Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t think women could ever become priests in the Catholic church. But the pope has indicated he’s interested in clarifying whether there’s historical precedent for women to serve as ordained deacons, who can perform some of the duties of a priest.
A new survey of American Catholic women suggests many are ready for that change.
A 60 percent majority of American Catholic women support the possibility of women being ordained as permanent deacons, according to a wide-ranging survey commissioned by America Media and conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, in partnership with survey firm GfK.
Twenty-one percent of respondents said they may be supportive but wanted to learn more before making a final decision. Only 7 percent definitely said they would not support women being ordained as deacons.
Catholic women who attended Mass weekly were less likely than more infrequent Mass attenders to respond “yes” to the idea of women deacons. But even among weekly attendees, a slight majority (53 percent) agreed the church should allow women to be ordained as deacons.
A permanent deacon in the Catholic church can preach during Mass, perform baptisms, witness marriages and conduct funeral services. He can be married or single, and has to be at least 35 years old.
In 2016, Pope Francis created a special commission to study the possibility of women serving as deacons. Because of an emphasis on continuity and tradition in the Catholic church, Francis is likely not interested in changing the status quo or applying modern societal standards to the question of women’s ordination. The commission was only created to study whether there’s a historical precedent for women to serve as deacons.
Experts in Catholic church law have supported the idea of women deacons in the past. Some scholars claim there’s ample evidence of women being ordained to the diaconate from the early years of the church and into the Middle Ages. But others fear that opening the diaconate to women could one day undermine the church’s all-male priesthood.
According to Phyllis Zagano, a Catholic scholar at Hofstra University who was named to the pope’s commission on women deacons, women in the U.S. and around the world are already performing duties similar to those of deacons. She believes ordaining women as deacons would assure women they are also created in the image of Christ.
“The Church and its bishops can train, ordain, and give faculties to the women already working in diaconal roles in the US and elsewhere,” Zagano told HuffPost in 2016. “In doing so, it would recognize the deep anger so many women have in being told ― implicitly or explicitly ― that women cannot image Christ.”
The question about women deacons was just one part of the survey from America Media and CARA about the lives and opinions of Catholic women today. Researchers also found that while the overwhelming majority of American Catholic women believe in God, Mass attendance and participation in sacraments such as confession is dwindling, especially among younger Catholics. Only 17 percent of millennial Catholics indicated that they attend Mass at least once a week.
The survey results were “a real wake-up call for the Catholic Church to focus harder on its millennial outreach and to engage them in new and creative ways,” said Kerry Weber, executive editor of America Media.
The study of 1,508 self-identifying Catholic women was conducted between Aug. 3-24, 2017, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.