Pope Francis has set up a Vatican panel to study the role of deaconesses in early Christianity. Equality advocates have hailed the move as a possible step towards women being allowed to serve as deacons in the future.
Pope Francis appointed a panel to investigate whether or not women could be ordained as deacons in the future, the Vatican announced on Tuesday.
A Vatican statement said that Francis decided to establish the commission "after intense prayer and mature reflection."
The gender-equitable group is comprised of six women and six men who are priests, nuns, theologians and university professors. Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, a top church official, will head the commission.
Back in May, Francis informed the superiors of several nun orders that he planned to "set up an official commission to study the question" of the diaconate for women, "above all regarding the early times of the church."
Currently, the Roman Catholic Church bars women from most decision-making positions including priesthood and the diaconate.
Early church female deacons
The panel will set out to determine the role female deacons played in the early church leadership.
Scholars debate whether or not deaconesses were on par with male deacons, or if they were only ordained to tend to other women.
Deacons are ordained ministers who cannot celebrate Mass, but are allowed to preach and baptize, as well as perform wake and funeral services. Women were banned from the position centuries ago.
Praise from equality groups
The Women's Ordination Conference, a US-based organization which advocates for female Catholic priesthood, called Francis' decision "an important step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history of honoring women's leadership."
They praised the committee's gender balance and its inclusion of laypeople, but pushed for further progress in female ordination.
"Only when women are equally included in all ordination rites - as deacons, priests, and bishops - and at all church decision-making tables, can we begin to restore our Gospel values of equality and justice," the group said.
Archbishop Blase Cupich, of the Archdiocese of Chicago, likewise welcomed the measure in a statement.
He also urged for the church to do more to integrate women into leadership roles, saying "the church must do better."
"Women deserve to be brought more fully into the decision-making of the church," Cupich's statement read.
The commission members include Marianne Schlosser, a professor of spiritual theology at the University of Vienna, and Phyllis Zagano, a religion professor in New York and author of the book "Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future."
rs/dj (AP, Reuters)