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According to The National Catholic Reporter, Pope Francis opened up the possibility of the Roman Catholic Church allowing female deacons Thursday, something that has not been allowed since the very early days of the Church.

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The pope entertained the idea in response to a question at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, a group of female Catholic religious leaders. When asked about the possibility of female deacons, Francis sounded initially skeptical, questioning scriptural references to female deacons in the early Church. Eventually, he agreed that there should be a commission to study the issue.

“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” Francis said, according to the Reporter. "I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”

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Deacons in the Catholic Church act as assistants to priests at parishes, performing some, but not all, of the same tasks. They can perform baptisms and weddings as well as preach the Gospel and the homily during a Mass.

Traditionally, deacons were always seminarians who were preparing to become a priest, however the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s created a permanent diaconate allowing lay men to be ordained, even those who were married with children who could never become priests.

Many Catholic leaders and theologians have called for a female diaconate in recent years as a way to support the shrinking priesthood. Because there are references to female deacons in the early history of the Church, it is seen as a less extreme move than the ordination of female priests.

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Phyllis Zagano, a Catholic theologian who recently edited the essay collection Women Deacons? Essays with Answers, hosted a conference in Toronto on this subject earlier this week. In comments to The Catholic Register, she sounded skeptical that change would come quickly on this matter.

“It’s not going to happen soon,” she told the Register. “Patriarchy is embedded in our religion and in our scripture."