VATICAN CITY, May 12 (UPI) -- The Catholic Church will study the possibility of allowing women to serve as church deacons, Pope Francis said Thursday.
Responding to a question asked by a nun at the Vatican conference of the International Union of Superiors General, an organization of Catholic nuns, the pope said he supported the study of whether women should serve as deacons, an all-male rank in the Catholic hierarchy. He offered no other details, and it was unclear if his answer indicated he is supportive of the change or if he merely called for research to be done on the issue.
Catholic deacons have some liturgical and canonical powers of priests – they can officiate at baptisms and weddings and can be married – but are restricted from performing mass or hearing confessions. The position is often regarded as a step on the way to priesthood and has served to alleviate the shortage of priests in some parts of the world, notably the United States.
Vatican statistics in 2013 indicated the number of permanent deacons, worldwide, increased by 30 percent from 2005, to over 43,000, with about 44 percent of that number in North America. The number of priests increased only 2 percent between 2005 and 2013.
Despite repeated calls for more involvement by women in church leadership, Pope Francis has adamantly rejected the ordination of women as priests, and there have been few appointments of women to high-level Vatican positions during Francis' papacy.