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Pope says women can read at Mass but still can’t be priests

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City while cardinals stand near him.
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City on Nov. 29.
(Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)

Pope Francis changed church law Monday to allow women to do more things during Mass, granting them access to the most sacred place on the altar, but he continued to affirm that they cannot be priests.

Francis amended the law to formalize and institutionalize what is already common practice in many parts of the Roman Catholic world: that women can be installed as lectors to read from Scripture, but not the Gospel, and serve at the altar as eucharistic ministers. Previously, such roles were officially reserved for men, even though exceptions were made.

For the record:

8:00 a.m. Jan. 11, 2021An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that women would be allowed to read the Gospel at Catholic Masses. They are allowed to read Scripture, but not from the Gospel.

Francis said he was making the change to increase recognition of the “precious contribution” women make in the church, while emphasizing that all baptized Catholics have a role to play in the church’s mission.

But he also noted that doing so further makes a distinction between “ordained” ministries, such as the priesthood and diaconate, and ministries open to qualified laity. The Vatican reserves the priesthood for men.

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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 at weddings, baptisms and funerals. Currently, the diaconate is reserved for men even though historians say the ministry was performed by women in the early church.

Francis has created a second commission of experts to study whether women could be deacons, after a first one failed to reach a consensus.

The passing crowd’s responses to the banner outside the World Meeting of Families and the women in priest’s collars holding it ranged from revulsion and anger to confusion and praise.

Advocates for expanding the diaconate to include women say doing so would give women greater say in the ministry and governance of the church while also helping address priest shortages in several parts of the world.

Opponents say that allowing it would be a step on the slippery slope to ordaining women to the priesthood.

Phyllis Zagano, who was a member of the pope’s first study commission, called the changes important given that they represent the first time the Vatican has explicitly, and through canon law, allowed women access to the altar. She said it was a necessary first step before any official consideration of female deacons.

“This is the first movement to allow women inside the sanctuary,” said Zagano. “That’s a very big deal.”

Pope Francis, joined by the church’s newest cardinals at a Mass, has warned against mediocrity as well as promoting one’s career rise.

Noting that bishops have long called for such a move, she said it opens the door to further progress. “You can’t be ordained as deacons unless you’re installed as lectors or acolytes,” said Zagano, a professor of religion at Hofstra University.

Lucetta Scaraffia, the former editor of the Vatican’s women’s magazine, called the new changes a “double trap.” She said they merely formalized current practice, including at papal Masses, while making clear that the diaconate remains a ministry reserved for men.

“This closes the door on the diaconate for women,” she said in an interview, calling the change “a step backward” for women.


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