Editor's Note: Includes Vatican statement.
VATICAN CITY — Yesterday, Pope Francis raised eyebrows around the world after declaring his openness to establishing a commission to study the female deaconate, but a careful look at his full response is less of a shocker and points to nothing new.
In fact, in addition to giving a brief summary of a deaconess’ duties in the ancient Church, the Pope suggested that, in modern times, nuns perhaps already fill the role.
“(The question) touches the problem of the permanent deaconate. One could say that the ‘permanent deaconesses’ in the life of the Church are the sisters,” he said May 12.
“What were these deaconesses? Were they ordained or no?” he asked, and he noted that the Council of Chalcedon in 451 spoke about the topic, but was “a bit obscure.” It is because of this obscurity that the Pope said he wanted to form a commission to study the topic.
Francis’ comments came in response to a question posed by a sister and member of the International Union of Superiors General, who met with the Pope May 12 as part of their May 9-13 plenary assembly, which focuses largely on the role of women in the Church and obstacles hindering it.
Francis’ lengthy discussion with the sisters consisted of four questions that touched on the lack of consecrated and lay women in decision-making roles in the Church, how to better insert women into the life of the Church and the temptations of both feminism and clericalism.
In the question on deaconesses, the sister asked why the Church doesn’t include women in the permanent deaconate, since they already work with the poor and sick and, in some cases where there is no priest, distribute Communion, lead prayer services and even give the equivalent of a small homily.
“What stops the Church from including women from being permanent deacons, like in the ancient Church? Why not form an official commission to study the question?” the sister asked.
Part of the Church’s sacrament of holy orders, the diaconate is currently only open to men.
Pope Francis said the topic of the female diaconate was something that interested him a lot when he came to Rome for meetings. He usually stayed at the Domus Paolo VI residence on this trips, and there he met a Syrian theologian who was an expert on the topic of the permanent deaconate.
After asking the man, whom he described as “a good professor, wise, a scholar,” about the role of female deacons, Francis said the answer he got was that their role in the early Church was “to help in the baptism of women, in the immersion … for decency,” and to anoint women’s bodies.
In addition to assisting with the full-immersion baptisms of women, deaconesses would also serve as aides to the bishop in determining the authenticity of domestic abuse, he said.
The Pope recalled how the Syrian professor told him that “when there was a matrimonial judge [appointed] because the husband beat the wife and she went to the bishop to complain, the deaconesses were in charge of looking at the bruises on the woman’s body from her husband’s beatings and informed the bishop.”
“This, I remember,” he said, noting that while the Church has already published documents on the topic of the permanent diaconate — which touched on the topic of deaconesses, including a 2002 document from the International Theological Commission — the conclusion for modern times was still “unclear.”
The document, which gave a thorough historical context of the role of the deaconess in the ancient Church, overwhelmingly concluded that female deacons in the early Church had not been equivalent to male deacons and had “no liturgical function,” nor a sacramental one.
It also maintained that, even in the fourth century “the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns.”
However, given the lack of clarity on the issue today and due to the fact he was only speaking on the basis of his conversation with the Syrian professor, Francis said, “I think that I’ll ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to the studies on the issue.”
He also voiced his desire “to establish an official commission to clarify this point. I am in agreement, and I will speak to [others about the possibility to] do something of this kind.”
“To me, it seems useful to have a commission that clarifies this well, above all regarding the ancient times of the Church.”
In her question, the sister also asked the Pope to give an example of where he sees “the possibility of a better insertion of women and women consecrated in the life of the Church.”
While concrete areas of insertion didn’t immediately come to his mind, the Pope said that “consecrated women must participate” in consultations and assemblies with religious: “This is clear.”
Women, he said, see things “with a different originality than that of men, and this enriches: both in consultations and in decisions and in concreteness.”
The works consecrated women carry out with the poor and marginalized, in teaching catechesis and accompanying the sick and the dying, the Pope said, “are very maternal works, where the maternity of the Church can be expressed more.”
As Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi emphasized:
“The Pope did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons, and even less did he talk about the ordination of women as priests. In actual fact, the Pope made clear in his preaching during the course of the Eucharistic celebration that he was not considering this (question) at all.”