Pope Francis said Tuesday more study was needed on the role of women deacons in the early Christian Church, which eventually could affect decisions on the role of women today.

Speaking to reporters on the plane returning from a trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia, Francis was asked about the results of a commission he set up nearly three years ago on the topic.

Deacons, like priests, are ordained ministers and must be men in today’s Church. They may not celebrate Mass, but they may preach, teach in the name of the Church, baptize and conduct wake and funeral services.

Scholars have debated the precise role of women deacons in the early Church.

Some say they ministered only to other women, such as at immersion rites at baptism and to inspect the bodies of women in cases where Christian men were accused of domestic violence and brought before Church tribunals.

Others scholars believe women deacons in the early Church were fully ordained and on a par with the male deacons at the time.

Commission breaks up

“All the conclusions were different. They (the commission members) worked together but were in agreement only up to a certain point. Each has their own vision and it is not in accord with that of others,” Francis said.

“So they stopped working as a commission and they are studying how to move forward (individually),” he said.

The commission was made up of six women and six men under a president who is a bishop. Nearly all of the members are theologians and university professors. Of the six women, two are nuns and four are lay women.

What early women deacons did

The Church did have women deacons in the early part of its history, but the pope said it still was not clear if they had been sacramentally ordained, as male deacons were.

“That’s still not clear,” he said. “Some say there are doubts, and more study should be done. So far there is nothing (definitive).”

The Church did away with female deacons altogether in later centuries.

Francis and his predecessors have ruled out allowing women to become priests.

But advocates of women priests say a ruling that women in the early Church were ordained ministers might eventually make it easier for a future pope to study the possibility of women priests.

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