During a question and answer session at the International Union of Superiors General meeting, the Pope made comments that got the media to explode with rumors on television and the internet with reports that the Pope is allowing women deacons or is opening up a commission to study the allowance of them.
What is the truth?
Well, let us see what he actually said in response to a question on the role of women in the Church:
"This question tends toward “doing”: Consecrated women already work very much with the poor, they do so many things… toward “doing.” And it touches on the issue of the permanent deaconate. Someone might say that the “permanent deaconesses” in the life of the Church are the mothers-in-law [he laughs; they laugh]. In fact, this existed in ancient times: there was a beginning … I remember it was a topic that interested me somewhat when I would come to Rome for meetings and stay at the Domus Paulus VI; there was a Syrian theologian there, a good man, who did the critical edition and translation of the hymns of St. Ephrem, the Syrian. And one day I asked him about this, and he explained to me that in the early days of the Church there were some “deaconesses.”
But what are these deaconesses? Were they ordained or not? The Council of Chalcedon (451) speaks about it, but it is somewhat obscure. What was the role of deaconesses at that time? It seems — that man told me, who is dead; he was a good professor, wise, erudite — it seems that the role of the deaconesses was to help with the baptisms of women, the immersion, they were baptizing them, for the sake of decorum; also to anoint the bodies of women in baptism. And also something curious: when there was a marriage trial, because the husband was beating his wife, and she went to the bishop to complain, the deaconesses were charged with looking at the bruises left on the body of the woman from her husband’s beatings and informing the bishop.
This, I remember. There are a number of publications on the diaconate in the Church, but it is unclear what it was like. I think that I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to inform me about the studies on this topic, because I have responded to you based only on what I heard from this priest — who was a scholarly and true researcher — about the permanent diaconate. And also I would like to set up an official commission to study the issue: I think that it will be good for the Church to clarify this point; I agree, and I will speak, to do something of this kind.
Therefore, on the deaconate, yes, I accept, and a commission that clarifies this well seems useful to me, especially regarding the early days of the Church."
As you can see, the Pope is not saying that he is allowing women deacons. He is sharing a story of what a priest-professor told him and showed own his ignorance on the history of deaconesses. Moreover, he suggested he would have a commission study it only to CLARIFY the role of the deaconess, not to institute it. The media once again took the Pope's words and ran to the wind with them with all kinds of conclusions. The Pope clearly stated that he answered the question based on what a priest told him and said "I think that I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to inform me about the studies on this topic." The "I think' tells us that it is not something set in stone that he will ask for of the CDF. Look at his words again:
"There are a number of publications on the diaconate in the Church, but it is unclear what it was like. I think that I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to inform me about the studies on this topic, because I have responded to you based only on what I heard from this priest — who was a scholarly and true researcher — about the permanent diaconate. And also I would like to set up an official commission to study the issue: I think that it will be good for the Church to clarify this point."
The Pope clearly is not an expert on everything, no Pope is. Moreover, the deaconess role in the early Church is in fact obscure, but definitely not part of Holy Orders. This role is described more like a religious sister than a deacon in the sense of a male who is ordained a deacon. These women assisted the clergy and other women receiving the Sacraments during baptisms and anointing so that the clergy would not see the women in the nude etc. The deaconesses helped the clergy almost like an altar server in a sense. They did not perform liturgical functions. In fact, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 stated this:
A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if, after she has had hands laid on her and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematized and the man united to her.
The word 'diakonos' did not always mean 'deacon' in the clerical sense. In the wedding of Cana in the Scriptures, the word is used to refer to the waiters. In fact, one of the meanings of 'diakonos' is waiter according to Strong's Concordance see: http://biblehub.com/greek/1249.htm. There is no evidence that the deaconesses in the early Church were clergy. The case of Phobe in Romans 16:1 shows that the word 'diakonos' was used in reference as a servant or helper. Moreover, there is no word for 'deaconess in Greek. This developed centuries later. The document From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles states:
"At the beginning of the second century a letter from Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, mentioned two women who were described by the Christians as ministrae, the probable equivalent of the Greek diakonoi (10, 96-97). It was not until the third century that the specific Christian terms diaconissa or diacona appeared." Source - http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_05072004_diaconate_en.html
Moreover, the same document makes it clear that the deaconesses mentioned in the early Church were not deacons in the sense of male clergy:
"The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church - as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised - were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons."
"II. Towards the Disappearance of Deaconesses
After the tenth century deaconesses were only named in connection with charitable institutions. A Jacobite author of that time notes: "In ancient times, deaconesses were ordained. Their function was to look after women so that they should not have to uncover themselves before the bishop. But when religion spread more widely and it was decided to administer baptism to infants, this function was abolished."108We find the same statement in the Pontifical of Patriarch Michael of Antioch (1166-1199).109When commenting on can. 15 of the Council of Chalcedon, Theodore Balsamon, at the end of the twelfth century, observed that "the topic of this canon has altogether fallen into disuse. For today deaconesses are no longer ordained, although the name of deaconesses is wrongly given to those who belong to communities of ascetics." 110Deaconesses had become nuns. They lived in monasteries which no longer practised works of diakonia except in the field of education, medical care, or parish service.
The presence of deaconesses is still attested in Rome at the end of the eighth century. While the Roman rituals had previously not mentioned deaconesses, the sacramentary Hadrianum, sent by the pope to Charlemagne and spread by him throughout the Frankish world, includes an Oratio ad diaconam faciendum. It was in fact a blessing, placed as an appendix among other rites of first institution. The Carolingian texts often combined deaconesses and abbesses. The Council of Paris of 829 contained a general prohibition on women performing any liturgical function.111 The Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore contain no mention of deaconesses; and neither does a Bavarian Pontifical from the first half of the ninth century.112 A century later, in the Pontifical Romano-Germanique of Mainz, the prayer Ad diaconam faciendum is to be found after the ordinatio abbatissae, between the consecratio virginum and the consecratio viduarum. Once again, this was merely a blessing accompanied by the handing over of the stole and veil by the bishop, as well as the nuptial ring and the crown. Like widows, the deaconess promised continence. This is the last mention of "deaconesses" found in the Latin rituals. In fact the Pontifical of Guillaume Durand at the end of the thirteenth century speaks of deaconesses only with reference to the past.113
In the Middle Ages, the nursing and teaching religious orders of nuns fulfilled in practise the functions of diakonia without, however, being ordained for this ministry. The title, with no corresponding ministry, was given to women who were instituted as widows or abbesses. Right up until the thirteenth century, abbesses were sometimes called deaconesses." Source -http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_05072004_diaconate_en.html
So there you have it. Pope Francis was simply speaking about what he knew based on what a priest told him. He suggested that he might ask the CDF to clarify the role, not institute any female version of the diaconate in the sacramental sense. Do not be deceived by the media. I started a poll on Twitter and here are what some think on the issue: