It wasn't long ago when Catholics learned that the leaders of the International Union of Superiors General with Sr. Carmen Sammut at the helm, had requested that Pope Francis set up study commission to look at the possibility of ordaining women to the permanent diaconate. That was in May 2016. Moving at lightening speed for a staid organization like the Vatican, by August of that year, Pope Francis had appointed six women and six men to the commission.

Catholics everywhere were encouraged and hopeful because something new was happening. First of all, the commission was created at the request of women leaders in the Church. Secondly, the commission created was gender balanced, and thirdly, Phyllis Zagano, one of the world's greatest scholars on the topic, had been appointed. As she has demonstrated over and over again through her careful reserach, women served alongside men as fully ordained deacons in the Early Church. Thus we knew the issue was in the best possible hands with Zagano at the table.

But a troubling end to that commission's work came in May 2019 when Pope Francis handed a report to the Superior General at their meeting of the International Union of Superiors General claiming that the commission had not come to agreement, and therefore, he could not move the issue forward. It is not clear when, if ever, that has been a critieria for change in the Church, but those were Francis's words.

In June 2019, the new president said they were considering publishing the report. Sadly, while that report belongs to the entire People of God, it has not yet been published. FutureChurch hopes the UISG will do so soon.

Still, new hope for women deacons and a married priesthood was stirred as bishops and participants gathered for the October 2019 Amazon Synod. Women who ministered in the remotest regions of the Amazon and their bishops were calling for new models of ministry, including women deacons and married priests, in order to carry out the work of the Church in the region.

The final document, which passed by a strong majority of the bishops, called for married priests and new discussions on women deacons. It drew lots of attention and raised the hopes of Catholics everywhere. If the bishops of the Amazon, a region devastated by commercial interests, asked for help to save their region and by extension, the planet, surely Pope Francis would agree to their requests.

Tragically, the Pope stepped back from the stated needs of the bishops and women ministers from the Amazon region when he published his post-synodal exhortation, Querida Amazonia. While QA chapters 1, 2, and 3 certainly affirmed their needs and requests, Chapter 4, which addressed the means by which the vehicle for carrying out the work of the first three chapters would be built, left the Amazonian bishops and the women ministers to their own devices with statements so contradictory that they appeared almost schizophrenic - as if two individuals with polar opposite viewpoints were competing to establish the end result. While QA promotes enculturation of Catholicism in the region, Francis holds fast to European models of ministry and the long standing misogyny that undergirds the "complementarity" role of women.

In what appears to be a strategy to avoid ordaining women to the permanent diaconate, Pope Francis appointed members to a second commission on April 8, 2020.

The formation of this particular group of commission members is suspect for many reasons including:

  1. The process for choosing the members lacks transparency.
  2. The process lacks the most basic elements of synodality.
  3. The lack of geographical diversity of the commission members is hair raising. The membership of this commission is not representative of the global church. The Global South is not represented at all. And while two male deacons were chosen, it is beyond understanding why both of them would be from the United States.
  4. No one from the Amazon region has been included. A serious dismissal of our sisters and brothers who are working against all odds, there can be no excuse for not including at least one member from this region since their stated needs obviously have priority in this discussion.
  5. There were no members of the previous commission appointed which would have provided necessary continuity. And most disappointingly, Phyllis Zagano was not reappointed.
  6. While the openness to women's ordination to the diaconate is not absolutely clear in every case, many of the members who were appointed will likely not support the ordination of women to the diaconate, period. Others might instead be open to a separate non-ordained order such as deaconnesses.

Here is some research, including relevant links to writings and interviews, that may offer an indication of where the members will land on this issue:

Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi – President

  •     Studied philosophy, theology, psychology
  •     Ordained 1973 – Teacher and Pastor
  •     Extensive work in teaching (theological school for laity), youth, family ministry
  •     Hosted Latina Diocese synod  2011-2012
  •     Made Archbishop by Francis in 2018
  •     Cardinal in 2018

Dr. Denis Dupont-Fauville – Secretary

  •     Ordained priest 1997
  •     Doctor of Theology
  •     Interest in Henri de Lubac, Dei Verbum
  •     Academic with some work in pastoral studies, presentations with deacons

Deacon Dominic Cerrato  

  •     Ordained Deacon in 1995 – Steubenville, OH
  •     Ph.D 2009
  •     Bachelors is from Franciscan University Steubenville, OH
  •     Director Diocanal Formation in Joliet, Il.
  •     Editor of Deacon Digest
  •     Wrote book on Theology of Diaconate Based on Personalist Thought of John Paul II
  •      Has Written on the topic of women deacons here:

Deacon James Keating, Ph.D.

Catherine Brown Tkacz

  •     Ph.D. in Medieval Studies
  •     Research and writing on women of bible and tradition
  •     Speaks of “Spiritual Equality of the Sexes”
  •     Cedes that women were ordained as “deaconesses” but contends that ordinations weren’t equal and that ordination was for the sake of making sure sacraments were available at time of heightened modesty codes: “The evidence suggest that the Church so revered the sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, and Communion, that the women who assisted in administering these rites were themselves ordained to a kind of diaconate” commentary on deacons begins slide 63)
  • Is reported to have said "To begin now to ordain women as deacons would not be a ‘restoration,’ but a radical innovation"

Fr. Santiago del Cura Elena

  •    Placed by Cardinal Ratzinger on second iteration of the ITC subcommittee on women deacons that returned an inconclusive report (in 2003) which famously said “it pertains to the ministry of discernment…to pronounce authoritatively on this question.”

Dr. Caroline Farey

  •     Doctorate from Lateran University
  •     Teaches catechetics and philosophy
  •     Participant at Synod on the New Evangelization (2012)

Barbara Hallensleben

  •     Theologian teaching in Switzerland, looked at the "feminine vocation" starting from the idea of the priesthood of all the baptized and in the sacrament of marriage.”  (Cindy Wooden report on Symposium at CDF 9/2016)
  • Served on ITC 2005 -2014

Fr. Manfred Hauke

Msgr. Angelo Lameri

  •     Teaches liturgy at Lateran University
  •     Helps plan papal liturgies

Rosalba Manes

  •      Consecrated virgin
  •      Professor of biblical theology at the Gregorian

Anne-Marie Pelletie (can’t find anything to suggest she’s a no, but also don’t see anything to suggest she’s a yes.)

As we look at the trajectory of the development of thought about women deacons over the past five years, it seems that Francis is moving away from the hope first ignited under the leadership of Sr. Carmen Sammut in 2016. It also seems to ignore the synodality that he has espoused over the course of his papacy.

The appointment of the second commission under his watch looks to be a part of a trajectory for undercutting the hopes of the UISG who first made the public request in 2016, the bishops and women ministers of the Amazon region who made a stronger and more practical case for women deacons in October 2019, and Catholics around the world who have been advocating for women deacons for decades.

If this is a strategy to forego the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, it is short sighted. And it cannot be sustained for long. Catholic women and men will continue to work for full equality within the institutional Church. And, ultimately, the Church will be blessed with the promise and fullness of women's faith, voice, leadership, and ministry. It is up to us to bring God's dream into reality.

Russ Petrus and Deborah Rose-Milavec