The people who presented the working document for the Synod of Bishops pose for a photo in the Vatican press office June 20, 2023. From the left are Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler, Sister Nadia Coppa, Cardinal Mario Grech, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, and Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa (CNS photo/Cindy Wooden).

On June 20, 2023, the Vatican released the Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod on Synodality. Described by Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the General Secretariat of the Synod as “the fruit of a Church experience, of a journey in which we all have learnt more by walking together and questioning ourselves on the meaning of this experience,” the document will guide the first of two synod meetings in October 2023. What does the Instrumentum Laboris, and the entire Synod process so far, say about women in the Church and the possibility of women’s ordination to the diaconate?

Diaconal Ministry and Synodality

During the high Middle Ages, the diaconate became increasingly ceremonial, and by the twelfth century the order was primarily a step on the way to priesthood. Coincidentally, the charitable works of the Church faded, even as the need for them increased.

With varying degrees of formality, women and men met these needs, as monks, nuns, hermits, beguines, tertiaries, and anchorites. Ensuing centuries enjoyed more responses, but calls for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent vocation did not garner support at the Council of Trent. Meanwhile, the innovation of apostolic (as opposed to monastic or cloistered) religious life began and grew. Men and women religious took up works to provide diaconal ministries of the liturgy, the word, and charity, especially to the people on the margins.

Today, precious few of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics know what “synodality” means. Yet the creation of orders and institutes of apostolic religious life may present the clearest explanation of “synodality.” Responding to the ministerial needs of the Church, a founder met with a small group of men or women to consider the local needs of the area’s Catholics, such as education, catechesis, social needs, or all of these. They prayed, discussed, and discerned how best to concretize the Gospel message in their own time and place.                

That is precisely the process Pope Francis invited the entire Church to begin on October 17, 2021. By August 2022, 112 (of 114) national episcopal conferences sent the results of their synodal discussions to Rome. In late September, a twenty-six-member multilingual writing group considered these along with reports from curial offices, the USG and UISG (organizations of major superiors of men’s and women’s religious orders and institutes), consultations of lay associations assembled by the Dicastery for the Laity, and the “Digital Synod” to create the Document for the Continental Stage. Published in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish in late October 2022, the Document for the Continental Stage asked for the responses of seven continental assemblies. The Instrumentum Laboris synthesizes these responses.

What did this monumental project present? From the outset, it became obvious that the people of God find clericalism a major obstacle to communion, mission, and participation in the life and works of the Church. Diocesan, regional, national, and continental reports mention clericalism in one form or another, often citing the scourge of sexual abuse by clergy and inadequate ecclesial responses at all levels as a reason for general discouragement and disbelief in the synodal process and in the Church itself.

From the outset, it became obvious that the people of God find clericalism a major obstacle to communion, mission, and participation in the life and works of the Church.

Other topics include transparency in all Church matters, the formation of clergy, and lay ministry. The inclusion of women at all levels of Church leadership, particularly those requiring ordination, was and is a point of discussion. In response, the Document for the Continental Stage mentioned women in the diaconate, but not the ordination of women as priests.

Document for the Continental Stage

Entitled “Enlarge the space of your tent,” the Document for the Continental Stage was the focus of seven Continental Synodal Assemblies held between January and March 2023. Each of these, convened by their respective episcopal conferences: North America (USCCB & CCCB), Latin America & the Caribbean (CELAM), Oceana (FCBCO), Europe (CCEE), Asia (FABC), Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), and the Middle East (Synodal Assembly for the Middle East) produced a response.

The Document for the Continental Stage asked questions not unlike those considered by the founders of religious institutes and orders in centuries past. For example: “How does this ‘journeying together,’ which takes places today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invites us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?” (Preparatory Document, no. 2). That is, what are the needs of the Church today, and how can we meet them together?

The Continental responses frankly presented questions about women in the Church, often naming misogyny and sexism as underlying problems. With these ills in the background, the calls for women in leadership and ministry were urgent. The former—misogyny and sexism—both presented the need for the latter—women in leadership and ministry—and gave explanation for the ongoing and obvious resistance. The problems named their own solutions.

The ordination of women as priests is not one of those solutions. Synod head Cardinal Mario Grech has said that “hot button” issues would be “on the back burner” and other pressing needs of the Church would be discussed at the October meeting. Ordaining women as priests, while requested in many countries and mentioned or implied in the continental responses, is clearly a “back burner” issue, and it is considered by many to be doctrinally closed. But given there has never been any formal abandonment of the practice of ordaining women to the diaconate, that question will be addressed and perhaps answered.

That said, the question of women deacons made only a small appearance in the Document for the Continental Stage, which seemed to take sides in the ongoing debate by mentioning—somewhat ambiguously—“the possibility for…a female diaconate.” Opponents to the prospect of ordaining women as deacons claim the women who served as deacons throughout the Church’s early years were not sacramentally ordained, but merely blessed to a disconnected “fourth order,” or “a female diaconate.” Proponents of restoring women to the diaconate note identical or nearly identical liturgical ceremonies for ordaining men and women as deacons.

The responses of the continental assemblies were clear: the question was not about non-ordained women called deaconesses. If women were to be ordained as deacons, they would be clerics, and as such would have access to greater roles in leadership and ministry, including and perhaps especially preaching.

It is important to note that while the synod process is increasingly clerically controlled—delegates to the various continental meetings were chosen by diocesan bishops—each continental response presented the unavoidable question of women’s place in the Church.

The North American report, the result of twelve Zoom sessions for delegates from the United States and Canada, 56 percent of whom were diocesan employees, asked for women “to really take up leadership roles” and proposed an examination of “ordination.”

