Pope Francis has established a commission to study the history of female deacons in the early years of the Church, in a move some say could be a tentative first step towards women entering the clergy.
The Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women will be made up of seven men and six women and will be chaired by Spanish archbishop Luis Ladaria, who serves as secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Deacons are one rank below priests in the Catholic clergy. They can preside over weddings and funerals but cannot celebrate Mass. While priests take a vow of celibacy, deacons can be married men.
Pope Francis had first made a pledge to establish such a commission last May, during a question-and-answer session with a group of nuns. He had however at the time made it clear that he was not in favour of women becoming priests.
Progressive members of the Church say that women play too minor a role in its hierarchy, despite there being more women in religious orders than men, and have long called for women to be allowed to be ordained as priests.
They argue that there is a historical precedent for women to be made deacons, as they performed similar duties in the early years of the Church.
Pope Francis admitted that he did not know enough about the issue and that "it would do good for the Church to clarify this point."
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