Pope Francis on Thursday said the Vatican will study the idea of whether women can serve as deacons in the Catholic Church, opening the door to a potential move that could end the church’s tradition of an all-male clergy.
But some analysts said it is too early to conclude Francis will permit women deacons, and that the church has resisted the move in the past.
In the Catholic Church, deacons can perform some of the same sacraments as priests, such as baptizing people, officiating at weddings and preaching at Masses. They cannot celebrate or preside over Masses, hear confession, or administer last rites, as priests do. Unlike priests, who take a vow of celibacy, deacons can marry.
Church historians say deacons, including women, were common in the early Christian church, though they were largely phased out more than 800 years ago. They were restored in the 1960s as part of the Vatican II reforms, but only for men.
In Rome on Thursday, Pope Francis told a gathering of 900 leaders of orders of religious sisters from around the world that he would create a commission to look at the question of allowing women deacons in the church.
Asked during a question-and-answer session why the church excludes women from serving as deacons, Francis responded, “Constituting an official commission that might study the question? I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”
“I accept,” the pope said later, according to The National Catholic Reporter. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
The pope’s comments were met with celebration from some advocates of women deacons.
“I’m delighted that he is interested in considering the matter,” said Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and a longtime proponent of women deacons.
“I think it is fascinating that in this season of Pentecost the Holy Spirit has brought the question of women deacons to the mind of the Holy Father,” said Zagano, the author of several books on the topic
Francis could permit women deacons immediately if he wanted to, she said, since it is not a matter of church doctrine but ecclesiastical laws, which the pontiff has the power to alter. “Restoring women deacons is not really a big deal,” she said. “I think it’s great,” Emil Wcela, a retired bishop for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said of the pope’s statements. Wcela wrote a magazine article in 2012 endorsing the idea.
Some conservative Catholics oppose women deacons because they see it as a steppingstone to women priests. The church teaches that Jesus established the priesthood as an all-male institution when he chose only men as his 12 apostles.
R.R. Reno of the conservative Manhattan-based Christian journal First Things said he opposes women deacons.
“It strikes me as kind of the priesthood lite. And I think it undermines women’s orders,” he said. “We live in a society where the difference between men and women is being denied on a lot of fronts. And I think the church’s clarity about the male-female difference is real important.”
Zagano said approving women deacons would not open the door to women priests, since the church has definitively ruled that out as a matter of doctrine that cannot be altered.
Both Pope Francis and St. John Paul II have endorsed the view that only men can be priests. John Thavis, a longtime Vatican correspondent and the author of “The Vatican Diaries,” said it is too soon to conclude Francis will or even wants to approve women deacons.
The pope was responding to a question in Rome and did not raise the subject himself, Thavis said.
Francis’ comments were “a little bit ambiguous,” Thavis said. “I don’t think this is a programmed thing where the pope has decided I am going to open this door now.”
Thavis noted that a 2002 study by a Vatican commission “was kind of seen as closing the door to women deacons at that time.”
Serving as deacons would give women a greater role in the church, Wcela said, something that is important since many women are “separating” themselves from the institution.
“I think women should be having greater roles in the church, not just as deacons but in so many leadership roles,” Wcela said.
There are about 18,000 permanent deacons in the United States, nearly double the figure from 1990, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The growing numbers of permanent deacons worldwide, and especially in the U.S., have helped relieve the pressure of the Catholic priest shortage in recent decades