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In an opening with historic import, Pope Francis has said he wants to study the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, a step that could for the first time open the ranks of the Catholic Church's all-male clergy to women.

The order of deacons was reinsitituted in the Catholic Church following the reforms of the 1960s, and while deacons cannot celebrate the Eucharist like a priest, a deacon can preach at Mass, preside at weddings and funerals, and perform baptisms.

But in restoring the diaconate, the church also restricted ordination as a deacon to “mature married men” over 35.

Many protested that limitation, saying the earliest Christian texts also speak of "deaconesses" and arguing that the modern church should also allow women deacons.

Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were both theologically orthodox pontiffs who said that such a move was unjustified and could undermine the concept of the all-male priesthood.

But Francis said on May 12 he agreed the matter should be given more careful consideration, telling hundreds of nuns from around the world that he himself always wondered about the role of deaconesses in the early church.

“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked aloud in response to questions from some of the sisters.

"I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement,” he said, according to an initial report from National Catholic Reporter.

“I accept,” the pope said later. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well."

The devil will be in the details, of course.

As Francis' own questions indicated, there are debates about who the deaconesses were and what they did.

Some will argue that deaconesses played a different role in the early church from that of deacons, an office established by the Apostles to focus on caring for widows and the poor so that the Apostles could focus on preaching.

That could mean that the papal commission could re-establish an order of female deacons that falls short of actual ordination.

Or the commission could say there is no justification for establishing the office of deaconess.

But whatever happens, the fact that Francis has opened the door to the debate and the possibility of ordaining women is groundbreaking.

"This is not only an idea whose time has come, but a reality recovered from history," the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author at America magazine, wrote on Facebook.

"Their preaching at Mass would mean that the church would finally be able to hear, from the pulpit, the experience of over half its members," Martin wrote. "Taken together, all this would be an immense gift to the church. This news fills me with immense joy."

Not everyone is likely to be as pleased.

During a global meeting of bishops at the Vatican last October, a Canadian archbishop asked that the church set up a process for ordaining women deacons, a proposal that seemed to go nowhere and which was quickly opposed by many commentators.

“If you’ve opened the diaconate to women, you are opening up the door to female priests,” Chad Pecknold, a theologian at Catholic University of America, told The Washington Post at the time.

Quebec Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher anticipated that criticism, telling Catholic News Service that “the diaconate in the church’s tradition has been defined as not being ordered toward priesthood but toward ministry.”

A number of other scholars and theologians and even a few bishops and cardinals have agreed, and over the years have kept the debate over deaconesses alive.

Now their arguments will get an official hearing.


