senior research-associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York

Phyllis Zagano is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women and senior research-associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York

by Phyllis Zagano 

Toward the end of its May 2016 triennial assembly, members of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) asked Pope Francis if he would establish a commission to study the question of women deacons. He said yes. The Commission has met, and the Pope has made no statement. If the Pope pronounces that women cannot be ordained, the issue is closed. If the Pope says yes, it is likely he would request discussion within episcopal conferences. The conferences could then request permission for women deacons, much as they did when the diaconate was reintroduced as a permanent vocation for (mostly married) men following the Second Vatican Council. The final decision to include and ordain women as deacons would rest with the diocesan bishop.

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.

Further, the reactions of large parts of the Church to the prospect of women deacons is wholly positive.[i] Women see an avenue for professional ministry, the people of God see a prospect of more ministers, and the bishops see a beginning of a solution to the outright hatred of the Church displayed by many women, who bring neither their husbands nor their children to Mass. While Mass attendance seems to have stabilized, even grown in places due to the ‘Francis Effect’, discontent remains.[ii]


The pressing and presenting issue regarding women in the diaconate is not about governance or jurisdiction. It is about ministry. If the Church is to be credible in the near and long term, it clearly needs to live its diakonia. The restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order following Vatican II shows that the Church recognizes it needs deacons for that diakonia. Without parsing the argument in any national context, it can be argued that just as the Church needs diakonia, it needs diakonia by women. But who would be deacons? It was the UISG that asked the question. Would women religious seek, or even want, ordination as deacons?

It is no secret that the numbers of women religious have plummeted in the past 50 years or so, and these declines brought concurrently a steep drop in feminine ministerial presence. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University reports a worldwide drop from 1,004,304 women religious in 1970 to 670,330 in 2015. [iii] Various views of the situation show shrinking numbers of women religious in developed countries and growing numbers in underdeveloped nations. Therefore, the raw facts about a dearth of women religious could point only to a need for more women religious or, more generally, to a need for more women in ministry. Leaving aside the possibility of married or celibate secular women deacons, would women religious, those younger or those more seasoned, be interested in the possibility of ordination as deacons. Why? Why not?

There are many reasons for women religious not to want diaconal ordination. Some of these reasons might be historically rooted in the reasons the female diaconate mostly retracted to the monastery, before dying out in the West at some point during the twelfth century.[iv] The solidification of the cursus honorum, the ‘course of honour’ taken from Roman military and civic life, created a situation in which women could not be ordained. Applying the cursus honorum to Church posts required that any person to be ordained deacon be eligible for priestly ordination, and so the diaconate became merely a step along the way. Where the diaconate was retained as a permanent vocation in the West, it was lived more ceremonially than really.[v]

Ministerial work of women continued, most notably as the predecessors of today’s apostolic institutes formed in later centuries. Yet, even as the diaconal work of women continued in the West, the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent grade of order following Vatican II did not include them, despite the obvious facts of feminine ministries.

Around the world, diaconal ministries in the form of hospitals, educational institutions, and social service agencies were initiated, staffed, and supported by women religious. Women religious undertook equally the day-to-day parochial responsibilities of catechetical and sacramental preparation. In fact, it can be argued that the very development of apostolic religious life for both men and women owes itself in large part to the demise of the diaconate as a service ministry and its reduction to a mere step on the way to priesthood.

Should the Church restore its tradition of ordaining women as deacons, there are many reasons for women religious, especially those in parochial pastoral work, to seek diaconal ordination. Clearly, their parochial work would benefit; the same person preparing individuals for the sacraments of Baptism or marriage would be eligible to perform the ceremonies. Further, the specifically diaconal tasks enveloped in ‘the Word, the liturgy, and charity’ could be evidenced by their preaching, performing funeral and burial rites, and overseeing parish social services.


However, there are also reasons for women religious not to seek diaconal ordination, most giving witness to the historically painful relationships between the men and women of the Church. The many reasons adduced against women religious becoming deacons can be reduced to two: 1) distrust of bishops and of the Vatican; 2) basic objections to the clerical state.

