In his signature, off-the-cuff manner, Pope Francis unleashed a storm of debate on Thursday about the roles that Catholic women can play in the church.
During a meeting with an international group of Catholic sisters and nuns, Francis suggested that he was willing to create a special commission to study whether it was in keeping with church teaching to let women serve as deacons, who are ordained ministers in the church hierarchy that can perform some of the duties of a priest.
Deacons can preach during Mass and perform baptisms, weddings and funeral services. They can also be married. Currently, the diaconate is restricted to men over the age of 35.
The question of whether women can serve in this role has resurfaced numerous times over the years. Several experts in church law have supported the idea in the past, pointing to evidence that women had once served as deacons in the early church. On the other hand, conservatives in the church argue that opening the diaconate to women would undermine the church's long-held doctrine that only men can be ordained into the clergy.
But how do Catholic women feel about the possibility of seeing women preaching from the altar and serving their communities as ordained deacons?
HuffPost Religion invited a broad swath of American Catholic women to tell us their thoughts about the pope's desire to create a commission to look into the possibility of women deacons. The responses are diverse -- from hesitation to draw conclusions about what Francis meant, to requests for the church to go even further by allowing for women to be ordained as priests.
Scroll down for a snapshot of the diverse opinions Catholic women have on this issue.
Dr. Phyllis Zagano
"There has never been a formal commission to study restoring women to the diaconate ... A formal Vatican commission could take the matter away from a small and select body and present to the church an open opportunity to comment on restoring the tradition of ordained women deacons in the West...
The Church and its bishops can train, ordain, and give faculties to the women already working in diaconal roles in the US and elsewhere. In doing so, it would recognize the deep anger so many women have in being told--implicitly or explicitly--that women cannot image Christ.
A woman deacon would encourage the world to understand that what the Church teaches is true--women are made in the image and likeness of God--and are so due the respect not found in societies that still encourage FGM, dowry burnings, accusatory attitudes to rape victims, and wife beating."
Sister Simone Campbell
"This move is another example of Pope Francis’s vision of an inclusive society – a society that celebrates and takes full advantage of the unique talents and strengths of each and every one of us – the 100 percent. Inclusiveness is strength. There is no one from the outside looking in, and no one inside, plotting and scheming to keep others out. It is everyone working together for a common good. There will always be some who resist this, in politics, in churches, in any institution. There will always be – as we have seen in this presidential race – those who use what divides us as a way to build power. Pope Francis knows better. Should this change come to pass it will make the church stronger, just as any move to bring us all together in common purpose makes us our nation stronger. "
"I am hopeful that Pope Francis will help us look at this question with a fresh perspective. I would want such a commission to include a diverse group of voices – men and women, lay and religious, married and single, theologians and practitioners ... Deacons are called to be minsters who teach, preach and lead people to Christ. Women already do this in so many ways! There are countless women serving as volunteers and paid professional ministers in the church. Opening the conversation about women deacons gives women a more authoritative voice in the service they already provide in the Church ...
For me personally, when I read the news stories ... my heart leapt with excitement! It got me thinking about my own vocational call to ministry. I never considered the diaconate, because it was never an option. I wonder how my gifts, skills, education and life experiences would have unfolded differently. It makes me wonder what God has in store for me, and the Church, in the years ahead."
"Many peg Pope Francis as a pontiff who is embracing the modern world and the culture that runs through it; however, all of his actions are rooted back to the heart of Catholic doctrine. Women have had a prominent role in the Catholic church since the beginning ... Though all of the apostles except John abandoned Christ, the women never left his side. As Fulton Sheen writes in "World's First Love" regarding this truth, "Women did not fail." I am sure that the apostolic letter of the Saint John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, will be read more thoroughly in the face of this discussion. My last thoughts are similar to Pope Francis's remarks on homosexuality and abortion, this entire discussion must be grounded in context and in the light of Catholic teaching."
"We support any move towards greater inclusion of women in the church but recognize that this will be a slow and gradual evolution. For the Vatican to entertain reopening the diaconate to women as was done in the early Church, it would be considered the lowest level of ordination. The commission, when formed, should rethink the theology of all ordained ministries, namely, ordination of bishops, priests, deacons and deaconesses. There is a need to move away from hierarchical theology to the theology of service based on a person’s gifts ... We can learn from other churches who have struggled with this issue for years ... and learn from the mistakes they’ve made, namely, that ordination is not an ordination to a particular level of power. Rather it should mean ordination to different types of service based on the person’s innate gifts and talents. Some women will be called to be deacons. Others to be priests. And still others could be selected by the community to be their bishop."
Mary Rice Hasson
"[Pope Francis'] willingness to have a commission study the role deaconesses played in the early Church suggests openness — but openness only to having women today fulfill an analogous role to the women of the early Church, not to 'changing' something (the all-male priesthood) that cannot be changed ... The presence of women in the Church cannot be — and should not be—reduced to the question of whether women should be deacons or not. Pope Francis’s vision is much broader ... Women are already doing significant work within the Church and, as Pope Francis has reminded us, it’s a mistake to clericalize women — we need to be valued for our gifts as women, valued for the insights we bring. We are half the laity in the Church -- the more active half, actually — so clearly we have some insights and ideas to contribute to key discussions in the Church. We don’t need to be deaconesses to be valued or for our ideas to be heard. Women are active and influential in the Church — it’s time to recognize that."
