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Headlines were made when Pope Francis reportedly "opened the door to the possibility of ordained female deacons." But looking closer at what the Pope actually said to women religious, who brought up the issue, shows this is hardly the case.
One sister from the International Union of Superiors General, asked Pope Francis in Rome Thursday, "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 group was meeting with the Holy Father to discuss the role of women in the Church as well as the temptations of both feminism and clericalism.
To her question the Pope responded, "One could say that the 'permanent deaconesses' in the life of the Church are the sisters." He went on to ask, "What were these deaconesses? Were they ordained or no?”
It's of course a historical fact that no women were ever ordained to the diaconate, which is part of the Church's sacrament of Holy Orders, along with priesthood and the episcopacy. During the Thursday meeting with the women religious, the Pope pointed to the 2002 study conducted by the International Theological Commission, which said as much. This Vatican study affirmed:
[T]he woman in charge of a monastic community of women was called a deaconess. ... Until the sixth century they still attended women in the baptismal pool and for the anointing. ... When the practice of anointing the whole body at baptism was abandoned, deaconesses were simply consecrated virgins who had taken the vow of chastity.
Continuing his response to the sister, Pope Francis recounted a conversation with a theologian whom Francis hailed as an expert on the topic. The Pope addressed the role of so-called female deacons, recounting,
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. 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.
Then Francis finished with the remark:
I think I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to report to me on the studies of this issue, because I have responded to you only based on what I'd heard from this priest who was an erudite and valid scholar on the permanent diaconate. And also I would like to set up an official commission to study the issue and I think that will be good for the Church to clarify this point.
Friday, Fr. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Vatican, explained that the issue arises from the fact that in the Early Church there were women described as "deaconess" who performed certain tasks with Catholic communities. He added,
The Pope did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons, and even less did he talk about the ordination of women as priests. In actual fact, the Pope made clear in his preaching during the course of the Eucharistic celebration that he was not considering this (question) at all.