Distrust of Bishops

While a new day has dawned in the papacy of Pope Francis, women religious can also recall the recent past. The Apostolic Visitation of U.S. Women Religious, announced in late 2008, was concluded in 2012. Initiated, in its words, ‘to look into the quality of the life of religious women in the United States’, the time-consuming and expensive endeavour produced a Final Report that noted some institutes refused to participate.[vi] All told, the Apostolic Visitation eventually reviewed 341 separate units, to which approximately 50,000 women religious belonged at the time.[vii]

Separately in early 2009, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) began a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). CDF’s findings, announced in April 2012, included a five-year mandate for reform of the group. Three years later, just two years into Pope Francis’ papacy, a joint CDF-LCWR final report formally ended that mandate.

The two events combined to provide evidence of episcopal, and perhaps dicasteral fear and distrust of the power and financial independence of institutes of women religious. In fact, despite the change in the papacy and the ongoing reform of the Curia, the Visitation and the doctrinal assessment together present reasons for wariness on the part of women religious toward the clerical structure.

While there is ample evidence of diocesan bishops working well with women religious – some (arch)dioceses have regular meetings that include all religious superiors and auxiliary bishops with the diocesan bishop – some diocesan bishops barely know the religious superiors in their dioceses.

Objections to the Clerical State

Some women religious question the inclusion of ordained deacons – clerics – within their institutes. The major concern: interference from Rome, or at least from the diocesan bishop. Some point to the cases of former Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois, censured because he publicly concelebrated with a non-Catholic (at a woman’s priestly ordination ceremony) and Irish Redemptorist Father Tony Flannery, who publicly disagrees with certain Church teachings regarding women priests, contraception, and homosexuality and was suspended from priestly faculties in 2012. As it happens, Bourgeois was expelled from Maryknoll by a vote of its council on grounds of disobedience, while Flannery is still a Redemptorist. The point: for the most part, religious orders were not and cannot be required to expel a vowed member.

A related question for women religious is whether only ordained members would be eligible for leadership, especially general superior roles. There are two parts to the question, each related to ordination. Mixed clerical / lay institutes of men include priests and brothers, significantly different from women’s institutes that could have deacons and sisters. Canon law provides that no lay person can wield authority over a priest, but the diaconate is not the priesthood.

Some years ago, the Milwaukee Capuchins elected a non-ordained friar as guardian, and separately elected a priest to deal with priestly matters. Franciscan men’s orders have had conversations in Rome on this very point, stressing that membership in the order is independent of any clerical status.

As for women’s institutes, there is no evidence that only ordained deacon members would be eligible for election. On the contrary, historically a women’s abbey or monastery included many deacons; any lay member elected abbess was usually, but not always, ordained deacon (or deaconess) after election. The operative point here is that the abbess’s jurisdiction came from office, not from ordination.

The singular question of internal jurisdiction stretches in a few directions. Concerns could be raised over who had jurisdiction over the woman deacon. However, while the diocesan bishop might invite a member or members of a given institute to minister in a certain location, he can only affirm the institute’s missioning by means of appointing (with faculties) a deacon to a given ministry. Ordained or not, religious do not minister in a diocese without the bishop’s permission. When a male religious cleric is assigned to a parish, he does so first with the permission of his superior and then with the assent of the diocesan bishop. The same would hold for a woman cleric. Assignment to any ministry is an internal institute matter.

Another avenue of discussion leads to the question of education and formation for ministry; but again, these are internal matters. Members who would become deacons would follow the required course of studies for such, but only as approved by their institutes. They would require institute permission to be ordained and, separately, would receive faculties for diaconal ministry (i.e., permissions to preach, perform Baptisms, witness marriages, etc.)

