Pope Francis hugs Sister Carmen Sammut after a meeting of superior generals, or the leaders of women religious orders, at the Vatican on Thursday.AP

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.”

Currently, women who want to take vows in the church can become women religious—an umbrella term that includes nuns. They serve as everything from missionaries to teachers to hospital administrators, or sometimes they live a cloistered life of prayer.

If the Church were to allow them to serve as deacons, they would be able to have a more formal leadership role in Catholic parishes. Deacons are one of three kinds of ordained ministers in Catholicism—the position is one of the “major orders” in the Church. These people can preach and lead worship; conduct weddings and funerals; and baptize people. They can’t offer communion, hear confessions, or administer confirmation. Since the 1960s, “mature married men” have been allowed to serve as permanent deacons—people who wish to take a vow to serve the Church, but who do not wish to ascend to the priesthood.

Even though the pope’s announcement—like so many other things he does—seemed a bit off the cuff, a number of recent events have laid the groundwork for this kind of conversation in the Church. Only a few months into his papacy, he said in an interview that “it is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.” And during his recent travels, Francis has taken pains to talk up the important roles women serve in the Church. Returning to Rome on the papal plane in the summer of 2013, he told reporters, “We need to develop a profound theology of womanhood. That is what I think.” During his historic visit to Cuba in September, he celebrated the role and life of Mary and praised the women who find their vocations in the church.

In April, Francis released Amoris Laetitia, a document about his views on family life known as an apostolic exhortation, that was the culmination of more than two years of study and discussion among Catholic bishops from around the world. During one of two synods, or gatherings of bishops, last October, Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Quebec pressed the Church to allow the possibility of female deacons. Ultimately, that idea didn’t catch on. The apostolic exhortation that came out of these two synods primarily focuses on the importance of family life, but the pope paid special attention to issues that affect women like domestic abuse and violent conflicts. “If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women,” he wrote.

For those who would like to see women restored to the diaconate of the Catholic Church, there’s reason to look to the Bible. As Zagano pointed out, “In the gospels, the only person with the job title of deacon is Phoebe.”

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