Women deacons for the Catholic Church? Perhaps, Pope Francis says

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Pope Francis waves as he arrives at the Festival of Families Sunday mass along Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Sept. 27, 2015.  | REUTERS/Carlos Barria

VATICAN CITY (Christian Examiner) – A long time prohibition on women holding the office of deacon in the Catholic Church could be coming to an end after Pope Francis suggested the church should study how women could take on a larger role in church leadership, Catholic News Service has reported.

Francis was speaking to women in the International Union of Superiors General – made up of nuns from various orders – when he said May 12 he agreed with the idea of establishing "an official commission to study the question."

"I accept," Pope Francis said. "It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree."

But agreeing to a commission to study the issue is a long way from actually adopting the station of service for women in the church. Male deacons in the church today officiate at baptisms, weddings and sometimes even preach sermons.

Francis said female deacons are mentioned in the New Testament (such as Phoebe in Romans 16), by several church fathers and in Canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea. It is unclear if the deaconesses mentioned in those writings had the same function as male deacons, whether they were ordained, and if they assisted only with services provided to women, such as baptism and anointing with oil.

For actual doctrinal matters, Francis will turn to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the theological watchdog of the church, for answers. He told the superiors he would ask the CDF if there are studies on women deacons. In turns out, there already is.

In 2001, the International Theological Commission, an assembly of theologians which advises the CDF, said female deacons in the early church did not have the same duties and significance as the modern diaconate.

"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," the commission said.

It also added that ordination to the diaconate was clearly not the same as the ordination of bishops and priests. That may signal an opening for the church to be more inclusive without opening up the larger role of the priesthood to women.

The pontiff said women still cannot preside over the Mass.