Pope Francis has set up a commission to study the role of women deacons in early Christianity, the Vatican said on Tuesday, a move that might lead to changes in the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church.
Deacons, like priests, are ordained ministers, and as in the priesthood, must be men. They may not celebrate Mass, but they may preach, teach in the name of the Church, baptise and conduct wake and funeral services.
Scholars debate the precise role of women deacons in the early Church. Some say they were ordained to minister only to other women, such as at immersion rites at baptism. Others believe they were on a par with male deacons.
The Church did away with female deacons in later centuries.
A Vatican statement said the pope decided to set up the commission, made of six men and six women members under a president who is a bishop, “after intense prayer and mature reflection”.
Francis and his predecessors have ruled out allowing women to become priests. But advocates of women priests said the move was a step forward that might eventually make it easier for a future pope to study the possibility of women priests.
Nearly all of the panel’s members are theologians and university professors. Of the six women, two are nuns and four are lay women.
The pope first announced in May his intention to set up such a commission to study the female deaconate, during a meeting with leaders of orders of Roman Catholic nuns.