VATICAN CITY • Pope Francis said he would set up a commission to study whether women could serve as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church, a move hailed by women who have campaigned for years for a more prominent role.
His remarks reveal an openness to re-examining the Church's long-held insistence on an all-male clergy. Yet the idea will face stiff resistance from those who believe that it is the first step towards ordaining female priests, something that recent popes have ruled out, citing church doctrine.
The Pope's comments were made during an assembly of leaders of women's religious orders and came during a question-and-answer session in which he said that he wanted to "increase the number of women in decision-making positions".
One woman asked about the possibility of an official commission to study the issue. His response was, in essence, "Why not?"
Pope Francis mused, according to the National Catholic Reporter: "It would do good for the Church to clarify this point. It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well."
COMMISSION WOULD BE 'USEFUL'
It would do good for the Church to clarify this point. It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.
POPE FRANCIS , when asked about the possibility of an official commission to study whether women could serve as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.
Deacons are ordained ministers in the Catholic Church, and in many parishes they handle many of the same tasks that priests do. They are permitted to preach at Mass, perform baptisms, witness marriages and conduct funeral services.
Facing a shortage of priests, the Church in the United States has for decades been actively encouraging men to become deacons to fill the gaps. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops says there are now more than 13,000 men serving in what is called the "permanent diaconate".
Creating a Vatican commission is no guarantee of change. Such commissions can take years to reach conclusions and are only advisory.
Pope Paul VI rejected the majority report of a Vatican commission in 1966 that, after three years of study, essentially recommended that the church lift its ban on artificial birth control.
It is far from clear that Pope Francis favours female deacons or that a commission he appointed would even recommend this change.
Some Catholic women cite research showing that women served as deacons in the church's early history.
But the Pope asked some sceptical questions at the assembly about whether the responsibilities of deaconesses in the early church were more circumscribed than those of male deacons.
Pope Francis, who has been urged to give women a greater role in the Church, said his first step would be to consult with the Church's doctrinal office "to tell me if there are studies on this".
At the session with the female superiors general on Thursday, Pope Francis admitted that the integration of women into the life of the church had been "very weak" and said: "We must go forward."
NEW YORK TIMES