(CNN) Pope Francis has created a commission to study the historical role of female deacons in the Catholic Church, the Vatican’s press office said Monday.
The commission was first promised by the Pope after a meeting with a group of nuns on May 12. He said the Vatican should study the question 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 Francis expressed his intention to establish an official commission that could study the question” of the diaconate of women, “especially with regard to the first ages of the Church,” the Vatican’s statement said.
“After intense prayer and mature reflection, Pope Francis has decided to institute the Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women.”
Deacons 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.
In the Bible, St. Paul mentions least one woman, Phoebe, who served the early church, possibly as a deaconess. But it’s not clear how her role compares to modern deacons, a question the new commission will likely consider. The debate is controversial because it could open the door for women into the Catholic Church’s all-male clergy.
This is the third church commission appointed to study the historical role of women deacons since 1992. Both commissions took several years to complete their work and neither led to changes in the church. The more recent report, released in 2002, said the question of ordaining women as deacons was a matter of discernment for church leaders, though few in the Vatican have shown a willingness to push forward.
Pope Francis himself seemed to cast doubt on whether his new commission could make major changes, either, telling journalists that he was surprised by media reports in May that suggested otherwise.
“They said: ‘The Church opens the door to deaconesses.’ Really? I am a bit angry because this is not telling the truth of things,” Francis said in June.
Despite his popularity, the Pope has disappointed many American women by shutting down debates on women’s ordination and warning them not to “fall into the trap of feminism.”
To date, Francis has praised the “feminine genius” but has not carried through on vague promises to appoint more women to leadership positions.
“Francis’ theological imagination makes it impossible for women to achieve equal decision-making power and sacramental authority in this church,” wrote Jamie L. Manson, an editor at National Catholic Reporter. “And it’s time we faced it.”