Francis’ comments came in response to a question posed by a sister and member of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), who met with the Pope May 12 as part of their May 9-13 Plenary Assembly, which focuses largely on the role of women in the Church, and obstacles hindering it.
Francis’ lengthy discussion with the sisters consisted of four questions that touched on the lack of consecrated and lay women in decision-making roles in the Church, how to better insert women into the life of the Church, as well as the temptations of both feminism and clericalism.
In the question on deaconesses, the sister asked why the Church doesn’t include women in the permanent diaconate, since they already work with the poor and sick, and, in some cases where there is no priest, distribute Communion, lead prayer services and even give the equivalent of a small homily.
“What stops the Church from including women from being permanent deacons, like in the ancient Church? Why not form an official commission to study the question?” the sister asked.
Part of the Church’s sacrament of Holy Orders, the diaconate is currently only open to men.
Pope Francis said the topic of the female diaconate was something that interested him a lot when he came to Rome for meetings. He usually stayed at the Domus Paolo VI residence on this trips, and there met a Syrian theologian who was an expert on the topic of the permanent diaconate.
After asking the man, whom he described as “a good professor, wise, a scholar,” about the role of female deacons, Francis said the answer he got was that their role in the early Church was “to help in the baptism of women, in the immersion…for decency,” and to anoint women's bodies.
In addition to assisting with the full-immersion baptisms of women, deaconesses would also serve as an aide to the bishop in determining the authenticity of domestic abuse, he said.
The Pope recalled how the Syrian professor told him that “when there was a matrimonial judge because the husband beat the wife and she went to the bishop to complain, the deaconesses were in charge of looking at the bruises on the woman’s body from her husband’s beatings and informed the bishop.”
“This, I remember,” he said, noting that while the Church has already published documents on the topic of the permanent diaconate which touch on the topic of deaconesses, including a 2002 document from the International Theological Commission, the conclusion for modern times was still “unclear.”
The document, which gave a thorough historical context of the role of the deaconess in the ancient Church, overwhelmingly concluded that female deacons in the early Church had not been equivalent to male deacons, and had “no liturgical function,” nor a sacramental one.
It also maintained that even in the fourth century “the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns.”
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However, given the lack of clarity on the issue today and due to the fact he was only speaking on the basis on his conversation with the Syrian professor, Francis said that “I think that I’ll ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to the studies on the issue.”
He also voiced his desire “to establish an official commission to clarify this point. I am in agreement, and I will speak to do something of this kind.”
“To me it seems useful to have a commission that clarifies this well, above all regarding the ancient times of the Church.”
In her question, the sister also asked the Pope to give an example of where he sees “the possibility of a better insertion of women and women consecrated in the life of the Church.”
While concrete areas of insertion didn’t immediately come to his mind, the Pope said that “consecrated women must participate” in consultations and assemblies with religious, “this is clear.”
Women, he said, see things “with a different originality than that of men, and this enriches: both in consultations and in decisions, and in concreteness.”