In response to a request from an international gathering of Catholic nuns on Thursday, Pope Francis said he will create a commission to study women deacons in the early church, to help answer the question of whether women could also serve as deacons today.
Currently the Catholic diaconate, which is considered part of the Church’s sacrament of Holy Orders, is open only to men.
“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked aloud as quoted by the National Catholic Reporter. “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. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
Francis was speaking during an audience on Thursday with the International Union of Superiors General, the Rome-based umbrella group for the leaders of women’s religious orders around the world.
Although the Catholic Church and several popes have clearly ruled out ordaining women as priests, the diaconate remains more of an open question.
When St. John Paul II issued the document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, he said “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women,” but did not address the question of deacons.
Currently, canon 1024 of the Code of Canon Law says that only a baptized male can receive the sacrament of ordination, so the law does not presently permit female deacons. The question, however, especially in light of the Biblical evidence for women being referred to as “deaconesses” in early Christianity, is whether that law could be changed.
A high-level Vatican panel took up the question in 2002, when the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, produced a document on the diaconate which considered whether women might be eligible for the role.
Although the document did not draw any firm conclusion, it seemed to lean against the idea of female deacons.
The next-to-the-last paragraph of the draft on the diaconate, which was divided into seven chapters plus a conclusion, contains the crucial language on women, offering two points for reflection.
First, the document says that deaconesses in the ancient Christian church “cannot purely and simply be compared to the sacramental diaconate” that exists today, since there is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions they exercised.
Second, the document asserts that “the unity of the sacrament of orders” is “strongly imprinted by ecclesiastical tradition, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the post-councilor magisterium,” despite clear differences between the episcopacy and priesthood on the one hand and the diaconate on the other.
In the end, the document said simply that hat “in light of present historical-theological research,” there is a need for “discernment about what the Lord has established for the Church.”
Senior Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said to the Washington Post on Thursday that it was not yet clear what the pope’s intentions were.
He said Vatican officials will need to more closely examine transcripts of his comments, which Lombardi described as coming in the form of a “spontaneous conversation” with a nun who asked a question at Thursday morning’s meeting.
The pope may, Lombardi said, have simply been calling for a study into the historical role of women as deacons in the early church. Asked if that also opened the door to a commission on whether women should be permitted to serve as Catholic deacons today, Lombardi said: “I think it’s too early to say what [the pope] has exactly in mind.”
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)