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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Phyllis Zagano

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Phyllis Zagano, who holds a research appointment at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY is a globally recognized expert on the topic of the diaconate for women and was a member of the 2016-2018 pontifical commission on the topic.  A graduate of Marymount College, Tarrytown, New York, she holds three master’s degrees (from Boston University, Long Island University, and St. John’s University), and the Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.


Dr. Knight: What experiences have colored your work in teaching and writing about the Church?


Dr. Zagano: My academic work has been focused on questions of women in ministry, a topic that has been increasingly in the public eye over the years. Now, with the global Synod on Synodality, the entire Church is welcome into conversation on the topic.


Dr. Knight: How did you come to teach at Hofstra University?


Dr. Zagano: I spent most of my academic career at Boston University, with a triple appointment in communications, theology, and international relations. When it was time to come home to Long Island, I found a spot in the Religion Department at Hofstra, where I have been since 2002.


Dr. Knight: Your work on the equality of women in the Church was inspired by the Holy Spirit. How has this awakened your spirit of equity in the Church?


Dr. Zagano: Thank you for affirming the value of my work. I think the question of equity is one that faces all people—male and female—and needs to be carefully examined so as not to cause anyone to claim more, or receive less, than they ought. Women and men share baptismal equality, but women and men are not the same. The Church teaches the equal humanity of all persons, and that is the most important fact in the entire discussion.


Dr. Knight: Is the roadblock of clericalism invasive?


Dr. Zagano: I think it is important not to accuse all clerics of being infected with clericalism. It is obvious that there are problems throughout the Church regarding the relationships between clerics and lay persons. Unfortunately, too many clerics have not had the opportunity for proper human formation. In the case of many priests, they were locked away for six or eight years from the people they were to serve. Unfortunately, too many of them did not learn how to relate as adults with women. Immaturity is not the only reason for clericalism, but it does lead to malformed men who risk becoming narcissistic, power-hungry, egotistical individuals who get worse over time.


Dr. Knight: What outcomes did you see as the result of the recent Synod?


Dr. Zagano: The Synod on Synodality is an exciting adventure in restoring the Church to its roots, well before the Second Vatican Council. The Synod asks us all to consider its three basic points: Communion, Mission, Participation. Communion: we agree on the basic tenets of Catholicism; Mission: we are called to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ; Participation: we all have a part in the mission, but different people have different vocations.


Dr. Knight: You seem to be a woman with hope, what is your hope for the future of the Church?


Dr. Zagano: I think the Church may be ready to restore its Tradition of ordaining women as deacons. At times during the past fifty years, three sub-commissions of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission studied women deacons. One of those sub-commissions published a report in 2002, which said the Magisterium must decide the question of women deacons. Since then, two pontifical commissions, one in 2016-2018 and another in 2021-2022 studied the question. While the results of these latter commissions have not been made public, there have been media reports that they studied the history of ordained women, East and West.


Dr. Knight: is there anything else you would like to add?


Dr. Zagano: I think it is important to recognize that the entire Church can “walk together,” as the Synod notes, without being in lockstep. The documented history of women deacons is only part of the question. What is before the Church now is how to best further the mission of the Church, how best to spread the Gospel. If some territories and some cultures want to restore women to the ordained diaconate, they should be able to do so, but no bishop should be forced to include women in the clergy. So, perhaps the Church in Central and South America, and in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States want and need women deacons, while other areas may not. It is a matter of hopeful discernment for the entire Church. And it is time to make the decision.

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