"Pope Francis's willingness to study the possibility of women deacons is yet another example of the open-mindedness he's brought to the Catholic church since his appointment. While I -- and many other modern-day Catholics -- still believe the Church has a long way to go, the Pope's more progressive views on certain issues have at the very least softened the image of an institution that is often viewed as exclusive, shrouded in scandal and behind-the-times.
I don't, however, believe his position will be wholeheartedly accepted by all members of the Catholic leadership, who have a track record of poor behavior towards the women religious; not sufficiently recognizing the incredible accomplishments of the nuns who have selflessly served the Church for years, and furthermore -- appallingly -- 'punishing' them in circumstances when the male leadership feels they have overstepped their bounds.
Still, my hope is that such a study would provoke meaningful discussion about why women in leadership positions are crucial to keeping the Catholic Church vital, relevant and growing. I think that even the discussion of women deacons is a promising step in helping disenchanted Catholics like myself view the Church in a new light."
"I feel like what the Pope says is sometimes taken out of context. From what I understand, Pope Francis requested a commission to clarify the role of women in the Church, specifically as deaconesses. It doesn't sound like this is a step towards women becoming deacons, but instead a step towards clarification on the subject. I think the big take-away from this is the humility that Pope Francis shows in admitting he needs more information on a subject before giving his answer. That humility, especially with his leadership, is something we should all strive for."
Sister Anne Curtis, RSM
"What I see in this announcement is opportunity. Each time we, as a Church, engage in study and dialogue, we open the door to possibility, growth and deeper understanding of how we might better respond to the needs of our world. The challenges arise when we hesitate to see what these moments offer us.
I hope for open and honest dialogue and a deeper understanding of the role of women in the Church. Sisters of Mercy are guided by a statement that calls us to act in solidarity with women seeking fullness of life and equality in church and society. The work of this commission can offer women a greater recognition of their dignity and gifts. I hope a way is opened for women to assume leadership, decision-making and to act as full participants in the life of our Church."
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig
"I hope this doesn't cause the conservatives in the Church who are already off-put by Francis to coalesce even more strongly around anti-Francis sentiment. Throughout Francis' papacy, there have been several incidents that have inspired some pretty sustained backlash against him and his reform efforts, and I sometimes worry that it may be difficult to heal those rifts. Though Pope Francis has emphatically denied that he has any plans to attempt to ordain women priests (I think his exact language is, "that door is closed"), this will undoubtedly make some conservatives feel like he is trying to nudge that door open.
Of course, what Francis really said is that there's simply historical unclarity on the role of women deacons, and that he thinks there should be more information made available about that. Depending on what the commission turns up, their findings could easily go either way. So I don't personally see this as Francis nudging open a door as much as trying to settle a question that's been raised again and again in the Church. Who knows how it will turn out?
I'm sure there are Catholic women who would like a kind of intermediary between themselves and the (male) leaders in their churches, and having women deacons around to advocate on their behalf could be a big help for them. (To be clear, I have never personally felt underserved in that way, but I know some people do feel that way.)"
"It is long past time for the Roman Catholic church to join the vast majority of other denominations in recognizing that God calls all kinds of people to official ministry. Gender, relationship status, sexual orientation does not preclude anyone from having a ministerial vocation.
It will be interesting to see how is appointed to this study commission. Will it include some of the many scholars who have unearthed strong evidence that women have, in fact, served as priests and deacons throughout our church’s history? Will women have at least equal representation on this commission? What happens to the commission’s work at completion? What accountability will Church officials have to respond to the commission’s work? The reality is that ultimately the decisions will be made by men who may be invested in the status quo.
Looking at opening the diaconate to women is a step that may be welcomed by many. Frankly, it seems to be offering scraps rather than a place at the table—and really holding out only the possibility of getting the scraps. Ultimately, what is needed in our Church is a totally new understanding of ministry, of ordination, of gender, and of the relationship between power and service. Until all roles in our Church are open equally to women and men, including policy development roles, inequity that negatively impacts the lives of women all across the globe will persist."
Erin Saiz Hanna
"For far too long women have been denied from preaching homilies and many Catholics long to hear from the experiences and voices of women. Even though women were deacons in the early church, our current Church denies half its members from leadership. To survive and be relevant in this day in age, the church must move forward and allow women to answer their calls to serve as deacons, priests, and bishops ... I personally know women who are called by God to serve as deacons in its full form, so for me, being able to see women answer their calls would personally bring me much joy. I also, however, see the possibility of women deacons as just a step toward greater equality. Until women are included in all decision-making structures - and as deacons, priests and bishops - we have work to do in making the Church a truly justice and equal place for everyone."
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.