In May, Pope Francis remarked that the Catholic Church should study whether women could be “reinstated” as deacons — a proposal that could introduce a role for women in the Catholic clergy that has been open only to men for centuries.
On Tuesday, he made good on that comment, made last spring to a gathering of nuns. The Vatican announced the members of the new Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women, whose examinations may weigh both church tradition and also possibly take stock of contemporary views and needs among Catholic clergy and worshipers.
Seven men and six women will serve on the committee. They include priests, nuns and professors; several live in Rome, but one, Phyllis Zagano, teaches at Hofstra University in New York. Zagano has written a book entitled “Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.”
“The dignity of women to be recognized as able to minister as part of the ordained diaconate — to recognize that dignity is world-changing,” Zagano said in an interview with The Washington Post shortly after she learned she had been tapped for the committee. “I think it really speaks specifically to the way the church views women. My hope for the commission would be that it would make a decision.”
Earlier committees have studied the question, but not made any recommendation that the church should start ordaining women.
As with many of Francis’s off-the-cuff remarks, his statement that the church ought to study topic again set off a whirl of debate about what he meant, with conservatives and liberals in the church seeing it differently.
Some expected the committee would focus on the historical role of the deacon, a position which women held through the fifth century. Conservatives argued that the deacon — a role currently open to single and married men, unlike the celibate priesthood — can perform many functions of the priest during Mass. Francis, too, has expressed his opposition to female priests.
Deacons’ other roles include officiating at weddings and baptisms. And some who hope for more opportunities for Catholic women reacted eagerly to Francis’s intention to study the question.
“I can’t underscore enough how groundbreaking this is for the Church,” Boston College theologian James Bretzke said in May. “If women can be ordained as deacons, then this is going to weaken — not destroy — but weaken significantly the argument that women absolutely are incapable of being ordained as priests. So this is opening more than a crack in the door.”
But Francis expressed his annoyance when his May comments were rapidly reported as an opening to the possibility of female deacons. “They said: ‘The Church opens the door to deaconesses.’ Really? I am a bit angry because this is not telling the truth of things,” he said, according to Catholic News Agency.
The Vatican did not elaborate on Tuesday on whether this committee will focus on the history or the potential future of female deacons, and did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the expected scope of the study or a possible time frame.
From the start, the members will be divided. One member, Rev. Karl-Heinz Menke, pointed to an article he wrote in 2013 when asked about his views on Tuesday. In it, he argued that if women cannot be priests, then they cannot be deacons either.
Zagano, on the other hand, has argued in favor of female deacons. She said Tuesday that the female deacons in the early church were particularly concerned with the spiritual needs of other women. “Women deserve the ordained ministry of other women. So why not, if it was done?”
She said that if Francis does change church law to allow female deacons, individual bishops will likely still have the choice of permitting them in their own dioceses. But the move would proclaim that there is a wider place for women in the Catholic Church. “It could be a world-changing decision on the part of the pope,” she said.
The Women’s Ordination Conference, a Washington-based group that supports a mixed-gender clergy, welcomed the appointment of the commission as an “important step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history of honoring women’s leadership.”
The members of the commission are:
President: Abp Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, S.J., Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Sister Nuria Calduch‑Benages, M.H.S.F.N., member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission
Prof. Francesca Cocchini, of La Sapienza University and of the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum,” Rome
Msgr. Piero Coda, President of the University Institute “Sophia,” Loppiano, and member of the International Theological Commission
The Rev. Robert Dodaro, O.S.A., President of the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum,” Rome and professor of patrology
The Rev. Santiago Madrigal Terrazas, S.J., professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical University “Comillas,” Madrid
Sister Mary Melone, S.F.A., Rector of the Pontifical University “Antonianum,” Rome
The Rev. Karl‑Heinz Menke, professor emeritus of dogmatic theology at the University of Bonn and member of the International Theological Commission
The Rev. Aimable Musoni, S.D.B., professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Salesian University, Rome
The Rev. Bernard Pottier, S.J., professor at the “Institut d’Etudes Théologiques,” Brussels, and member of the International Theological Commission
Marianne Schlosser, professor of spiritual theology at the University of Vienana, and member of the International Theological Commission
Michelina Tenace, professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome
Phyllis Zagano, professor at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.
This post has been updated.
Brian Murphy and Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.