This week, the leaders of female Catholic religious orders from around the world came to the Vatican for a meeting with the pope. During a question-and-answer session Thursday, they asked him why the Church bans women from serving as deacons—a kind of Catholic clergy. Why not at least study the question? they asked.
Francis said yes.
It is big news that the pope will create a commission to study the possibility of female deacons. For centuries, at least in the West, women have not served in this kind of leadership role in the Catholic Church. The Church has ruled definitively that they cannot be admitted to the priesthood; in 1994, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this ban in his apostolic exhortation Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he wrote that the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” Although women around the world, and particularly in the United States, have pushed for their ordination as priests, it is unlikely that this will change.
The diaconate, though, is different. “The Church has every right and possibility of restoring women to the ministry of deacon to our churches,” said Phyllis Zagano, an adjunct professor at Hofstra University who has written extensively on this question. Historically, women have been part of the diaconate—they served the Church in this way until at least the 12th century in the West, she said, and can currently be part of in some Eastern churches, such as the Orthodox Church of Greece. In the West, “over the years, the ministry of women as deacons outside the monastery fell away,” she said. But “the Church has never overruled the need for women deacons.”