Pope Francis has instituted a new commission for the study of women deacons, the Vatican announced Tuesday.
The decision comes several months after a papal audience with a group of religious sisters, during which Pope expressed his willingness to consider forming a commission to study women deacons, such as they existed in the early Church.
According to the Aug. 2 press release, the pontiff came to the decision after a period of “intense prayer and mature reflection.”
The new commission will be headed by Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, who will lead a group comprised of twelve members, half of whom are women.
Both lay and religious women have been chosen for the commission, including Sr. Mary Melone, rector of the Antonianum university, Prof. Phyllis Zagano at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and Marianne Schlosser, professor of spiritual theology at the university of Vienna and member of the International theological commission.
Also included in the list is Fr. Robert Dodaro, president of the Augustinianum University in Rome.
The Vatican statement mentioned the May 12 papal audience with members of the International Union of Superiors General, during which the question of women deacons was raised during a Q&A session.
At the audience, one sister asked why the Church does not include women in the permanent diaconate. The sister had referred to an ancient tradition in the Church in which there were female deacons (albeit not-ordained), and suggested that a commission be established to study the possibility.
Reports quickly circulated following the event that Pope Francis was paving the way for the ordination of women deacons, and potentially even women priests. Holy See press office director, Fr. Federico Lombardi clarified in a May 13 statement that the Pope had no such intention.
During an in-flight press conference after the his trip to Armenia last June, the Pope spoke of cases in the early Church where women were given similar roles to deacons. For instance, women would be employed to baptize other women for the sake of modesty, since at that time the practice involved full immersion.
The subject of women deacons has previously been studied by the Church, including a 2002 document from the International Theological Commission, and advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Pope Francis further told journalists during the June 26 press briefing there was no change in the works to allow for the ordination of women to the deaconate.