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What’s Up with Pope Francis and the Question of Women Deacons?

Many people have heard rumors concerning Pope Francis and the possibility of women deacons, so I thought it would be worth a blog post. This topic has come up many times lately in conversation, so I thought it would be worth mentioning. 

The pope recently chose to clarify what he means when a nun group first broached the subject of women deacons with him in May, but it has re-emerged recently with the announcement that a committee has indeed been set up to study women deacons.

I can’t claim to know what conclusions the commission will reach, what new information will emerge regarding the history of women deacons, or what the Pope will do with the information gathered by the committee.

For those unfamiliar with women deacons, the following facts might help put current discussions in perspective:

  1. In the long history of the Church, women have served as deacons for thousands of years, beginning in the early Church (St. Phoebe, deacon from the 1st century, feast day = September 3)
  2. Women’s role as deacons in the Church seems to have varied from place to place and time to time.
  3. At that time, women were not understood to be deacons as we do now.
  4. Deacons were lost in Church history at one point. The deacons we know today are largely the result of a renewal of the permanent diaconate foreshadowed by Trent and implemented through Vatican II.
  5. In 2002, an International Theological Commission issued a document with more information on the history and role of the diaconate. This document included some information on the history of women deacons, but left a number of questions unanswered.

A few conclusions:

  1. I hope that the committee appointed by Pope Francis might further the International Theological Commission’s study. Discuss the unique role that women deacons played in Church history, assuming that it was of a different nature from deacons ordained by men.
  2. From the historical evidence, it is clear that women “deacons” or “deaconesses” are allowed.
  3. Pope Francis confirmed in June that no change allowing for women deacons is currently in process. However, he has initiated a commission to examine the role and significance of women deacons in the past. The results of the study might have an impact on our understanding of the diaconate. There are only three paths forward: a) no change to current practice; b) clarify the diaconate’s role and whether or not it is sacramental in nature; or c) an inconclusive conclusion. Since the Church typically thinks and acts in centuries rather than decades, I personally don’t hold my breath.

In spite of practical concerns regarding the commission and women deacons, I believe Pope Francis is expressing a clear message regarding integrating women into the Church, not only through baptism, but through meaningful roles in the Church.

I hope the current study helps us to shed light on the diaconate in the Church, and we will be better able to understand how women have performed various roles in the Church through the centuries, regardless of what happens in the future regarding deaconess.