Pope Francis Changes Canon Law: What It Means For Women In The Catholic Mass

By Clemente Lisi, who is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the formeVr deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.

(ANALYSIS) It’s not every day that the pope changes canon law. Pope Francis did just that on Monday in allowing women a larger role during Mass.

The move — in the wake of a decades-old priest shortage — will grant “non-ordained ministers” the chance to serve as lectors, read Scripture and as eucharistic ministers. The changes, however, will continue to forbid women from being made deacons or ordained priests.

The pope changed canon law to read: “Lay people who have the age and skills determined by decree of the Episcopal Conference, they can be permanently assumed, through the established liturgical rite, to the ministries of lectors and of acolytes; however this contribution does not give them the right to support or to remuneration by the church.”

For the sake of comparison, the law had previously read: “Lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.”

In other words, this codifies into the canon the role of women as part of Roman liturgical rite. The announcement, however, caused lots of confusion, especially among many Catholics who have already witnessed women in some of these roles for decades. The Associated Press headline on the story read, “Pope says women can read at Mass, but still can’t be priests.” That didn’t clarify matters.

In a letter that accompanied the changes, the pontiff said he wanted to bring “stability” and “public recognition” to women already serving during the Mass. Beyond the headline, the AP, in its reporting of the announcement, said that the pope had “amended” church law “to formalize and institutionalize what is common practice in many parts of the world: Women can be installed as lectors, to read Scripture, and serve on the altar as eucharistic ministers. Previously, such roles were officially reserved to men even though exceptions were made.”

The original AP story caused even more confusion when it initially reported that women could read the Gospel during Mass. A correction at the bottom of the story made note of the error that they actually can not.

Here’s a look at how the changes will impact Catholicism going forward:


Mass is the central liturgical rite within the Catholic church that culminates with the consecration of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus in the form of Holy Communion. The Pillar, a start-up Catholic news site, did a wonderful job explaining what it means for women to be admitted to the church’s formal ministries of lector and acolyte. Here’s an excerpt of what JD Flynn wrote:

“Lector” is the formal designation for a person who reads the scripture during Mass or other liturgies of the Church — the word lector literally means “reader.”

In many parts of the world — including at St. Peter’s in Rome — women have served as readers during Mass for most of the last 50 years, and in some places longer, and the law of the Church permits that practice. 

But there is a distinction in law between fulfilling the function of a lector and being formally designated to the “ministry” of a lector. And until Monday, canon law only permitted men to be formally “instituted,” or designated, to the “ministry” of lector — for a reason that will be explained below.

Flynn’s piece also delved into what it means to serve as an acolyte.

Acolytes help to prepare the altar and the sanctuary for Mass and other liturgies, they help make sure everything runs smoothly during liturgies, and they help clean up the Church after. Altar servers – or altar boys, if you’re old school — are a bit like assistants to the acolyte.

In other words, women will soon serve on the altar — a sacred space reserved only for priests and deacons — and even wear robes. After all, altar boys and girls do. That is a seismic shift for the church.

When this all begins could take months. It will be up to local bishops, the pope added, to set up training sessions for women interested in these new roles.


The shortage of priests has made it difficult for some areas of the world to regularly hold Mass. A variety of Christian churches ordain deacons, a role open only to men within the Roman rite. During Mass, deacons assist priests in a variety of ways and have access to those sacred spaces on the altar, including where the eucharist is kept.  

Since 1967, the number of Catholic deacons in the U.S. church has steadily grown to more than 18,000, regularly providing support to parishes during a period of decline in the number of ordained priests. Religion Unplugged recently profiled an American deacon, taking readers into what it’s like to serve the church as a married man.

This latest move by Francis isn’t meant to allow women to become deacons, although there is a move by some within the church to make that happen. A news story posted by Religion News Service on the announcement made the following point:

Opening these ministries officially to laity of both sexes will increase the recognition of the “precious contribution that many laypeople, including women, offer to the life and mission of the Church,” Francis wrote in a letter to the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation to the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria.

The pope made clear in his letter, however, that the change is not a step toward women’s ordination. Becoming an acolyte and lector has traditionally been a precursor to becoming a deacon in the church, the lowest order of ordination. But the pope explained that recent developments have made the distinction between “lay ministries” and “ordained ministries” clearer, thereby allowing women to access the former.

The pope cited in his reasoning the final document of the 2019 Synod on the Pan-Amazon region, which called for the further participation of women and further study of how they may gain greater influence and relevance in the Catholic Church.

Some advocates for women’s ordination are not pleased with the change. Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian and journalist who formerly ran the Vatican’s magazine on women, Donne Chiesa Mondo, said the decree permanently closes the door to the diaconate to women.

Scaraffia may be correct in her analysis. The Amazonian Synod gave Pope Francis the chance to make married men priests and women deacons in a part of South America where the clergy shortage has been felt. Nonetheless, the pope rejected those recommendations in the end, saying that admitting women to Holy Orders “would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women.”


Catholicism is dominated by men — from the pope to the cardinals to bishops and parish priests — for centuries.

The Catechism of the Catholic church says only men can serve as priests because Jesus chose men as his apostles — and that those men “did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry.” Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in 1994 that this teaching is definitive and not open to debate.

Nonetheless, Francis has increased the role of women within the Vatican during his papacy.

Reuters reported that Francis has elevated lots of lay women to important positions within the Vatican hierarchy.

In a big shift last August the pope appointed six women, including the former treasurer for Britain’s Prince Charles, to senior roles in the council that oversees Vatican finances.

Francis has already appointed women as deputy foreign minister, director of the Vatican Museums, and deputy head of the Vatican Press Office, as well as four women as councillors to the Synod of Bishops, which prepares major meetings.

He has also set up commissions to study the history of women deacons in the early centuries of the Catholic Church, responding to calls by women that they be allowed to take up the role today. Advocates of a female deaconate hope it could lead to women priests.

That’s not to say that the change in canon law won’t spark doctrinal disputes within the church. While reformers largely applauded the move, traditionalists who see Francis as a progressive on too many issues view this as a slippery slope towards more change in the future.


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