Finally, the spectre of ‘ranking’ arises in discussions about including women deacons within institutes. While ordained life and consecrated life are distinct, it does not necessarily follow that they cannot be lived concurrently within an institute. Nor is it an automatic reality that ordained and non-ordained members would hold differing statuses within their institutes. Even so, it is true that distinctions have arisen in vowed communities, between those with ‘higher’ and those with ‘lower’ status. Ideally, religious life is intrinsically egalitarian, fraternal-sororal, communitarian, and organic rather than hierarchical or pyramidal in organization; but human nature and organizational politics belie that ideal painfully often. The diaconate could add to the potential difficulties.


To these objections – essentially a distrust of the hierarchical structure and questions about the clerical state and its relation to an institute – is added the fact that some tasks and duties of the deacon may be performed by lay persons on an ad hoc basis. Why would a woman religious need to accept ordination in order to minister? There is ample evidence that women religious in mission territories held quasi-official permissions to minister sacramentally – to baptize and to witness marriages – but new bishops have withdrawn those non-faculties, even after decades of sisters’ parochial ministerial service. Of course, a new bishop could equally withdraw faculties from a woman deacon, but there is anecdotal evidence of bishops replacing women religious with male deacons in pastoral work, male deacons whom they had trained, ordained, and granted faculties to.

Further, there are diaconal functions that cannot be undertaken by the non-ordained. No diocesan bishop can give permission for any lay person to preach a homily in a Mass (excepting Masses for children), and the single judge in any canonical proceeding must be a cleric, and, in fact, only extraordinarily can a lay person witness a marriage or solemnly baptize. The latter tasks require a formal rescript from Rome giving the diocesan bishop permission to authorize lay witnesses to marriage, for example, and that rescript may only be requested following the agreement by his episcopal conference that such would be needed.


Overall, objections women religious might present to becoming or including ordained women deacons in their institutes hold merit. In fact, initial resistance on the part of institutes of women to admit deacons, or to allow any of their members to be ordained as such, can grow from their own histories, or the histories of others. But the mere fact of including women deacons as members does not affect an institute one way or the other in relation to the bishop. Institutes have suffered from episcopal intrusion and worse, these under the guise of episcopal or (as in the case of the Visitation) dicasteral oversight.

Distrust of Hierarchy

Specific evidence comes from around the world. In Australia, St Mary MacKillop (1842-1909) founder the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, was excommunicated in 1871, following a charge of insubordination by her diocesan bishop. The root cause was that her sisters uncovered, and reported, that a priest was sexually abusing children. He was sent back to Ireland with an official explanation of alcoholism. In Ireland, Margaret Anna Cusack (1829-1899), who founded the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace and is remembered as the ‘Nun of Kenmare’, had so much back-and-forth with bishops and other authorities that she left the Church in 1888. When she died, she was buried in a Church of England cemetery. In the United States in 1934, Cardinal William H. O’Connell (1859-1944) invalidated a legal election of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston and attempted to name another sister as general superior. The sisters refused, and eventually reclaimed their canonical rights. O’Connell is also remembered for covering up the New York marriage and concurrent embezzlement of archdiocesan funds by his priest-nephew, who was his chancellor.

The known stories surface above the unknown stories, from clerics who preyed on innocent novices, to pastors who refused to fix convent heating systems, to bishops who invited institutes to their dioceses in foreign lands only to tell them on arrival they were responsible for their own support.

Internal Considerations

As for considerations about the life of the institute or of its individual communities, the legitimate fear of creating a caste system within an institute weighs against its ministerial charism. Religious institutes of women have included physicians, hospital administrators, canon lawyers, and professors. These consecrated women share community with technicians, cooks, secretaries, and kindergarten teachers. Their institutes also include lay ecclesial ministers working in parishes, some of whom might seek ordination and some of whom might not.

Ordained women deacons added to the mix would bring another profession, albeit a Church office, to an institute’s ministerial charism. But could the fact of ordained women in what would then become mixed clerical and lay institutes create other, perhaps simpler problems. The practice in women’s institutes of having one of their members preach at community Mass should not be affected. Only an ordained person may preach at a public Mass in which he (or, hopefully she) participates. Community Masses are just that, and in fact it is the general superior who gives permission for the individual preacher within her convent.