The Continental responses frankly presented questions about women in the Church, often naming misogyny and sexism as underlying problems.

In each of four regional in-person meetings held by CELAM for South America, which included delegates from Mexico, many delegates presented an urgent need for the institution of a diaconate of women, recognizing that these ministries already exist in various communities. They also sharply criticized the fact of women used as “cheap labor” by the Church.

As the result of its in-person meeting in Fiji, the Oceania report decried the situations of women receiving substandard pay and suffering physical and emotional violence. While the Oceania report attempts to downplay requests for the ordination of women, especially those from Australia and New Zealand, it did include them.

Meeting in Prague, the European delegates repeated calls for “the recognition of the dignity and vocation of all baptized people” naming the ordination of women to the diaconate as a “concern.” Perhaps because its English-language working group considered the diaconate and priesthood as one topic, its opinions on these were “divided.”

The Asia assembly’s Bangkok meeting echoed the worldwide concerns about the place and status of women, whom they found were insufficiently included, even alienated, from policy decisions. They called directly for “a rethinking of women’s participation in the life of the Church given that women played an important role in the Bible.”

The African delegates, gathered in Ethiopia, presented its synodal call for “more opportunities and structures for women” and the promotion of “inclusion” and “participation.” While it called for a strengthening of subsidiarity on all levels of the Church’s life, it made no direct mention of women deacons.

In Beirut, the Middle East assembly pointed to the need for “prophetic courage” regarding women’s participation: “Our respective Churches should begin to reflect seriously on the re-establishment of the diaconate for women.” The assembly included the Maronite Church, which determined at the 1736 Synod of Mount Lebanon that bishops could ordain women as deacons. In 1746, its canons were approved in forma specifica by Pope Benedict XIV.

In sum, the seven continental responses to the Document for the Continental Stage were clear that women are ill-treated, even ignored, by “the Church.” Each noted that clericalism in all its forms contributed to or in fact was the direct cause of so much difficulty. High on the list of antidotes is improvement of seminary formation. And, both directly and indirectly, the responses pointed to the restoration of women to the diaconate.

Instrumentum Laboris

These responses to the Document for the Continental Stage, sent to synod offices in March and April 2023, resulted in the Instrumentum Laboris or Working Document published the following June 20. Produced by a twenty-two-person writing team, the Instrumentum Laboris is the basic text for the first of the two planned synod assemblies in Rome, October 4–29, 2023.

The synod meetings themselves are innovative in that they will, for the first time, include many laypeople as voting members. The majority will be bishops, those representing dioceses and curial offices. In addition, the seven continental assemblies were invited to nominate twenty non-bishops (priests, deacons, non-ordained religious, laypeople) with the stipulation that half the nominees would be women and that younger persons would be included. Seventy of the 140 nominees were chosen as voting synod members. There will also be ten religious with votes: the women’s International Union of Superiors General (UISG) and the men’s Union of Superiors General (USG) will send five representatives each. In the past, the men’s group named ten voting representatives, and most recently two religious brothers voted at the Amazon Synod. Synod members will meet in the Paul VI Audience Hall in Rome during both the October 2023 and the October 2024 meetings.

They also sharply criticized the fact of women used as “cheap labor” by the Church.

What is most striking about the Instrumentum Laboris is that it is more like a roadmap for proceeding than a document with statements to be considered. Not unlike the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Working Document sets out a path and teaches a method of discerning the will of God. The various issues to be considered are the result of prior synodal prayer, discussion, and discernment around the world. The Instrumentum Laboris asks the Synod members to consider all the prior documents, especially the Document for the Continental Stage, the final Documents of the Continental Assemblies, and the report of the “Digital Synod,” as the means for “continuing the journey already underway.” The Instrumentum Laboris does not give answers. It asks questions.

One question uppermost in the minds of women around the world is the resumption of the practice of ordaining women as deacons, about which there is no magisterial teaching. The Instrumentum Laboris presents the fact: “Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered.” It then asks: “Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?”

The possible intentional ambiguity in the Document for the Continental Stage is reflected in the Instrumentum Laboris. The Document for the Continental Stage spoke of “a female diaconate,” which can mean women ordained as deacons. Or it can mean women installed in a non-ordained lay ministry. One must ask if the phrase “women’s inclusion in the diaconate” in the Instrumentum Laboris is similarly ambiguous.


The present synodal journey both recovers a tradition of the ancient Church and echoes the way in which Christians have come together in communion to carry forth its mission. Today, the distinction is the fact of wider participation of women. And one of the questions about participation is about women in the diaconate.

That women were ordained as deacons is an historical fact, but that fact is about a particular time and place in Christian history. History alone is not dispositive. Whether the Church needs women deacons today can be partly resolved by the Synod, then formally approved by the pope. It would be up to episcopal conferences to request women deacons, and individual diocesan bishops would make their own determinations on local implementation.

There will be significant argumentation against ordaining women as deacons, but to say women cannot be ordained, only installed to a quasi-diaconal ministry, insults their baptismal equality. The false argument against restoring women to the ordained diaconate—that women cannot image Christ—is implicitly if not directly the cause of the denigration and disrespect for women on every continent. As the Instrumentum Laboris points out, “A synodal Church must address these questions together, seeking responses that offer greater recognition of women’s baptismal dignity and rejection of all forms of discrimination and exclusion faced by women in the Church and society.”

Phyllis Zagano is author of several works on women in the diaconate and is author most recently of Just Church: Catholic Social Teaching, Synodality, and Women (Paulist 2023). She holds a research appointment at Hofstra University.

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