[Austen Ivereigh] Pope Francis has set up a commission to look at the question of whether women ever were, and therefore could be again, deacons in the Church.
The commission, made up equally of men and women, includes at least one prominent advocate of a female diaconate.
Deacons are not ordained to the priesthood, but they are members of the clergy.
The new commission follows a promise Francis made to nuns during a 12 May gathering of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG). Asked about references in the New Testament to women described as deacons and whether he was in favour of a commission to study what that meant, he said he was.
“I believe yes, it would do good for the Church to clarify this point,” he said.
The following day the Vatican spokesman clarified that the Pope “did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons and even less did he talk about the ordination of women as priests.”
However, few dispute that if the commission does conclude that there were deacons in the early Church, and that their role and function were comparable to male deacons, there could be few grounds for objecting to female deacons now.
The idea is favoured by a number of bishops. Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, for example, spoke in favour of the idea at the synod of 2015.
The 13 members of the new Commission to Study the Women’s Diaconate will be headed by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, currently the secretary, meaning the number two official, of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
The group includes six members of pontifical universities, four members of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC), and one member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
The ITC studied the question of women deacons almost 20 years ago; its report, issued in 2002, was inconclusive. But it concluded that biblical deaconesses were not the same as ordained male deacons.
Among the members of the new commission is Phyllis Zagano, an American expert on the question who writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter. In an 2003 article for America magazine, she critiqued the ITC findings and said that in the early Church “women were ordained to the diaconate in rituals identical to those used to ordain men to the diaconate”.
Early in his papacy, Francis signalled that he wanted women to be included far more by washing the feet of women at Easter, later changing the Missal rubrics to allow for it.
On his flight back to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil in July 2013 Francis said the “door is closed” on the question of whether women should be ordained. “The church has spoken, and she said no,” he said.
But he went on to say: “I think we must go further in making the role and charism of women more explicit.”
Later told his interviewer Fr Antonio Spadaro in September 2013 that, “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.”
“The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church,” he told the Jesuits.