Pope Francis on Thursday told an international conference of nuns that he wants to create a commission to study the possibility of “reinstating” female deacons, a dramatic statement highlighting the historic role of women in the church, but one which left unclear what tangible changes Francis is open to making.
In a news release, coming a half-day after news of the comments emerged on the Web, the Vatican press office said that the pope made the statement in response to questions about contemporary women’s leadership from nuns at a major Vatican conference.
“Up to the 5th century, the Diaconate flourished in the western Church, but in the following centuries it experienced a slow decline, surviving only as an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for priestly ordination. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Church restored the role of permanent deacon, which is open to single and married men. Many experts believe that women should also be able to serve in this role, since there is ample evidence of female deacons in the first centuries, including one named Phoebe who is cited by Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans,” the release from the Vatican press office said. Francis “said understanding about their role in the early Church remained unclear and agreed it would be useful to set up a commission to study the question.”
The pope’s comments immediately triggered debate about whether Francis was opening the door for radical change or instead turning back the clock by reviewing biblical history many feminists see as settled.
Reaction seemed to fortify Francis’s reputation on the topic of women: A pope who speaks of moving the needle on female leadership but often in the voice of a macho elder.
“I never imagined there was such a disconnect, truly. Thank you for telling me so courageously and for doing so with that smile,” Francis told the group as he reaffirmed women’s lack of influence in church decision-making.
As is typical of the spontaneous Francis, his comments came unexpectedly during a question-and-answer session first reported on by The National Catholic Reporter and the Catholic News Service.
Church-watchers quickly disagreed over whether Francis was speaking primarily of studying history or was talking about making changes in the future. His spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, at first told The Washington Post that the distinction wasn’t clear.
The later statement, released by the Rev. Thomas Rosica, an English-language press assistant, made clear that Francis wasn’t talking only of a historical examination. However it noted that when the pope was asked about women preaching homilies during Mass — which deacons do, as do priests — Rosica wrote that the pope “said it’s important to distinguish” between different types of speaking, and that speaking during Mass connects the role of priest to the person of Jesus.
A spokeswoman for the International Union of Superiors General, a global nun group, said Francis’s comments were very positive. The group “is very happy for the welcoming conversation with the pope, it was very friendly, familiar. It was a real dialogue,” said Patrizia Morgante.
In the Catholic Church, deacons are clergy who may baptize in a similar way to priests, may officiate at weddings and may preach. And unlike priests, they may marry. They cannot, however, carry out many of the sacraments, such as consecrating the bread or wine for the Holy Eucharist. They can, however, distribute the Holy Communion.
“It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree,” Francis told the 900 women at the conference of the International Union of Superiors General, according to the Catholic News Service. The group represents almost 500,000 sisters around the world who lead many aspects of the church’s day-to-day work.
Yet some female theologians were quick to focus on the ambiguity of the pope’s words. A commission to merely study the historical role of women as deacons in centuries past, they warned, could yet mean a long road ahead before women could actually be ordained as deacons today.
“The issue of female deacons has already been studied in depth,” said Marinella Perroni, Rome-based theologian. “I hope we don’t start from scratch now.”
The pope’s comments came during a two-week period that saw women’s issues raised more than is usual within the male-dominated walls of Vatican City.
One week ago, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state and a close confident of the pope, said that theoretically, there is no reason why a woman could not one day fill his job.
Parolin – often viewed as the most powerful figure in Vatican City after the pope – made that statement as the Vatican unveiled an overhaul of a section for women in its official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
Francis has spoken out against gender inequality in other veins, for instance calling the pay gap between men and women who do the same job “pure scandal.” In an institution that has been occasionally uncomfortable in addressing head-on the question of women’s role in the church, he has also seemed to facilitate a broader debate. Last year, for instance, the Vatican hosted a number of conferences focused on women, including one titled “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.”
Although Francis had elaborated on the need for a greater role for women in the church, he has categorically ruled out the notion of ordaining female priests. As recently as September, he told reporters on a flight back to Rome after his historic visit to the United that the ordination of women “cannot be done.”
“Pope St. John Paul II after long, long, intense discussions, long reflection, said so clearly,” the pope said. “Not because women don’t have the capacity. Look, in the church women are more important than men, because the church is a woman. It is “la” church, not “il” church. The church is the bride of Jesus Christ. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests. I must admit we are a bit late in an elaboration of the theology of women. We have to move ahead with that theology. Yes, that’s true.”
Church leaders have been talking about the questions around female deacons for years. A 2002 Vatican commission called for a “ministry of discernment” within the church to sort out just what women deacons did in the past and how that relates to the present.
Deacon Greg Kandra, a traditional and popular blogger, on Thursday cited that 2002 document, which said “deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.”
“So, this issue is far from settled. No imminent change is on the horizon, and no one should think the pope’s comments today indicate a radical shift. It’s not. Mostly, he himself seems to be asking the question, ‘What’s the deal with women deacons, anyway?’ ” Kandra wrote Thursday.
Sister Simone Campbell, a prominent progressive U.S. nun who leads the domestic social justice lobbying firm NETWORK, said it wasn’t clear from reports if Francis just meant to push the topic off on a commission or was being “more calculated” as a way to expand women’s leadership options down the road.
She noted that there are references in the New Testament and in early church art to women’s leadership. “The problem is there are 1,000 years of saying women’s leadership never happened. Part of it is lifting up scriptural references that have been glossed over and moving the church along to accept it. You know how it is for human beings: We see what we expect and don’t see what we don’t want to see. I think that’s what’s opening up, is the effort to look at the deeper truth.”
Campbell sees Francis as “kind of caught” between coming from a culture dominated by images of men as leaders, but also a person who has strong women friends and sees women as leaders.
He noted to the crowd Thursday that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has a woman serving as its second-in-command and said he had wanted to appoint a particular woman to a similar position in another high office but that she had preferred to serve elsewhere, according to National Catholic Reporter.
Women at the conference asked him to reconcile a phrase he often uses – “feminine genius” – with the reality that women can’t give a homily in their parishes, according to the NCR.
Campbell said she worries that Francis’s sometimes-admiring language about women can at times seem confining.
“One thing I find rather annoying is that he doesn’t see us as ‘Eve-temptress,’ but more like Mary. That’s putting women on a pedestal. That’s as confining a cage. If [a potential] commission can open up the idea of women as gifted and challenged , then I think we’ll be okay.”
Some theologians saw the comments as hugely significant.
“I can’t underscore enough how groundbreaking this is for the Church,” Boston College theologian James Bretzke wrote in an e-mail. “If women can be ordained as deacons, then this is going to weaken – not destroy – but weaken significantly the argument that women absolutely are incapable of being ordained as priests. So this is opening more than a crack in the door.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says there are currently more than 13,000 deacons in the United States.
During his talk with the nuns Thursday, Francis said he once asked a professor to educate him on the role of those early female deacons — including whether they were ordained. The answer, he said, “was a bit obscure.”