The Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world. And it has almost no women in leadership roles. From the smallest parish to the Vatican, Catholicism is dominated almost exclusively by men.
Church leaders and apologists will hasten to explain that this does not mean that the Catholic Church is misogynistic. The church, they say, has always defended and protected women’s rights. St. Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 Letter to Women that “the Church desires for her part to contribute to upholding the dignity, role and rights of women.” Many will point to the church’s veneration of Mary of Nazareth as evidence of a pro-woman ethos.
But Catholic tradition is not exclusively patriarchal. Other threads of tradition wind back through church history to its very beginning, traditions in which women did hold positions of leadership and responsibility. The early church had women deacons. Women religious often held positions of influence. And today, under Pope Francis, doors may be opening to women to reclaim some of these positions.
In today’s episode of Field Hospital, Jeannie and Mike discuss the role of women in the church with internationally acclaimed scholar Phyllis Zagano, who has written extensively about women in church history, especially women deacons. Zagano has also advocated tirelessly for the restoration of the woman’s diaconate—often in the face of harsh criticism.
Some of Zagano’s books on the topic of women in the church include Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (2000), Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority (2012), Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate (2012), Women Deacons? Essays with Answers (2016), Women: Icons of Christ (2021), and Women Religious, Women Deacons: Questions and Answers (2022).
Zagano has won numerous academic awards, and has taught at Fordham, Boston, and Hofstra Universities and at the Yale Divinity School.
In 2016, Pope Francis appointed her to the initial Papal Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women. She was nominated by the International Union of Superiors General. She continues her research at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
You can learn more about Zagano’s scholarship and the history of women in the church through these links:
- “Women and authority in the church,” by Phyllis Zagano
- “What’s the problem with women deacons?” by Phyllis Zagano
- “Is the Catholic Church ready for women cardinals?” by Phyllis Zagano
- “A Tale of Two Deacons,” by Phyllis Zagano
- “Are women involved in a toxic relationship with the church?” by Phyllis Zagano
- “Women Deacons 101: Final Exam,” by Phyllis Zagano
- “Look up at the altar, where are all the women?” by Phyllis Zagano
- “New Vatican constitution will create more space at the table.” A U.S. Catholic interview
- “Interview with Dr. Phyllis Zagano on Women in the Church.” Where Peter Is podcast with Mike Lewis and Dan Amiri.
- “Spiritus Domini: Development in Continuity” by Rachel Amiri
- “Pope Francis takes concrete steps for women in the Church” by Mike Lewis
This episode of Field Hospital is supported by Catholic Theological Union.