Home Christian News Blocked From Serving Their Church, Catholic Women Push for Female Deacons

Blocked From Serving Their Church, Catholic Women Push for Female Deacons

female deacons
Casey Stanton, left, and the Rev. Mario Gomez, OFM, raise up the prayers people have written down at the culmination of a 3-night parish retreat at Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham, North Carolina, in March 2020. Photo by John Witchger

(RNS) — Casey Stanton wanted to offer encouragement, love and healing to the inmates at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, where she served as a chaplain intern a few years ago.

But as a Catholic woman she could not represent her church there in any official capacity.

The state of North Carolina requires chaplains in its state prison system to be ordained. And the Catholic Church does not ordain women — neither as priests, nor as deacons.

Stanton, who is 35 and holds a master of divinity from Duke Divinity School, is not seeking to become a priest, which canon law forbids. She would, however, jump at the chance to be ordained a deacon — a position that would allow her and other women to serve as Catholic chaplains in prisons, hospitals and other settings.

“I’d like to be able to represent the church in these places where I feel like we’re called to go,” Stanton said.

She tried the Veterans Affairs hospital next. But there too, she found a similar obstacle to full-time chaplaincy.

“I thought I could find some workaround,” she said.  Instead, she added, Catholic chaplaincy “felt like a dead-end.”

In April, Stanton co-founded Discerning Deacons, an organization that urges conversation in the Catholic Church around ordaining women deacons. Stanton hopes it might add to ongoing efforts on multiple continents to restore women to the ordained diaconate, which the church in its early centuries allowed.

On Monday (Sept. 13), a new commission set up by Pope Francis to study women in the diaconate began meeting for one week in Rome. It is the fourth group since the 1970s to discuss ordaining women deacons, and many are hoping they will release their recommendations publicly so the church can lay the groundwork for restoring the order.

Francis has repeatedly called for a greater female presence in church leadership, and while he has continued church teachings against women priests, he changed church law to allow women to be installed as lectors, to read Scripture, and to serve on the altar as eucharistic ministers.

Up until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons, although by then their service was mostly restricted to women’s monasteries. Some Orthodox churches that split from the Catholic Church in the 11th century still do. In the New Testament Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul introduces Phoebe as a “deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” He also names Priscilla and Aquila among other women given titles of “fellow workers.”

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reinstated the role of deacon for men. (It had previously reserved the diaconate as a transitional ministry for men studying to be priests) but not for women.

Partly due to the shortage of priests, there is growing momentum to restore women to the diaconate. At the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, a large number of bishops requested the permanent diaconate for women. Many are now hoping the next synod, which will culminate in Rome in 2023, will take up the issue again.

“If the church expresses its need, the Holy Father would have an easier time restoring women deacons,” said Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and the foremost expert on women deacons in the Catholic Church.

The work of the deacon as defined by canon law is to minister to the people of God in word, liturgy and charity. Though not a paid position in most instances, it does require a person to undergo a course of study and a laying on of hands through ordination.

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Yonat Shimron joined RNS in April 2011 and became managing editor in 2013. She was the religion reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. from 1996 to 2011. During that time she won numerous awards. She is a past president of the Religion Newswriters Association.