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