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In a step towards greater equality for women in the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has changed church law to explicitly allow women to do more things during mass, but reaffirmed they cannot be priests.
Francis amended the law on Monday to formalise what is common practice in many parts of the world: that women can read the Gospel and serve on the altar as eucharistic ministers.
By introducing the change in the Code of Canon Law, it will be impossible for conservative bishops to block women in their diocese from having those roles. Previously, such roles were officially reserved for men, even though exceptions were made.
In the decree, called Spiritus Domini (The Spirit of the Lord), Francis said he had taken his decision after theological reflection and was making the change to increase recognition of the “precious contribution” women make in the church.
He said many bishops from around the world had said that the change was necessary to respond to the “needs of the times”.
But the Vatican stressed that these roles were “essentially distinct from the ordained ministry”, meaning that they should not be seen as an automatic precursor to women one day being allowed to be ordained priests.
The Vatican reserves the priesthood for men.
“The pontiff, therefore, has established that women can accede to these ministries and they are attributed by a liturgical function that institutionalises them,” the Vatican said in an explanatory note.
The changes come as Francis remains under pressure to allow women to be deacons – ordained ministers who perform many of the same functions as priests, such as presiding at weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Francis has created a second study commission of experts to study whether women could be deacons, after a first one failed to reach a consensus.
Advocates for expanding the diaconate to include women say doing so would give women greater say in the ministry and governance of the church, while also helping address priest shortages in several parts of the world.
Opponents say allowing it would become a slippery slope towards ordaining women to the priesthood.