Jesuits' role in women deacons commission

St Phoebe, a deacon in the early Church
St Phoebe, a deacon in the early Church

Several Jesuits are among the members of a commission being set up by Pope Francis to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic Church. The announcement of the group follows a promise made last May during a meeting at the Vatican with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious.

The commission will be led by Jesuit Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria SJ, who is secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Other members in the group – formally called the "Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate"​– include experts in patristic theology, ecclesiology and spirituality.

A news release announcing the commission on Tuesday stated that the Pope had decided to create the group “after intense prayer and mature reflection”. It added that he wanted the commission particularly to study the history of the female diaconate “in the earliest times of the church”. Many church historians say that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church and point out that the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, mentions Phoebe as being a deacon (Romans 16: 1).

‘A wonderful opportunity’

The announcement follows a question and answer session between Pope Francis and the women religious on 12 May 2016, in which he was asked whether he would consider setting up an “official commission” to study the question of the role women played in the early Church and, in particular, the extent to which they served as deacons. The pontiff replied that he would indeed consider it and told journalists at a press conference in June that he had asked both Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the doctrinal congregation, and Sr Carmen Sammut, the president of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) to draw up a list of people he might consider for the group.

In addition to Archbishop Ladaria, the commission consists of an equal number of male and female experts: six faculty members of pontifical universities, four members of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, and one member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. They include Fr Santiago Madrigal SJ, ecclesiologist at Madrid’s Pontifical University Comillas and Fr Bernard Pottier SJ, a faculty member at Brussels’ Institute D'etudes Théologiques and member of the International Theological Commission. Also appointed are Franciscan Sister, Mary Melone, the first female president of Rome’s Pontifical University Antonianum, and Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in New York, who described the creation of the commission as a "wonderful opportunity for the church as a whole to look at the question of restoring women to the diaconate”.

Deacons can baptise, witness marriages, perform funeral and burial services outside of Mass, distribute Holy Communion and preach the homily; they are also obligated to pray the Divine Office. The diaconate may form part of priestly formation – the final stage before a man is ordained a priest. However, the Second Vatican Council decreed that the diaconate, when it was restored as a permanent order in the hierarchy, could be opened to "mature married men" (over the age of 35).