Pope Francis changed church law on Monday to explicitly allow women to do more things during mass, giving them access to the holiest place on the altar, while continuing to claim that they cannot be priests.
Francis amended the law to formalize and institutionalize what is common practice in many parts of the world: that women can be installed as readers, read the Gospel, and serve on the altar as Eucharistic ministers. Previously, such roles were officially reserved for men although exceptions were made.
Francis said he was making the change to increase recognition of the “precious contribution” of women in the church, while stressing that all baptized Catholics have a role to play in the mission of the church.
But he also noted that this makes a distinction between “ordained” ministries such as priesthood and diaconate, and ministries open to qualified laity. The Vatican reserves the priesthood for men.
The change comes as Francis remains under pressure to allow women to be deacons – ministers who perform many of the same functions as priests, such as presiding over weddings, baptisms and funerals. Currently, the ministry is reserved for men although historians say that the ministry was carried out by women in the early church.
Francis created a second commission of experts to study whether women could be deacons, after a first failed to reach consensus.
Advocates of expanding the diaconate to include women say it would give women a greater voice in church ministry and governance, while helping to address priest shortages in many parts of the world.
Opponents say allowing it would become a slippery slope towards the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Phyllis Zagano, who was a member of the Pope’s first study commission, called the changes significant given they represent the first time the Vatican has explicitly and through canon law allowed access for women at the altar. She said it was a necessary first step before any official consideration of the diaconate for women.
“This is the first movement to allow women to enter the shrine,” Zagano said. “It’s a very big deal.”
Noting that the bishops have long called for such a decision, she said it opens the door to further progress. “You cannot be ordained a deacon unless you are installed as a reader or acolyte,” said Zagano, professor of religion at Hofstra University.
Lucetta Scaraffia, the former editor-in-chief of the Vatican women’s magazine, however, called the new changes a “double trap”. She said they were only formalizing the current practice, including at papal masses, while specifying that the diaconate is an “ordained” ministry reserved for men.
“This closes the door to the diaconate for women,” she said in a telephone interview, calling the change a “step backwards” for women.