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Theologian: Allowing Female Deacons Wouldn't Be A Step Toward Priesthood

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A new Vatican commission may consider allowing women to serve as deacons once again. In the early days of the church, women were part of what's called the diaconate. It faded out a few centuries ago, and when deacons were reinstated in the 1960s, they were all men. They cannot celebrate Mass but can preach sermons and perform weddings and baptisms. Theologian Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University has written books on the subject of female deacons. She's part of a group of scholars just named to the pope's commission, even though she is not sure whether she'll be studying history or considering whether women may become deacons in the future.

PHYLLIS ZAGANO: I have no intuition or special knowledge about anything more that the pope will charge us with. I only know that I have been called to Rome and I will go.

MONTAGNE: What did women deacons do in the early days of the church?

ZAGANO: We do know that women deacons were the ones to anoint women at baptism, to anoint ill women. Women deacons ministered to other women and to children. It was an evolving role, until really the entire diaconate began to die out around the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, at least in the West.

MONTAGNE: You have been an advocate of women being deacons in the modern Catholic Church. Why do you think that would be an important and good idea?

ZAGANO: Many major scholars have done the research before me. Many major scholars, many of them now dead, have opined that women were in the past truly ordained and that given the cultural conditions today, there is no activity, task or duty of a male deacon that cannot really be performed by a female deacon. For example, distributing communion during the Mass - if a woman were ordained as deacon, she would be able to legally preach during the Eucharist, and that's a very significant thing because only ordained persons who participate in a Mass are allowed to preach at that Mass.

MONTAGNE: There is a lot of speculation that this commission, whether it goes into analyzing the role of women deacons in the early church or looks at possibly women becoming deacons today, that it is in some sense a potential step forward towards women becoming priests.

ZAGANO: There are totally separate ministries of priesthood and diaconate. To say if a woman is a deacon then a woman can become a priest is to first of all disregard current church teaching, which definitively states that women cannot be priests. But it's also a misunderstanding of what the diaconate is. Deacons are servant leaders. Priests serve in the Person of Christ, the head of the church. It's just totally different thing.

MONTAGNE: Phyllis Zagano's books include "Holy Saturday: An Argument For The Restoration Of The Female Diaconate In The Catholic Church." Thank you very much for joining us.

ZAGANO: Thank you so much. So good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.