Pope to Set Up Commission to Study Possibility of Women Deacons

(photo: Register Files)

Pope Francis said today he would set up a commission to study women deacons in the early Church, a proposal that has often been discussed by modern theologians such as Cardinals Carlo Martini and Walter Kasper. 

Speaking to around 900 members of the International Union of Superiors General today, representing half a million religious sisters from 80 countries, the Pope was asked if he would establish “an official commission” to study the question of women deacons.

He replied: “I accept. It would be useful for the Church to clarify this question. I agree."

The Church reintroduced the permanent diaconate for males after the Second Vatican Council. Deacons cannot celebrate the Eucharist, but can preach at Mass, preside at weddings and funerals, and perform baptisms.

Reporting on the Pope’s comments today, Corriere della Sera pointed out that any move to introduce women deacons would be fulfilling one of the key goals of the Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini, the controversial archbishop of Milan who died in 2012. It writes:

"On the women diaconate, the Church did not say no," Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said in 1994, commenting on John Paul II’s ban on women priests [Ordinatio Sacerdotalis] — a solemn declaration and a step with a mark of papal infallibility which Pope Francis has repeatedly said he intends to follow. Despite the "no", for the cardinal there was still an “open space”. Discussion on the role of women could be continued from the diaconate because the document “does not mention it, so does not rule it out."

The article went on to point out that because there were women deacons in the early Church, the cardinal felt it would not hurt to re-open the diaconate to women, while recognizing that John Paul II’s ban on women priests was “decisive”,  “incontrovertible”, and “irreformable".

Cardinal Martini saw such a reform as keeping open the path to ecumenical dialogue, “showing the presence and mission of women in all fields.” Groups pushing for women priests have often quoted Cardinal Martini’s comments, made at the Eucharistic Congress in Siena days after John Paul II issues Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

According to WomenPriests.org, theologian Bruno Forte (now Archbishop Forte and a close adviser to Pope Francis), commented on Cardinal Martini’s remarks a few days later and urged the Church to "pinpoint the best possible ways for female ministry to make its own original and irreplaceable contribution to ecclesial unity, expressed and served by ordained ministry. It might not be incongruent here to make appeal to the female diaconate in the ancient Church.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper has also been a firm proponent of a women diaconate. In 2013, he spoke of a ‘deaconess’ role that would be different from the classic deacon but could include pastoral, charitable, catechetical and special liturgical functions.

The theme was also raised at the Synod on the Family in an intervention by Father Jeremias Schröder, arch-abbot and president of the Sankt Ottilien Benedictine Congregation. The German Benedictine also spoke in favor of a “space for original pastoral ideas” concerning remarried divorcees, and said that an "understanding of homosexuality...varies from culture to culture. National Episcopal Conferences could be allowed to search for pastoral solutions that are in tune with their specific cultural context.”  

Corriere della Sera claimed that the “opening” that Francis mentioned today with regards the women diaconate “would bring the Catholic Church closer to the Anglican Church, where there are women priests and bishops.”

During the question and answer session today, the Pope also spoke on other matters concerning the role of consecrated and lay women. He briefly described the temptations of feminism and clericalism, talked of changes that can be introduced into canon law, and underlined the importance of the international union in the life of the Church.

Asked what the Church would be like if there were no more religious, the Pope replied it would be “like Pentecost without Mary.” There is “no Church without Mary,” he said, “which is why every consecrated woman is an icon of the Church.” The Pope also dedicated his tweet today to female and male religious: "You wake up the world!” he wrote. “Be witnesses of a different way of thinking, acting and living."

Reacting to the Pope’s comments on a women diaconate, one Church source said: “These are substantial changes, it’s a new Church", if the Pope decides to introduce women deacons. "Change can be good of course, but change in itself is ambivalent. If the Pope starts changing things that have been in place for 2000 years, it’s a revolution and in the end there is nothing that can remain unchanged.”