More from America

Phyllis Zagano on the question of Catholic women deacons.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Malak
8 years ago
Seeing as how there is still a dearth of priestly vocations the move towards opening the diaconate to women makes eminent sense. The current priest-to-parishioner ratio is an injustice to the people of God and a terrible burden for priests to bear alone. Holy women, always, have been the laborers who sustained the church with unheralded and selfless service. Its recent history, pointedly, demonstrates how much the church needs mercy and sanctity. Men do not have a monopoly on these virtues. The de jure prohibition of women priests and deacons, also, is not an equitable notion; rather, it’s based on custom. Jesus associated with women and never excluded them from the ministry; a male society that embraced primogeniture did that. It's time to change course after two thousand years if there is to be a church in the future.
Tim O'Leary
8 years ago
Michael - your comment underlines how easily one can depart from the deposit of the faith when the issue is framed in terms of exclusion. Was Christ practicing exclusion when he called 12 men to be his Apostles?
Laurance Strait
8 years ago
Don't forget He also called Junia to be an apostle.
Michael Malak
8 years ago
If I recall correctly, all the Apostles, except for John, were married men. Certainly, Peter had a wife and he was the rock on which the church was built though we don't have married priests, currently. The church has changed before and ought to consider if it's wise to do so now in times of pressing need. The priest shortage is real and deacons help lighten the load. Women in formal ministry would benefit all the faithful.
Tim O'Leary
8 years ago
The celibate requirement is long-standing for priests, about a thousand years, and was encouraged even by St. Paul. But, it never was a doctrine. It was always a discipline. The inability to ordain women to the priesthood is a totally different matter, an infallible doctrine, part of the Church's deposit of faith.
Laurance Strait
8 years ago
The diaconate was "reinstituted" in the 1960s? And is limited to "married men"? Perhaps you are thinking of the *permanent* diaconate...
Erica Jesse
8 years ago
All the pope said was that "It would do good for the church to clarify this point" meaning that the clarification could easily say "Definitely not and here's why." Pope Francis hasn't changed a single teaching since becoming pope and he's not about to do it now. People just are not educated enough on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 1567-1600 in this particular case if you're currious) to realize that. The Church has survived longer than any modern form of government or other society. There is no need to "modernize" because it will surely outlast all current social classifications, just as it outlasted Roman Empire and The Byzantine Empire and The Ottoman Empire.
J Cabaniss
8 years ago
The door to women priests is permanently closed.
Dubium: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith. Responsum: Affirmative. (Cdl Ratzinger)
Really, is there any doubt about what "the church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women" means?
Sandi Sinor
8 years ago
Of course there is doubt. That's because the teaching is wrong. The men who run the church have been desparately trying to forbid even talking about women's ordination. As most who know even a little about Catholic church history are aware, the church has changed many teachings. But, given the extent of pride as one of the male celibate institutional church's leading corporate sins, it can't admit that it has changed teachings, but twists and turns in rather amusing ways at times to try to say that what anyone with half a brain can see from studying the church, is really not changing but simply "developing" doctrine. The "creeping infallibility" instituted by JPII and his cohort, Ratzinger/B16, to try to stop the discussion, is illegitimate and so, of course, it has failed. Clearly the men do not want to give up their death-grip on power, and God;forbid, that they give any of it to women, those second-made creatures of God. They may have to drop the ban on married men at some point, but they will never, EVER willingly give women access to a sacrament that the men claim exlusively for themselves, at least not the current crop. The Holy Spirit continues to speak. These men haven't even been able to get the discussion stopped, as was demanded by JPII and Ratzinger. The Holy Spirit won't be quieted. It may take the men a VERY long time to drop their pride and actually listen to the Spirit, but the HS won't give up until they do. In the meantime, women should not accept the diaconate, even if offered, unless the priesthood is also opened to them.
Patricia Dilgard
8 years ago
Pope Franicis will bring an end to the "creeping infallibility." Papal infallibility is also open for discussion, at least according to Hans Kung who claims he was sent a letter from Pope Francis to that effect. The Jesuits have reached the pinacle of their dreams. Time to allow women in the Jesuit order. A new crop of Jesuitettes is just what is needed to revive a community on the brink of extinction.
J Cabaniss
8 years ago
It may be true that "the church has changed many teachings", but there is no path from that claim to the assumption that the church may change whatever she likes, including something she has infallibly taught. Any discipline instituted by the church - such as the celibate priesthood - may be changed by the church. The point of JPII's comment on the ordination of women, however, is that inasmuch as this is not something the church instituted it is something over which she has no power whatever to change. I don't think you have any appreciation for what it would mean for the church to reverse not only something she has taught unchanged since her inception, but also something she has explicitly declared to be infallible. If she were to reverse position on this point there would be no reason to believe that anything she taught was accurate. Why would we? Because she says so? The change you hope to see would be an admission either that the truth cannot be known, or that it is whatever the latest pope says it is. Either way, such a church would not be one worth belonging to.
Lisa Weber
8 years ago
This is another reason to be grateful for Pope Francis! At least he can initiate discussion. The most important role for women deacons would be preaching at Mass. The majority of church members are women. All women are silenced at the principal liturgy, which means that the church never hears a feminine interpretation of the Gospels. The diaconate should also be open to women other than nuns because we need to hear preaching from women who know what is learned in marriage. A call for discussion is a start. I am immensely grateful to see an invitation to dialogue.
Bruce Snowden
8 years ago
I think it's been "definitively" decided, using that word as I recall Pope St. JPII did, saying that, women cannot be ordained as priests, not because the Church says so, but because Christ did (don't know when the Lord said so) but I accept the Holy Father's teaching. St. JPII also said that the Deaconate is not a part of Holy Orders, and that teaching gives Holy Father Francis some "wriggle room" as he ponders allowing women to be ordained Deacon. Personally I don't see why women cannot be Deacons as the principal charisma of the Deaconate is "service" Baptism making the whole Church "diaconal" all it members ordained by the Spirit to "serve." Jesus said, "I have come to serve, not to be served," Deaconal Jesus showing the way! At least that's how it seems to me, but I am not a theologian.
alan macdonald
8 years ago
Female deaconesses. A crack in the male monolith of priesthood. Next up, same sex marriage and abortion. It's been a good day for the American Jesuits.
Joseph Guiltinan
8 years ago
As Fr. Hesburgh once noted, Jesus chose only Jewish fishermen.
Luis Gutierrez
8 years ago
Finally, better late than never! Feels like the "gentle breeze" mentioned in 1 Kings 19:12. It will be a long way to Tipperary, but the Church will get there in due time. Prayers!
Tim O'Leary
8 years ago
Whenever Pope Francis says some teaching needs to be studied or clarified, so many interpret that to mean a justification for a change to what they already knew to be true. Of course, he was just talking about the concept of deaconess, not priestess. But, as is evident from comments below from Luis and Sandi and others, no study is needed since the Church has been obviously teaching false doctrine since its inception. Like the Mormon critique, an apostasy occurred very early on, and even Jesus might have been inculpated. But, there was no apostasy, and hopes for new doctrine will not come to pass. The Church doesn't change doctrine, no matter how many think it does. That is because the "men" in the Church are not in control. It is pure hubris for any who think they have that power. Even good and holy people are not immune to temptations to "improve" the deposit of faith. But, the Holy Spirit controls the outcome. Just see how the process worked out for "Amoris Laetitia." A record number of words, many of them good and enlightening, many a balm to politically popular ideas, some adjustment of the disciplines of confession and priestly judgment, but not a whiff of doctrinal change. Do not fear, and keep the faith.
Ryder Charles
8 years ago
Mr. O'Leary, Thank you for a most excellent summary of the situation!
Ramon Almoneda
8 years ago
Why not hear from a feminine on the Gospel? It was Mary, a feminine who gave birth to the Gospel who is Jesus. She even said: "Do whatever He tells you. (Jn 2:5)

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