The pontiff indicated he would create such a commission during a meeting at the Vatican Thursday with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious, who asked him during a question-and-answer session why the church excludes women from serving as deacons.
The women religious, meeting with the pope as part of the triennial assembly of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), told Francis that women has served as deacons in the early church and asked: “Why not construct an official commission that might study the question?”
The pope responded that he had spoken about the matter once some years ago with a “good, wise professor” who had studied the use of female deacons in the early centuries of the church. Francis said it remained unclear to him what role such deacons had.
“What were these female deacons?” the pontiff recalled asking the professor. “Did they have ordination or no?” “It was a bit obscure,” said Francis. “What was the role of the deaconess in that time?”
“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked aloud. “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.” “I accept,” the pope said later. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
Francis’ openness to studying the possibility of women serving as deacons could represent an historic shift for the global Catholic church, which does not ordain women as clergy.
Pope John Paul II claimed in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that “the Church has no authority whatsoever” to ordain woman as priests, citing Jesus’ choosing of only men to serve as his twelve apostles.
Many church historians have said however that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. The apostle Paul mentions such a woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans.
In the modern day, the Catholic church reinstituted the role of the permanent deacon following the reforms of the landmark 1962-65 Second Vatican Council. The role is generally open to married men who have reached the age of 35.
Such men are ordained, similar to priests, but can only conduct certain ministries in the church. While they cannot celebrate the Mass, they frequently lead prayer services, offer the sacrament of baptism, and even manage parishes as pastoral administrators in the absence of priests.
Francis said Thursday that the professor he spoke with years ago had told him that female deacons had helped the early church particularly in baptizing women, when the practice of baptism at the time called for full immersion of the person’s naked body in water.
The pontiff’s words about female deacons were only part of a nearly 75-minute meeting with the members of the International Union of Superiors General, which represents nearly half a million Catholic women religious on five continents.
The women religious asked the pope four notably strong questions, leading with an inquiry on how to better integrate women into the life of the global church.
Quoting the pontiff’s frequent use of the phrase “feminine genius” to describe women’s role in the church, they noted that while the pope uses that phrase “women are excluded from the decision-making processes of the church” and from giving the homily at the Mass.
Francis responded that the integration of women into the life of the church had been “very weak,” and said: “We must go forward.”
The pope noted that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has a woman serving as its second-in-command and said he wanted to appoint a particular woman to a similar position in another office but that she had been preferred to serve elsewhere.
“For me, the elaboration of decisions is very important,” said the pontiff. “Not only the execution, but the elaboration; namely, that women, whether consecrated or lay, are inserted into the process of the discussion.”
“Because [a] woman looks at life with true eyes,” said Francis. “We men cannot look at it so. The way of seeing problems, of seeing whatever thing is totally … different than men. They have to be complementary. In consultations, it is very important that women be there.”
Francis said that it is a “theological/liturgical” issue of whether women can give the homily at Mass. He said there is “no problem” for women to give reflections or homilies at prayer services, but that during the Mass the priest is serving “in persona Christi” and is therefore the person to give the homily.
This is a breaking news story that is being updated.
Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent.