Pope Francis says he will set up a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to become deacons, the clerical order one step below a priest.
The Pope addressed the topic during an audience at the Vatican Thursday with the International Union of Superiors General, in response to a direct question.
Some 900 representatives of female religious communities were present at the meeting with the Pope, at which one of the women present asked the Pope whether he would be willing to create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as permanent deacons in the Church.
Pope Francis was unenthusiastic at first and immediately began complaining about the tendency toward “clericalization” in the Church, as if all that mattered were being ordained, which he called “a negative attitude.”
The Pope went on to say that clericalism comes from both sides: from priests and from the laity. On the one hand, he said, “the priest wants to clericalize the layperson and the religious sister or brother, and the layperson asks to be clericalized, because it’s easier,” which he described as a “curious” phenomenon.
Francis also recounted his own experience as archbishop of Buenos Aires, where parish priests often wanted to make their best parishioners deacons, which the Pope called a form of “clericalization.” His response, he said, was: “No! Let him stay as a layperson. Don’t make him a deacon.”
Francis told the sisters present that this sort of clericalization “holds them back” from legitimate development.
More directly, however, since the sister persisted in her question, the Pope said that he would ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding studies that had been done on this issue.
He then added: “And I would like to set up an official commission to study the matter. I think it would be good for the Church to clear up this point. I agree, and I will see about doing something like this.”
On repeated occasions, Pope Francis has stated that the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood is a settled question, and will never happen, but he seemed open to the possibility of a sort of un-ordained diaconate for women.
Last week the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said that there is no reason why a woman could not occupy his post in the future—the equivalent of Prime Minister—since “the office is not bound to the sacraments and to the priesthood.”
“In theory, a woman could hold the office of secretary of state since the office is not bound to the sacraments and to the priesthood,” Parolin said.
In its 2,000-year history, the Roman Catholic Church has never ordained women to the priesthood, while scholars and theologians are divided regarding whether woman deacons existed in the early church and what they actually did.
Recent Popes have reiterated the Church’s ban on women priests. Most recently, Pope John Paul II invoked his full papal authority in 1994 to put the matter of women priests to rest.
“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance,” he wrote, “a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren, I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
In his declaration, John Paul cited his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, noting that the reasons behind the Church’s judgment included the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of “Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men,” the “constant practice of the Church,” which has imitated Christ in choosing only men, and “her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”
Pope Francis has upheld this teaching, while also insisting that woman need to play a larger and more visible role in the Church.
“It is necessary to broaden the spaces for a stronger presence of women in the Church,” Francis said in a 2013 interview. “Women in the Church are essential. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse function with dignity.”
The Pope also called for a greater effort to develop “a profound theology of women,” adding that the “feminine genius is needed in places where important decisions are made.”
“The challenge today is this: to reflect on women’s specific role even in the very places where authority is exercised in the various spheres of the Church,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome