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Why Pope Francis says there will likely never be female priests

Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, Pope Francis said the church's rules against ordaining women as priests will likely last forever. 

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    Pope Francis speaks to journalists on his flight back to Rome on Nov. 1, 2016.
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Catholic women shouldn't expect to be ordained as priests anytime soon, said Pope Francis aboard his papal plane Tuesday. 

Speaking to reporters on his way back to Rome from Sweden, Francis said that "on the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear," citing "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" (Priestly Ordination), the apostolic letter written by Pope John Paul II in 1994, which stated that women could not be priests because Jesus did not have any female apostles. 

This was not the first time Francis has denied the possibility of female priests. In 2015, he said the structural change would be impossible, "not because women do not have the capacity," but because "Pope St. John Paul II – after long, long discussion, long reflections – said it clearly." 

But the pope has since repeatedly called for women to have a more active role in the Catholic church, creating a commission in August to explore the possibility of women as deacons. The future of the church, he said last year, "means valuing the immense contribution in which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities." 

The Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women, created in August, was applauded by some as a potential step toward gender equality within the church, as Ben Rosen reported for The Christian Science Monitor at the time: 

The Vatican's announcement has led to speculation over whether the "People’s Pontiff" will be the first to bring the church in line with contemporary attitudes about women. While conservatives worry female deacons would be a "slippery slope" to women in the priesthood, others argue it’s about time the church caught up to other major Christian denominations in opening up their leadership to women.

Some have questioned, however, whether Francis's words will ever translate into action. 

"What [Francis] does is exhort more pastoral compassion and let people quietly work things out on the local pastoral level, but he’s very slow to actually change the official law or the official regulations," Bruce Morrill, a professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., told the Monitor in May, after the pope made remarks indicating that the role of deacon may be opened up to women. 

"Many in the Church hierarchy," Professor Morrill added, "would not want the people to begin seeing women in liturgical vesture and roles that would gradually lead them to ask, 'Well, why can’t women also consecrate the Blessed Sacrament at Mass?'" 

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