Pope Francis has changed Catholic church law to officially allow lay women to perform tasks during mass, but stressed the move was not a precursor to them becoming priests.
In a letter published on Monday, the pope said he made the decision after theological reflection, adding that many bishops said the change was required to respond to the “needs of the times”.
The change in law stipulates that “lay persons” can carry out the roles; however, the pontiff stressed that the lay ministries under discussion were “fundamentally distinct from the ordained ministry that is received through the sacrament of holy orders”.
“It’s not extremely radical but what is pretty significant is that the church is recognising accepted practices of Catholics around the world and making doctrinal steps to be more inclusive,” said Kate McElwee, the executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.
“In most places, women are not only lectors and eucharistic ministers, they’re also serving as pastoral ministers. Hopefully we’ll see more women involved in the liturgy of the mass.”
While Pope Francis last April created the second commission since 2016 to study the possibility of women being ordained as deacons, the topic of them becoming priests is still very much taboo.
Deacons can lead prayer services and may manage other pastoral duties if a priest is absent, but are barred from consecrating communion and hearing confessions, among other duties.
A huge number of women serve within the church around the world, outnumbering men in some countries, but they are denied the privilege of voting at Vatican synods because they are not ordained.
Campaigners have long called for women to become priests, especially as the Catholic church has been struggling with a shortage for decades, particularly in Europe and North America.
Francis has been more active during his papacy in appointing women into senior Vatican roles. In August last year he hired six women to oversee the Vatican’s finances, including the former Labour cabinet minister Ruth Kelly. Until then, the 15-member Council for the Economy was all male.