(CNN)Pope Francis said the Vatican should study the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, answering a call that women, particularly in the United States, have been asking the church to address for decades.
Pope says church should study ordaining women as deacons
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The Pope's potentially groundbreaking remarks came, as they often do, in an off-the-cuff response to a question -- and it was not altogether clear exactly what he meant.
This time, the question came from the heads of women's religious orders, who met with Francis at the Vatican on Thursday and pressed him for concrete ways in which women might play a larger role in leading the Catholic Church. To date, Francis has praised the "feminine genius" but has not carried through on vague promises to appoint more women to leadership positions.
In a series of pointed questions -- the Pope joked that he felt like a goalie fielding shots -- the women called him out, asking why they can't preach at Mass or be ordained as deacons.
Women can give "reflections" at Catholic worship services, but only priests should preach homilies at Mass, the Pope answered, according to Vatican Radio, because they are acting "in persona Christi," or, in the person of Christ. Church leaders have used a similar argument to prevent women from being ordained as priests, saying that Jesus' disciples were all men.
But in the Bible, St. Paul mentions least one woman, Phoebe, who served the early church, possibly as a deaconess.
Asked about Phoebe on Thursday, the Pope said the role of Phoebe and other women wasn't clear, and he would ask the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to look into it.
"Constituting an official commission that might study the question?" the pontiff asked, according to National Catholic Reporter. "I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this."
It is not clear, however, whether the Pope meant that the Vatican will study the role of women deacons in history or the possibility that women could be deacons in the future. The Vatican press office declined to comment, saying they are awaiting a full transcript of Francis' remarks.
Vatican Radio, however, which is run by the church, portrayed the Pope's remarks as a broad call "to set up a commission to study the possibility of reinstating female deacons."
The question is controversial because it would open the door for women into the Catholic Church's all-male clergy.
Since Vatican reforms in the mid 1960s, "permanent deacons" -- those who do not plan on becoming priests -- can perform many of the same functions as priests, including preach, celebrate marriages, lead funeral services and run parishes. They cannot hear confessions or consecrate the Eucharist, and only married or celibate men over age 35 are eligible for the diaconate. There are about 18,000 deacons in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Opening a commission to study the diaconate for women would be a great step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history," The Women's Ordination Conference said in a statement.
"While WOC celebrates this step from the Vatican," the conference continued, "until women are included in all decision-making structures and as priests and bishops of the church, equality remains painfully denied."