Vatican City: Pope Francis has set up a special commission to study the role of women deacons in the Catholic Church, the Vatican announced on Tuesday in a move that could pave the way for female clergy.
Francis has appointed seven male and six female experts to the commission led by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria, second-in-command of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, the Vatican said.
Almost all of the panel's members are theologians and university professors. Of the six women, two are nuns and four are laywomen.
The Vatican did not set a start date for the commission to begin work or a deadline for it to reach conclusions.
The Pope told in May told leaders of Catholic orders of nuns that he was open to considering female deacons and to creating a commission to look into the issue but said he did not envisage women priests.
Female priesthood advocacy group The Women's Ordination Conference welcomed Tuesday's announcement as "an important step for the Vatican in recognising its own history of honouring women's leadership".
Deacons, like priests, are ordained ministers and in the Catholic Church must be men. They cannot hold mass but may preach, teach, baptise and conduct wakes and funeral services.
Scholars debate the exact role of women deacons in the early centuries of the Church with some saying they they carried out the same duties as male deacons while others claim they were only allowed to minister to other women for example during baptism immersions.
The issue of women deacons has historically troubled the Church, with many opposing the appointment of females, who are poorly represented. Allowing women to enter the clergy at a rank just below a priest would represent a first step towards correcting this imbalance, according to advocates of female deacons.