ROME — At what was meant to be a love fest for 900 nuns at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General at the Vatican on Thursday, Pope Francis didn’t just rock the boat; he may have created a tidal wave.
During the question and answer session of the meeting, one of the sisters at the conference brought up the fact that women had served as deacons in the early church.
Then, according to the National Catholic Reporter, she asked the pope, “Why not construct an official commission that might study the question?”
Francis then said that he had discussed the matter of those early deaconesses with a professor several years earlier, but that he remained unclear about what role they actually served.
“What were these female deacons?” Francis said he asked the professor, according to the National Catholic Reporter. “Did they have ordination or no? It was a bit obscure. What was the role of the deaconess in that time?”
Then, apparently thinking out loud, he endorsed the idea.
“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” Francis asked. “I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”
The pope went on to address other concerns from the group of sisters, and dole out advice like “take a deep breath” and “get more sleep” and then revisited the topic. “I accept,” the pope said. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
Deacons in the Catholic context act as a sort of priest-lite: they cannot perform the sacrament of the Eucharist (give holy communion) and they don’t have to take the vow of celibacy; in fact many are married. But they can perform any number of ministerial roles, from baptisms to funerals, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website, which is something many of the world’s Catholics just might appreciate.
Quoting canon 1024 of the Code of Canon Law, Catholic website Crux points out that at the moment, “only a baptized male can receive the sacrament of ordination, so the law does not presently permit female deacons.” Crux editors then question whether Francis will change the law, which is within his powers as pope.
As exciting as this is for roughly one half of the world’s Catholic population (the female half), surely not everyone will be pleased at the idea of women nudging one step closer to the all-male clergy club that rules the Catholic Church.
Almost immediately, liberal priests tweeted their praise. Father James Martin, a prolific author priest from New York, tweeted that the news filled him with “immense joy” and that, “Women deacons would be able to baptize, preside at marriages and funerals, and preach at Mass. It would be an immense gift to the church.”
A more conservative priest tweeted, “Has @Pontifex forgotten about this 2002 study about diaconate where issue of women deacons was examined?” referring to a Vatican study that all but nixed the idea.
Even if the special commission Pope Francis promised today does pave the way to the ordination of women deacons, they may never have a hope in Hell of being allowed to enter the full priesthood. But they are certainly one step closer than they have ever been before.