THE Pope has agreed to form a commission to study the question whether there were women deacons in the Early Church.
His decision raised hopes among some Roman Catholics that Pope Francis was taking a first step toward the ordination of women as deacons and then as priests.
But, amid a wave of speculation around the world, the Pope’s spokesman issued a statement a day later denying that the Pontiff was seeking the ordination of women to either the diaconate or the ministerial priesthood.
Pope Francis made his remarks during a meeting with more than 900 members of the International Union of Superiors General, an organisation that represents about half a million nuns and religious sisters worldwide. He was asked if he would establish an official commission to study the question whether women could be admitted to the diaconate.
The Pope answered: “I accept. It would be useful for the Church to clarify this question. I agree. It’s a page that is somewhat obscure.”
He told the superiors that he would ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “to tell me if there are studies on this”.
The absence of a tradition of women priests was a reason given by Pope John Paul II for resisting pressure for a change in church practice in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, his Apostolic Letter of 1994.
Supporters of women’s ordination in the RC Church have argued that women deacons are recorded as active in the early Church, and that this suggests a tradition of women in that position.
In his conversations with the female religious superiors on Thursday of last week, Pope Francis said that he accepted that the Church’s grasp of the part played by women deacons in the early centuries was vague and demanded clarity.
He told his audience that it was his understanding that the women deacons described in the Bible had not been admitted to holy orders, but assisted in good works in the community, including the immersion and anointing of other women during adult baptisms.
The director of the Vatican press office, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, moved swiftly the next day to quell speculation that Pope Francis was supporting the admission of women to holy orders.
”One must be honest: the Pope did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons, and even less did he talk about the ordination of women as priests,” Fr Lombardi said.
”In actual fact, the Pope made clear in his preaching during the course of the eucharistic celebration that he was not considering this at all.”
He said that the admission of women to the diaconate had been much discussed, and that it “comes from the fact that in the Early Church there were women who were called deaconesses, who carried out certain services within the community”.
In 2002, the International Theological Commission, which advises the Vatican, expressed the view that the part played by such women in the Early Church had not been equivalent to that of ordained male deacons.