Pope Francis said Tuesday that the Catholic Church will probably continue banning women from serving as priests forever, according to journalists who were traveling on a plane with him.

But scholars who study the role of women in the church said Francis’s off-the-cuff statement did not close the door on the possibility of women serving as deacons, an idea that the Vatican is studying.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, a Swedish journalist on the plane asked, “Is it realistic to think that there might be women priests also in the Catholic Church in the next few decades?”

When Francis said no, the journalist reportedly asked, “But really forever? Never?”

The pope reportedly replied, “If we read carefully the declaration made by St. John Paul II, it goes in that direction.”

Francis was referring to the earlier pope’s 1994 letter that noted that Jesus chose only men as his apostles. “The exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church,” John Paul II wrote in that letter.

Dennis Doyle, a Catholic theologian at the University of Dayton in Ohio who has studied the topic of women’s ordination, said it’s unsurprising that Francis would reiterate John Paul II’s position. “Pope Francis, he brings a lot of excitement and movement to the Catholic Church. He’s also careful not to directly reverse anything his predecessors have been teaching,” Doyle said.

Advocates for the ordination of women saw a glimmer of hope in Francis’s decision earlier this year to create a commission to study the role of female deacons in the church. Deacons are clergy in the Catholic Church who can perform many of the functions of priests, including officiating at weddings and baptisms and preaching at Mass. Women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church but are currently banned from doing so.

There’s no reason to think that Francis’s statement on Tuesday means that the committee cannot find a role for women as deacons in the modern church, theologians said Tuesday.

The journalist’s question on the plane was specifically about priests, Doyle noted. Francis is “not ruling out the possibility of ordaining women as deacons,” Doyle said.

But some had seen the commission on female deacons, to which Francis appointed seven men and six women in August, as a harbinger of priesthood for women in the future.

Boston College theologian James Bretzke said when Francis created the committee, “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.”

Amanda Quantz, a professor at the University of St. Mary who translated a historical document as part of significant research on the history of female deacons, said Tuesday that there is room for women as deacons without it being a step toward priesthood. “It’s a different issue,” she said. And she does not think Francis’s words have set the cause of female deacons back. “It doesn’t say anything about women deacons,” Quantz noted.

This is not the first time that Francis has stated his objection to the idea of women becoming priests.

The subject came up again Tuesday because Francis had traveled to Sweden to commemorate the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with leaders of the Lutheran Church, which broke off from Catholicism when Martin Luther nailed a copy of his questions about the church to the door of a German church on Oct. 31, 1517. The leader of the Lutheran Church in Sweden is Archbishop Antje Jackelen, the first woman to fill the role.

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