On Thursday Pope Francis said he would be open to the idea of forming a commission to study the historical context of the female diaconate, as well as the possibility of women serving as deacons today.
He spoke to some 800 members of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), who are meeting in Rome May 9-13 for their Plenary Assembly, which focuses largely on the role of women in the Church, and obstacles hindering it.
According to Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, during their May 12 audience with the Pope, Francis, in addition to other topics, spoke about the role of women, both consecrated and lay, which is “still weak both in decision-making processes in the Church” and in preaching.
He briefly touched on the temptations of both feminism and clericalism, as well as the question of the presence of women in the permanent diaconate of the Church, saying it would be “useful to establish a commission to study” the topic.
Part of the Church’s sacrament of Holy Orders, the diaconate is currently only open to men.
However, in the lengthy May 12 question-and-answer session with the plenary participants, one of the religious sisters asked the Pope “Why not construct an official commission that might study the question” of opening the diaconate to women.
In response, Francis said he had spoken some time ago with “a good, wise professor” who had studied the topic of female deacons in the early centuries of the church, and noted that their role was primarily linked to assisting the bishop in full-body immersions of women for baptism.
The Pope said that the exact role female deacons played in the early Church is still unclear to him, and recalled asking the professor “What were these female deacons? Did they have ordination or no?”
He said the precise answer “was a bit obscure,” and questioned aloud the possibility of forming an official commission to 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,” he said in a Catholic News Agency report, adding later that “it seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
CNA asked the Vatican for confirmation of the pope’s remarks, but did not receive a response by deadline.
While Pope Francis has suggested a new commission could be helpful in studying the question further, the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, released a document on the diaconate in 2002 in which they addressed the question of whether women might be also be eligible.
The document overwhelmingly concluded that female deacons in the early Church had not been equivalent to male deacons, and had no liturgical or sacramental function.
It reflected what the professor to whom Pope Francis had spoken said, referring to the Constitutiones Apostolorum, or the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles from around 380, which stressed that deaconesses had “no liturgical function,” but rather devoted themselves “to their function in the community which was service to the women.”
The function of a deaconess, the document read, was summed up in the constitutions thus: “The deaconess does not bless, and she does not fulfil any of the things that priests and deacons do, but she looks after the doors and attends the priests during the baptism of women, for the sake of decency.”
While deaconesses were able to carry out the anointing of women in baptism for decency’s sake and to visit sick women in their homes, “they were forbidden to confer baptism themselves, or to play a part in the Eucharistic offering.”
Even in the fourth century, the document read, “the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns.”
While history proves that the ministry of female deacons did indeed exist, the text noted that it was “developed unevenly” in the different parts of the Church, and that affirmed that it is clear “that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate.”
Divided into seven chapters and a conclusion, the document’s second to last paragraph addresses the question of the ordination of women to the diaconate today.
While the general tone was that the question needed further study, the document offered two points of reflection for future consideration.
First, it mentioned that the deaconesses referred to in the ancient Church, “as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.”
Secondly, it asserted that “the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders…is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the Magisterium,” and stressed the “clear distinction” between the ministry of priests and bishops versus that of deacons.
The document concluded with no clear indication either way, but instead simply stated that the question “pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.”