Pope Francis has announced he will create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic church, signaling an historic openness to the possibility of ending the global institution's practice of an all-male clergy.
The pontiff indicated he would create such a commission during a meeting at the Vatican Thursday with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious, who asked him during a question-and-answer session why the church excludes women from serving as deacons.
The women religious, meeting with the pope as part of the triennial assembly of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), 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?"
The pope responded that he had spoken about the matter once some years ago with a "good, wise professor" who had studied the use of female deacons in the early centuries of the church. Francis said it remained unclear to him what role such deacons had.
"What were these female deacons?" the pontiff recalled asking the professor. "Did they have ordination or no?"
"It was a bit obscure," said Francis. "What was the role of the deaconess in that time?"
"Constituting an official commission that might study the question?" the pontiff asked aloud. "I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this."
"I accept," the pope said later. "It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well."
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 claimed 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.
In the modern day, the Catholic church reinstituted the role of the permanent deacon following the reforms of the landmark 1962-65 Second Vatican Council. The role is generally open to married men who have reached the age of 35.
Such men are ordained, similar to priests, but can only conduct certain ministries in the church.
While they cannot celebrate the Mass, they frequently lead prayer services, offer the sacrament of baptism, and even manage parishes as pastoral administrators in the absence of priests.
Francis said Thursday that the professor he spoke with years ago had told him that female deacons had helped the early church particularly in baptizing women, when the practice of baptism at the time called for full immersion of the person’s naked body in water.
The pontiff's words about female deacons were only part of a nearly 75-minute meeting with the members of the International Union of Superiors General, which represents nearly half a million Catholic women religious on five continents.
NCR was one of two outlets in attendance at the meeting, which was not publicized by the Vatican and in a somewhat unusual move was also not televised or transmitted to reporters at the Vatican's press office.
The women religious asked the pope four notably strong questions, leading with an inquiry on how to better integrate women into the life of the global church.
Related: Full text of questions to Francis from women religious
Quoting the pontiff's frequent use of the phrase "feminine genius" to describe women’s role in the church, they noted that while the pope uses that phrase "women are excluded from the decision-making processes of the church" and from giving the homily at the Mass.
Francis responded that the integration of women into the life of the church had been "very weak," and said: "We must go forward."
The pope noted that the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has a woman serving as its second-in-command and said he wanted to appoint a particular woman to a similar position in another office but that she had been preferred to serve elsewhere.
"For me, the elaboration of decisions is very important," said the pontiff. "Not only the execution, but the elaboration; namely, that women, whether consecrated or lay, are inserted into the process of the discussion."
"Because [a] woman looks at life with true eyes," said Francis. "We men cannot look at it so. The way of seeing problems, of seeing whatever thing is totally … different than men. They have to be complementary. In consultations, it is very important that women be there."
Francis said that it is a "theological/liturgical" issue of whether women can give the homily at Mass. He said there is "no problem" for women to give reflections or homilies at prayer services, but that during the Mass the priest is serving "in persona Christi" and is therefore the person to give the homily.
The pontiff also told the women religious that the church needs to treat them with more respect, saying he has seen many times that sisters are made to do the "work of servitude and not service."
The pope told them that should someone "ask you to do something that is more of servitude than service, you are courageous to say no!"
"Your vocation is for service, service to the church … but not of servitude," said Francis.
The pontiff then asked aloud: "What would the church miss if there were no more religious?"
"We would lack Mary on the day of Pentecost," he responded. "There is not a church without Mary. There is not Pentecost without Mary."
"The consecrated woman is an icon of the church, an icon of Mary," said Francis. "The priest is not an icon of the church, he is not an icon of Mary. He is an icon of the apostles, of the disciples ... but not of the church of Mary."
Francis also responded to a question from the women religious about how the church hierarchy often speaks "of" them but does not speak "with" them.
"The hierarchy of the church must speak of you, but first must speak with you," responded the pontiff. "This is for sure." Speaking of women religious without speaking with them, he continued: "This is not of the Gospel."
The women religious also told the pontiff that many of their congregations are confronting the challenge to bring "newness" to religious life, but that often they feel "blocked" by limitations placed on them in the church's Code of Canon Law. They asked if he could foresee changes to canon law that might help them.
"You have spoken of newness in the positive sense," responded the pope. "And the church is the majesty in this because it has had to change so, so much in its history."
But he told the women religious that changes must come after a process of discernment and discussion with the Holy Spirit, and not just in weighing pros and cons of the possible arguments.
"Every change that you must do ... enter into this process of discernment," he said. "This will give you more freedom."
Francis then said that canon law is meant to serve as a "juridical help" to the church and noted that the Code had been "changed, totally remade" two times in the 20th century.
"The Code is an instrument," he said. "But I insist, never make a change without making a process of discernment."
The women religious also told the pope that "one of the obstacles" many of their orders face in the church is the request that they give money to the local churches where they serve, or that they offer money in order to receive the sacraments from priests.
"The problem of money is a very important problem, in consecrated life and in diocesan life," responded Francis. "Do not ever forget that the Devil comes through the pockets, whether it is the pockets of the bishop or the congregation."
The pope then said that access to the sacraments should be free to all.
"Salvation is free," said the pontiff. "God comes to us freely."
"If someone asks you for this, report this!" he exclaimed. "There is not salvation by payment!"
Francis also told the woman religious that although they have committed themselves to live a life of Gospel poverty, they should not deprive themselves of having what is necessary to live.
"The religious life is a way of poverty, not of suicide," said the pope.
"If you do not have what is necessary to live, tell your bishop," he said. After many of the women religious laughed out loud at that advice, Francis smiled and corrected himself: "Tell it to God: 'Give us today our daily bread.'"
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]