The collision between episcopal and institute power and authority is not new; throughout history abbeys and monasteries of men and of women have had to assert, and sometimes defend, their preferences and practices. Canon lawyers can parse whether there would be a distinction in episcopal oversight of institutes of diocesan right and institutes of pontifical right, but canon law draws clear boundaries around the convent walls.

New Vocations

One very positive result for religious institutes of women, aside from whether individual members were or were not ordained, would come in attracting new vocations. By restoring the tradition of ordained women deacons, the Church would be saying quite positively and forcefully that women indeed are made in the image and likeness of God, that women can indeed image Christ. Some who oppose women in the diaconate argue that women cannot image Christ. That argument confuses the human male Jesus with the Risen Lord, the Christ who is the sign and symbol of every sacrament. Pointing to St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, St Augustine reminds us we are configured to Christ at Baptism.[viii] The affirmation that we are all made in the image and likeness of God would allow women considering consecrating their lives within an institute a new trust in the Church itself. These women would not necessarily be coming to religious life to be deacons; rather, their newfound (or regained) trust in the Church would encourage their decisions about entering.

Whether religious institutes of women could find themselves presenting candidates for diaconal ordination would depend on their own demographics. The minimum age for diaconal ordination of celibates is 25, and the maximum age for ordination is generally given as 65. While the diocesan bishop can do what he wishes, and certainly could ordain women working in pastoral ministry who are over the age of 65, the median age of women religious in developed counties seems to make the question moot. But some groups with significant numbers of younger members could be expected to report an interest in ordained ministry among their applicants. Many missionary sisters would like to be ordained as deacons only to serve the people of God: to minister sacramentally and, coincidentally, to revitalize their institutes.

The Future

Anecdotally, the reaction of many young women and bishops to the prospect of women deacons is wholly positive. Women see an avenue for professional ministry, and bishops see a combined solution to two pressing problems: lack of ministers, and general distrust of the Church on the part of women. Recently, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Armenian Apostolic Church[ix] have each ordained women as deacons. Independent of whether Catholic women religious would seek diaconal ordination or not, the larger question remains: will the Church restore its tradition of ordained women deacons?

Reproduced, with kind permission, from Doctrine & Life, www.dominicanpublications.com


[i].    A recent America Magazine-Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate survey found a majority of U.S. women approving of women deacons. See https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2018/01/16/proud-be-catholic-groundbreaking-america-survey-asks-women-about-their-lives

[ii].   https://www.ncronline.org/news/parish/survey-us-catholics-shows-refreshed-enthusiasm-among-women

[iii]   https://cara1964.org/frequently-requested-church-statistics/ The number in the United States has dropped from 160,931 in 1970 to 45,605 in 2017.

[iv].   There is evidence that Otto of Lucca had women deacons in his diocese in the early twelfth century. Marcia Colish, ‘Otto of Lucca, Author of the Summa sententiarum?’ in Discovery and Distinction in the Early Middle Ages: Studies in Honor of John J. Contreni, ed. Cullen Chandler and Steven A. Sofferahn (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2013), 58-79.

[v].    See John St. H. Gibault, The Cursus Honorum: A Study of the Origins and Evolution of Sequential Ordination. Patristic Studies (Book 3), New York: Peter Lang, Inc. 2000.

[vi]. https://lcwr.org/sites/default/files/media/files/final_report_of_apostolic_visitation.pdf

[vii]. Including all provinces, a total of 405 units were included.

[viii]. De Baptismo, Bk I, Ch. 16. Citing Galatians 3:27, ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’

[ix].   http://basilica.ro/en/patriarch-theodoros-of-alexandria-performs-first-consecration-of-deaconesses/; https://massispost.com/2018/01/historic-ordination-deaconess-tehran-diocese-armenian-church/