Pope Francis agreed to a proposal to create an official study commission that might, one day, lead to women being able to serve as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church, but not as priests. That might not sound like a bold action, but the pope is potentially playing with fire. An expert said allowing female deacons could split the church into two fighting camps.
Pope Francis called for women to receive equal pay to men back in 2015, according to the Christian Science Monitor, calling the current inequality a “pure scandal.” The pope also gave priests permission to forgive women who have had an abortion and even overturned a rule excluding women from a foot-washing service during Lent despite a centuries-long tradition.
But when it comes to women moving into the ranks of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis is far more equivocal.
On Thursday, Francis held a closed-door meeting at the Vatican with the 900 world leaders of the Catholic women religious. The National Catholic Reporter and Catholic News Service were granted access, releasing a few signs that the pope is open to the idea of female deacons (or at least studying the idea more).
According to the Associated Press, when asked if he would create the commission he said, “I accept. It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree.”
German Cardinal Walter Kasper told Yahoo News that Pope Francis has good reason to be dodgy about the subject.
“There is going to be a fierce debate, I think. On this issue, the Church is split down the middle.”
Deacons are not priests, but they can conduct many of the same services, including weddings, baptisms, and funerals. They can also preach but are barred from celebrating Mass. Pope Francis indicated that he wouldn’t consider allowing female priests, but Kasper explained some already fear a slippery slope.
“The diaconate is a rank of holy orders… it is obvious that granting it to women may be seen as a major risk by those who do not want women priests.”
Current rules restrict the deacon job to men, even if they are married, over the age of 35. There were female deacons, or deaconesses, in the beginning of the church. A statement from the Women’s Ordination Conference, a group advocating for a female priesthood, dropped a few names in an official statement.
“Biblical evidence names several women deacons, working alongside men in the early Church including: Phoebe, St. Olympias, Dionysia, St. Radegund and St. Macrina.”
When pressed on the ancient female diaconate, the pope pointed out that they weren’t ordained like they are today and called their role in the early church “obscure.”
There are some people who think reviving the role of female deacons would benefit the entire church, like Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author who told the AP his view.
“The female diaconate is not only an idea whose time has come, but a reality recovered from history. This is news of immense joy for the church.”
Despite taking a number of progressive stances towards women’s rights and saying that church hierarchy would do well to listen more to women, Pope Francis has had a few criticisms over some of his quotes.
He urged nuns not to be “old maids,” called Europe an “infertile grandmother,” and called new female members of the world’s leading theological commission “strawberries on the cake.”
The new study commission does not necessarily mean Pope Francis will allow female deacons, but as the Women’s Ordination Conference explained after the meeting, it’s “great step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history.”
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