On March 19, Pope Francis released a new apostolic constitution for the Roman curia, the offices that help him govern the Catholic Church. Evangelium Predicate (Preaching the Gospel) has been in the works since the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate nine years ago. It is due to come into force on June 5, replacing the charter Pastor bonus (The Good Shepherd) which was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1988. The completion of this constitution represents an important milestone in Pope Francis’ ongoing work to make the Church more pastoral, synodal and inclusive.
A significant change in the new constitution is that leadership of Vatican services traditionally led by cardinals is now open to all baptized lay people. This includes women.
According to internationally renowned scholar Phyllis Zagano, this decision is less about changing the role of women in ministry and more about the Pope’s determination to involve as many competent people as possible in the management structure of the Church.
Zagano is Senior Associate Scholar-in-Residence and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Hofstra University. She is the author of 23 books, including Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future (with Gary Macy and William T. Ditewig) (Paulist Press), Women in Ministry: Emerging Issues in the Diaconate (Paulista press), Women deacons? Essays with answers (liturgical press), and Women: Icons of Christ (Paulista Press). She is a leading expert on the history of women in the Church and an advocate for the ordination of women to the diaconate.
According to the new constitution, “Any faithful can preside over a Dicastery or an Organism, taking into account the particular competence, the power of governance and the function of the latter”. Can you talk a bit about the practical implications of this, particularly for the roles of women or the understanding of the vocation of women?
First, I would distinguish between management and ministry. The new constitution deals with the management of the church. Towards the end of the 16th century, in 1588, the first organization of the Curia took place. The goal was to unite the cardinals of Rome – cardinal deacons, cardinal priests and cardinal bishops – into one organization to manage the affairs of the church. They have been divided into different departments to handle different responsibilities. For example, there was the State Department for relations with other countries. There was the Holy Office, which later became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
At the time, the head of each office was a cardinal. However, historically, men who were not deacons, priests or bishops could be cardinals. As things changed, in the 20th century, you had to be a priest to be made a cardinal. And since the Code of Canon Law of 1983, anyone appointed cardinal is invited to accept episcopal consecration.
With the new constitution, the offices, which used to be called congregations, tipsand commissionswill now be called dicasteries. The heads of these offices can now be any of the faithful: a bishop, a priest, a deacon, a married woman, a married man, a celibate layman or a cardinal could be appointed. The important point is that Pope Francis wants the most competent people to run these offices.
Another interesting point is that Pope Francis says that when choosing clerics, they should be chosen equally from the Latin churches and the Eastern churches as well as from the religious. So, for example, an office cannot be composed entirely of priests of a religious order.
It’s all management. But is it important? Sure.
Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have said that more space should be given to women in the Church. But the expression they used, in Italian, is the expression you would use if you were sitting at a table with others and your friend came and you said, “Make room.” Does this mean increasing the number of people in the management structure? Not necessarily. What that means is to move, to let women have a place.
Critics of Pope Francis may see this as a radical departure from Church teaching. However, the Vatican press release makes it clear that this reform is rooted in tradition. What are the theological foundations of this development?
It is not a deviation from the teaching of the Church, but it is a deviation from tradition with a small “t”, because until now the Curia was made up of priests, d bishops, cardinals and religious – including nuns – with some lay people. .
For the past 20 to 30 years, nuns and other lay women have worked as civil servants or as officers. It is therefore not new to have lay people in the Curia. What is new is to have lay people in positions of authority: as heads of offices. The members of a dicastery are all cardinals, but they are not the ones who do the work. Members meet once or twice a year. The people doing the work are the staff.
There are already very competent women working in the Vatican, but many only work as scribes or technical assistants. Many of the women who work as secretaries in the Curia have doctorates and speak several languages, but they are not heads of offices.
Making lay people work in management is not so much a break with tradition as an extension of tradition. The apostolic constitution is the highest document a pope can impose. However, he does not change his doctrine.
In other words, this document is not really a departure. It is steeped in tradition and rooted in the past.
Could this open doors to more opportunities for women later? What does this mean for the future?
