Why is Pope Francis creating another commission to study women as deacons?

The Vatican did not say if the commission will study the history of women in the diaconate or a future with female deacons. 

L'Osservatore Romano/AP/File
Pope Francis hugs Sister Carmen Sammut, a missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa, at the end of a special audience with members of the International Union of Superiors General at the Vatican, May 2016. The Pope announced the creation of a commission to study the possibility of female deacons.

In the three years he has held the papacy, Pope Francis has repeatedly said there should be a “more incisive female presence” in the Roman Catholic Church. But, he has been criticized of not acting enough on those words.

That could soon change.

The pope created Tuesday the Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women. In a statement, the Vatican announced the 13 members of the commission, referencing comments by the pope in May that a study of the history of female deacons would benefit the church. 

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.

“It’s way overdue,” says Susan Ross, a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago, and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. “The second wave of the women’s movement is over 50 years old,” she says, adding women were ordained in major Protestant denominations starting around that time.

“The diaconate would be affirming what women already do. Women have so many roles of service in the church, but have no official status,” she continues, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “To give women an official status is, I think, way, way, way overdue.”

The Vatican did not elaborate on whether the commission will focus on just the history of women in the diaconate, or if it will consider a future with female deacons. Composed of seven men, and six women, the commission will include priests, nuns, and professors, but no deacons. Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the body responsible for Catholic doctrine, will lead the commission. Also named to it is Phyllis Zagano, a professor at Hofstra University. Dr. Zagano has written at length on the history of the diaconate, including the book, “Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.”

Though deacons can't hear confessions or consecrate the Eucharist, they can perform many other functions that priests can, including officiating weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Currently, only married or celibate men over 35 are eligible for the diaconate.  

The church does have a history of female deacons, from Phoebe in the First Testament to the Middle Ages, when the diaconate faded as a separate order, writes Dr. Zagano, in a 2015 article for Harvard Divinity School’s summer bulletin.

The Second Vatican Council reintroduced the diaconate in the 1960s, but limited the position to just men. Still, the question of expanding the diaconate or priesthood to women has lingered. 

In 1994, Pope John Paul II shut the book on women in the priesthood. He issued a four-paragraph apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that affirmed the church's previous determination that it did not have the authority to ordain women as priests. But the letter didn’t address female deacons, leaving the subject open to argument.

Meanwhile, a commission was studying women as deacons. That commission, active from 1992 to 1997, published a study that Zagano writes appeared to approve women as deacons. But, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) refused to sign it. And a second commission published in 2002 a document that inconclusively addressed women in the diaconate.

The debate resurfaced in May, when, during a meeting with Pope Francis, leaders of female Catholic religious orders told Francis “that women had served as deacons in the early church and asked: ‘Why not construct an official commission that might study the question?’ ” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

The pontiff replied: “It would do good for the church to clarify this point.” He later added, “I accept. It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”

After the media reported the Pope was considering expanding the diaconate to women, the Vatican quickly clarified. Even the pope was critical in June of the media's response. “They said: ‘The Church opens the door to deaconesses.’ Really? I am a bit angry because this is not telling the truth of things,” he said, according to Catholic News Agency.

Church conservatives worry female deacons are a "slippery slope" to women in higher leadership positions, Candida Moss, a professor of the New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, told the Monitor in May. 

“Many in the Church hierarchy 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?’" wrote Dr. Moss, in an email to the Monitor. 

The pope, too, has been criticized of making conflicting comments about women. Although he has repeatedly spoken about expanding the role of women in the church, he also made headlines in December when he said women theologians are the “strawberry on the cake.”

It's unclear how much the inner workings of the church could prevent the commission from reaching a conclusion. But Zagano at Hofstra expressed optimism in an interview with The Washington Post Tuesday. 

“The dignity of women to be recognized as able to minister as part of the ordained diaconate – to recognize that dignity is world-changing,” said Zagano. “I think it really speaks specifically to the way the church views women.

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