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The Pope’s New Revision of Female Roles in Catholic Services

Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope and the head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State, has formally changed the law in the Roman Catholic Church, explicitly allowing women to administer communion and serve as readers at the altar.

It officially revises the Code of Canon Law, written by Pope Paul VI, to reflect that "lay persons ... can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte," instead of the previous version "lay men," specifying that they can conduct "the ministries of lector and acolyte" in Catholic services.

In many dioceses, women have already been allowed to carry out such activities. The decision comes as a formal move from Francis, who has publicly advocated for a more diverse and inclusive church, to prevent conservative bishops from implementing male-only altar services in their jurisdictions.

The decree, called “Spiritus Domini" (The Spirit of the Lord) states “The decision to confer these offices even on women, which entails stability, public recognition and a mandate on the part of the bishop, will make more effective everyone's participation in the work of evangelization.”

The decree in itself “is not a radical shift,” said Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which fights for gender equality in the church, including the right for women to become priests - “But the church recognizing widely accepted practices by Catholics around the world and taking the steps to be more inclusive is a radical thing.”

“The change probably will not affect many Catholics, especially in developed countries, where women have been serving in these roles for years, ” she said. “But in communities that use church practice and the way that they treat women as a way to discriminate or defend oppressive practices in society, this could be a step - albeit small - toward greater equality for women.”

The Pope said women were making a "precious contribution" to the Church, in a letter accompanying the decree. Francis, however, restated that priesthood resumes being a male-only path.

"This decision ensures that women have a real and effective impact on the organization, in the most important decisions, and the leadership of communities but without ceasing to do so in the style of their feminine imprint," the Pope said.

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

For years, Francis has evaluated the possibility of expanding women's roles within the church. In April 2020, The Pope established a commission to study whether women should be granted the right to become ordained deacons. This would authorize women to preach and baptize, but not to conduct Mass.

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