Pope Francis wants to bring everyone who is competent to the table. But that has nothing to do with the question of the ordination of women. However, what is interesting is the story of the so-called lay cardinals. The last unordained cardinal, Teodolfo Mertel, died in 1899. He was made a cardinal two months before he was made a deacon, but he never became a priest. Only the 1917 Code of Canon Law required cardinals to be chosen from among priests.
I get asked this question all the time: can a woman be a cardinal? I think yes, you can have a lay cardinal, but that would require a dispensation from the law, a derogation. For me, it would be easier to have a female cardinal deacon, because there are still formal ranks of cardinals: cardinal deacon, cardinal priest, cardinal bishop.
Given the history of women deacons, about which you have written extensively, do you think this new apostolic constitution could be a step towards the return of women deacons?
I think that continues the discussion. But again, we have to separate the management from the ministry. Pope Francis views this new apostolic constitution as part of the ministry to spread the gospel. Well, if he wants to spread the gospel, he has to ordain women to preach the gospel. And if he wants to maintain that women are made in the image and likeness of God, he must have a female deacon standing next to him, preaching the gospel at St. Peter’s Basilica. Because large parts of the world, unfortunately, have the idea that women are chattels, that it’s OK, for example, for women to undergo female genital mutilation, that it’s OK for men to just reject women.
We cannot forget that male deacons and female deacons existed as members of the same diaconate, and not as part of the priesthood, until the 12th century. And we have evidence of female deacons up to the 12th century.
In the early church, deacons managed church charity. You brought your gifts to the party. The gifts of bread and wine were brought to the altar by the deacon. Then, at the end, if you needed an egg, or a blanket, or a chicken, you got it from the deacon. The last person in line to be paid was the priest. But the diaconate as it existed was cancelled. The priests took charge of the treasury and the diaconate became very ceremonial. Soon no one was ordained a deacon unless he (and he alone) was eligible to become a priest.
The minor orders – Gatekeeper, Reader, Exorcist and Acolyte – were part of the honorary course leading to subdiaconate, diaconate and priesthood.
In 1972, Pope Paul VI collapsed the Minor Orders and the Major Order of Subdeacon into two: Reader and Acolyte. Now Pope Francis has legislated so that women can be installed as readers and acolytes. Since one must be installed as a lector or an acolyte before being ordained a deacon, he removed a step that keeps women away from the diaconate.
Do you have any additional ideas that might help us understand the new constitution?
We must recognize that Pope Francis is trying to show the Church that everyone matters and that we all have distinct abilities.
We need more ministry, and that would encourage more priestly vocations. But we need more ministers. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2009 motu owner title Omnium in Mentem (For everyone’s attention), clearly distinguishing between the priesthood and the diaconate. And there has never been a statement from the Vatican against the ordination of women as deacons.
In 1997, a subcommittee of the International Theological Commission drafted a document indicating that the Church can ordain women deacons. But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, refused to sign it and the document was not published. Two members of this commission told me that.
Cardinal Ratzinger then created a brand new, all-male sub-commission. And he released a revised document that determined that the issue of female deacons is something for the magisterium to decide. Well, the magisterium at the time was controlled by Saint Pope John Paul II, who did nothing. Then the next pope was Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, and he did nothing.
It was not until 2016, when the sisters of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) asked about nuns who were already doing the work of deacons ordained to this office, that Pope Francis agreed to create a commission. I was appointed by the UISG and I spent two years in this commission. We produced a document, and Pope Francis gave part of it to the leadership of the UISG in May 2019.
Then, on April 8, 2020, he appointed a new commission, but this did not meet until early September 2021, for a week. Its February 2022 meeting was canceled shortly after it became known that one of its members, Caroline Farey, had signed an anti-Pope Francis and anti-vaccination manifesto published by the Canadian site Life Site News. There is no public information about possible future meetings.
A leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told me, sitting at lunch, that women could not be ordained deacons because women cannot picture Christ. Therefore, the title of my book is Women: Icons of Christ.
No one disputes the historical fact of women deacons. They existed in the early church. But I think the world is calling for the return of women to the diaconate. The church must argue, and argue forcefully, that women can to be icons of Christ.
Image: Unsplash/Caleb Miller