Pope Francis has created a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic church, following up on a promise made last May in what could be an historic move towards ending the global institution’s practice of an all-male clergy.
The Pontiff has appointed an equal number of male and female experts as members of the commission, which will be led by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria, a Jesuit who serves as the second-in-command of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation. The Vatican said in a release announcing the commission Tuesday that the Pope had decided to create the group “after intense prayer and mature reflection” and wanted it particularly to study the history of the female diaconate “in the earliest times of the Church.”
The commission’s members include experts in patristic theology, ecclesiology, and spirituality. Included in the group are six faculty members of pontifical universities, four members of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, and one member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Among the members are six priests, four laywoman, and two women religious.
As reported first by NCR, Francis promised to create the commission during a meeting at the Vatican in May with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious, who were in Rome for the triennial meeting of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG). During a question and answer session with the Pontiff May 12, the women told Francis that women had served as deacons in the early Church and asked: “Why not construct an official commission that might study the question?” “I am in agreement,” the Pontiff replied. “I will speak to do something like this.”
Later, during a press conference with journalists in June, the Pope said he had asked both Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the doctrinal congregation, and Sr. Carmen Sammut, the UISG president, to make a list of people he might consider for the group. 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.