The Vatican announced today that Pope Francis has convened a special commission that will consider allowing women to become deacons in the Catholic church. Deacons can perform many of the duties of priests, including preaching, conducting baptisms and marriage, and managing parishes. The commission, composed of six male and six female theologians, will study early Christian writing to determine what role deacons may have played historically, and whether those roles could now be performed by non-ordained lay people, including women.
The announcement of the formation of the commission follows unscripted remarks made by the Pope in May to a group of nuns during the gathering of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in which he acknowledged that the historical role of women in the church should be clarified.
As the church faces a shortage of priests in the United States, many Catholics support the idea of opening the ministry to a larger group of people. Jon O'Brien, President of Catholics for Choice, tells Broadly that Pope Francis has a brought a fresh air to the Catholic institution generally, and is now bringing a pair of new eyes and a fresh look at the role women in parish communities. O'Brien explains that women are already responsible for a great share of the work in churches, such as chairing committees and putting together psalms and liturgies, but that their service often goes unrecognized.
While Pope Francis has been remarkably progressive regarding social issues, including poverty, social justice, immigration, and even climate change, some have been disappointed with what they view as an outdated attitude towards the equality of women. In 2013, he declared that "the door is closed" on discussion of ordaining women into the priesthood. And in a statement many viewed as dismissive, he described female theologians as the "strawberries on the cake." In a 2014 interview, when asked about the possibility of appointing a woman to head a Vatican department, Pope Francis joked about women being "taken from a rib" and said, "Well, priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers."
The announcement of the commission has been greeted with enthusiasm by many Catholics, who are pleased with the Pope's service, but have been concerned about his stance on the role of women within the faith. "The idea that women should be able to give service to the church in this way is a no-brainer for many of us. We see this as an important first step in a church where the upper echelons have been notoriously conservative with a very negative and backward view of women," says O'Brien. "The truth is the church desperately needs women."