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Despite Pope’s Clear ‘No’ on CBS, Promoters of Women Deacons Hold out Hope

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Dozens of women march to the Vatican, Oct. 6, 2023, calling for female ordination. (RNS photo/Tom Reese)

(RNS) — Despite what appeared to be a rigid no from Pope Francis to the idea of ordaining Catholic women deacons during the pontiff’s interview with CBS News on Monday (May 20), Catholic advocates for the prospect of women deacons in the church remain hopeful.

In the interview, which took place April 24, Francis told CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell that he was not open to the possibility of ordaining women deacons.

When O’Donnell asked Francis, “For a little girl growing up Catholic today, will she ever have the opportunity to be a deacon and participate as a clergy member in the church?” Francis responded, “No.”

“Women have always had, I would say, the function of deaconesses without being deacons, right? Women are of great service as women, not as ministers, as ministers in this regard, within the holy orders,” said Francis, referring to the sacrament of ordination.

Those who have been working to see women deacons become a reality expressed surprise and dismay at the interview, given the pope’s past statements and the evolution of the issue under his pontificate from a wish to a matter of study.

“I was quite devastated to see his response,” said Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which, unlike several other groups pushing for female deacons, also advocates for women’s ordination as priests and bishops. McElwee said that while Francis has previously had a “closed door” stance on women’s ordination to the priesthood, it was a surprise to see the pope extend that to the diaconate.

“It’s a very sad day when a powerful man like a pope tells a young girl that they can’t, or will never be equal in their own church and will never be able to follow their call from God,” McElwee said, adding that the names of women and girls who have experienced a vocation to ordained ministry flashed through her mind when the pope made his reply.

Women who say they have had a call to the diaconate have said that the exclusion of women from ordained ministry has caused them deep pain.

Tricia Bruce, a sociologist and author of “Called to Contribute,” a study of Catholic women and the diaconate, said that in the interviews she conducted, “deeply committed Catholic women who wish to serve the church in their fullest capacity and yet feel and hear this continual message of the door being closed and not being able to respond to that sense of call and vocation” described their lament and pain.

Bruce, who emphasizes that she is a sociologist who studies Catholics’ attitudes, not an advocate, said her study found that young women in ministry expressed “optimism and revival and hope and deep faith that the church will come to acknowledge and see as equal women’s gift in the church.” Older women, however, felt “sadness and disappointment because they, as younger women, held on to that same hope.”

Francis has entertained the question of women deacons for most of his pontificate. In 2016, in response to a challenge from a group of Catholic sisters meeting in Rome, he appointed a commission to study the history of women deacons. In April 2020, he set up a second commission focused on the possibility of restoring what advocates argue was an ancient role for women in the church.

In the weeks before Francis spoke to CBS, the Vatican announced that the issue of women deacons had been assigned to one of 10 study groups examining controversial issues that will report at the October 2024 meeting of the Synod on Synodality, and again in July 2025.