Pope Francis has said that the historical role of female deacons needs to be studied, and that he will ask the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith (CDF) whether such research has been carried out.
At a meeting with heads of women’s religious orders from around the world, the Pope was asked whether he would create an official commission to study whether women could be ordained as deacons.
Female deacons are mentioned in the New Testament, by several Church fathers, and in the documents of the Council of Nicea, but it is debated whether this role was similar to that of present-day permanent deacons – who officiate at baptisms and weddings, and sometimes preach at Mass.
Francis told the meeting of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) that, on his understanding, the women described as deacons in the New Testament were not ordained in the manner of today’s permanent deacons; rather, they helped when women received full-immersion baptism, or with anointing.
However, the Pope said, the question is “obscure” and needs more study. He told the meeting: “I will ask the [Congregation for the] Doctrine of the Faith to tell me if there are studies on this.”
He also said: “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
In 2001, the International Theological Commission, which advises the CDF, issued a document which concluded that female deacons in history were not equivalent to permanent deacons. “The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.”
The commission added that the diaconate was separate from the priesthood. “The unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the Magisterium.”
The current prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, took part in the 2001 commission. He said afterwards that women could not be ordained as deacons for the same reason they could not be ordained priests. “It would be a real discrimination against women if they were considered as apt for the diaconate, but not for the priesthood or episcopacy,” the cardinal said.
Pope Francis told the meeting that women could not preach at Mass because the priest is serving “in persona Christi” and should therefore give the homily.
He said the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments would send the International Union of Superiors General a full explanation of why women could not give a homily at Mass.