Women deacons commission to meet in Rome for first time next week

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by Joshua J. McElwee

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The new Vatican commission studying the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic church will be meeting in Rome for the first time as a full group Nov. 25-26.

The dates of the meeting, anticipated in recent months, was first reported Saturday by the U.S. newspaper Newsday, which spoke to commission member and NCR columnist Phyllis Zagano.

Pope Francis' creation of the commission, formally known as the Study Commission on the Women's Diaconate, has been seen as signaling an historic openness to the possibility of ending the Catholic church's practice of an all-male clergy.

The commission is made up of 12 experts in patristic theology, ecclesiology, and spirituality. It is led by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria, a Jesuit who serves as the second-in-command of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation. 

As reported first by NCR, Francis promised to create the commission during a meeting at the Vatican in May with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious, who were in Rome for the triennial meeting of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG).

Later, during a press conference with journalists in June, the pope said he had asked both Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the doctrinal congregation, and Sr. Carmen Sammut, the UISG president, to make a list of people he might consider for the group.

Saturday's Newsday report also reveals that Zagano was appointed to the women deacons commission on Sammut's recommendation.

Francis' openness to studying the possibility of women serving as deacons could represent an historic shift for the global Catholic church, which does not ordain women as clergy.

Pope John Paul II said in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that "the Church has no authority whatsoever" to ordain woman as priests, citing Jesus' choosing of only men to serve as his twelve apostles.

Many church historians have said however that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. The apostle Paul mentions such a woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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