Phyllis Zagano, a member of the Vatican commission on women deacons, said she couldn't envisage women priests 'at this point'

The best-known advocate for women deacons has said that the Church is not “ready” to admit women to the priesthood.

Dr Phyllis Zagano, who has been described as “the leading scholar and most prolific writer in the world on women deacons”, and who is on Pope Francis’s commission to study the question, made the remarks in a talk at Yale University.

During the question-and-answer session after her talk, Zagano was asked: “Why do you not promote the ordination of women as both deacons and priests?”

She replied that these were “two separate ministries”, before adding: “That’s part of it. The other part of it is, I don’t know. I just don’t see it at this point. I think that the priest, when we look at the priest, it’s not the ‘icon of Christ’ problem, it’s the icon of what we’ve made of the priest. So I just don’t think that if I walked down the centre aisle of St Patrick’s Cathedral, waving my – this is my Yale ID card, but waving my “I’m a priest” card … I think I’d be stoned. I just don’t think our Church is ready for that.”

In the talk, which took place in 2013 at Yale’s Thomas E. Golden Jr. Center, Zagano said: “I cannot find evidence that women have been ordained as priests. And the historical argument seems to carry the day right now.”

Asked about whether the hierarchy fear women deacons would lead to women priests, Zagano said: “Cardinal O’Connor told me in the 1990s that the conversations in Rome were specifically on this point. They couldn’t figure out how you could ordain a woman as a deacon and not ordain her as a priest. And I said, ‘OK, I’m done, you’re right – you can ordain her both as a deacon and a priest.’” The Yale audience applauded at this point.

Zagano said that Cardinal John O’Connor, then Archbishop of New York, had told her in the 1990s: “Phyllis, if you have proved that women can be ordained as deacons, you have proved that women can be ordained as priests.” Zagano replied: “Your Eminence, I’m not allowed to talk about that. Why are you bringing it up?”

Zagano, who teaches at Hofstra University in New York, told the Catholic Herald via email: “None of my work supports or advocates for women priests.” When asked whether she would like to see the Church ordain women as priests at some point in the future, Zagano said that she had no further comment.

The Church teaches that women cannot be ordained as priests – a doctrine reaffirmed by Pope St John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994. He said: “Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Zagano, the author of several books including Women DeaconsWomen in MinistryWomen and Catholicism and the award-winning Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church, has argued that the history of the Church supports the ordination of women as deacons today.

Others argue that the “deaconesses” in the early Church performed a different role to the permanent diaconate today. In 2001, the International Theological Commission, which is linked to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a document which concluded that “The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.”

Pope Francis has himself said that he has this impression, but that the question needs to be studied. Last year, the Pope set up a commission to look into the history of the question. After her appointment, Zagano told the New York Times: “I don’t know that the commission itself would make any conclusion. It would make a recommendation to the Holy Father on what history has demonstrated.”

This piece has been corrected to remedy a transcription error: Dr Zagano said “the ‘icon of Christ’ problem” rather than “the icon of Christ’s problem”.