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Colleen DulleMay 21, 2024
Pope Francis sits down with "CBS Evening News" anchor Norah O'Donnell at the Vatican April 24, 2024, for an interview ahead of the Vatican's inaugural World Children's Day. (OSV News photo/Adam Verdugo, courtesy, 60 minutes, CBS NEWS)

Pope Francis twice said “no” to the possibility of ordaining women deacons in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” that aired on Paramount Plus last night.

“I’m curious, for a little girl growing up Catholic today, will she ever have the opportunity to be a deacon and participate as a clergy member in the church?” interviewer Norah O’Donnell asked the pope.

“No,” he replied.

Pushing for clarification, Ms. O’Donnell responded: “I understand you have said no to women as priests, but you are studying the idea of women as deacons. Is that something you’re open to?”

Francis elaborated: “If it is deacons with Holy Orders, no. But women have always had, I would say, the function of deaconesses without being deacons, right? Women are of great service as women, not as ministers, as ministers in this regard, within the Holy Orders.”

The pope’s response surprised some who believed he was open to the possibility of ordaining women as deacons. During his pontificate, Francis has created two commissions on women deacons: The first, tasked with studying the role of women as deacons in church history, came back with inconclusive results. The second, which is focused more on the ministry of the diaconate, met in September 2021 and July 2022. The results of those discussions have not been made public.

The October 2023 general assembly of the Synod on Synodality discussed women deacons and concluded that the topic required further study and conversation. In its final document, the synod assembly asked that the reports from the first study commission on women deacons, which up until now have been kept secret, be given to the synod assembly in October 2024 to help guide their recommendations.

In the interim period between the two meetings, 10 study groups organized between the Vatican’s synod office and other relevant offices will look into the topics that the synod said merited further discussion, including one on “Some theological and canonical questions about specific ministerial forms,” which includes “the question of women’s possible access to the diaconate.”

Some advocates of women’s ordination both to the priesthood and to the diaconate have questioned whether the pope’s “no” on a topic that is still under study has undermined his push toward synodality.

In a press release this morning, the Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for women to be ordained to the priesthood, called the pope’s comment “a betrayal of the synodal project of ‘journeying together,’” noting that “the church is currently in the midst of a global consultation process, and calls for women’s equitable inclusion in all aspects of church life have been heard on every continent.”

Others took issue with Pope Francis’ formulation of the historical question of women deacons, when he said, “Women have always had, I would say, the function of deaconesses without being deacons, right?”

Phyllis Zagano, one of the world’s foremost experts on the female diaconate in the Catholic Church and a member of the first Vatican study commission on the topic under Francis, said in a written statement to America, “Surely Pope Francis did not intend to shut down several decades of study and ignore the import of Spirit-led discernment, which he has been so keen to emphasize as the modus operandi of the Catholic Church.”

“It is unfortunate that the pope seems to deny the well-known tradition of ordained women deacons in Christianity, especially given the fact that a [Greek] Orthodox woman was ordained deaconess on May 2 in Zimbabwe,” Dr. Zagano added. “The question of restoring women to the ordained diaconate is before the Synod on Synodality, and one can only hope the process within Catholicism, and the Orthodox return to [t]radition, will be respected.”

Francis stated in a 2023 Spanish-language interview book that holy orders, including the diaconate, “is reserved for men.” At the same time, Linda Pocher, F.M.A., who has organized a series of presentations by women theologians to Pope Francis and his Council of Cardinal Advisors at the pope’s request, said publicly in February that the pope is “very much in favor” of women deacons, raising the question of what type of diaconate the pope may be open to, given his opposition to allowing women to receive the sacrament of holy orders.

In the 2023 interview book, Pope Francis said that women could not be ordained deacons because the diaconate “is the first degree of holy orders in the Catholic Church, followed by the priesthood and finally the episcopate.”

The co-founders of Discerning Deacons, a U.S.-based advocacy group in favor of female deacons, said in a statement to America, “There is a lot of confusion about what deacons are for—and if they are a path to the priesthood. (Note: they are not!) We wonder if Pope Francis has not had an encounter with women who sense and live into a call to the diaconate.”

The co-founders, Casey Stanton and Ellie Hidalgo, pointed to a recent synod session they hosted on Zoom that was attended by 1,400 people from 28 countries, saying, “We gathered together—young and old, lay and ordained—to dream about a renewed diaconate for a synodal church which includes women and men, and to ground our dream in the lived experience of the faithful. There is growing consensus about this vision, which is not to ‘clericalize’ women—but to unleash the gifts women have to renew the ordained diaconate.”

“There is still no doctrinal statement against women as deacons,” they added. “We feel this interview reveals the work that remains to be done [in the synodal process].

“We trust that genuinely engaging with the methodology of the synod allows us to grow spaces of Spirit-led encounter and listening: with women who feel a call, with bishops and cardinals, and with Pope Francis himself—so that before a decision is made, there can be assurance that there was a genuinely communal discernment that invited those most impacted by a decision to share their own experience and wisdom.”

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