Pope Francis changed church law Monday to explicitly allow women to do more things during Mass, granting them access to the most sacred place on the altar, while continuing to affirm that they cannot be priests.
Francis amended the law to formalize and institutionalize what is common practice in many parts of the world: that women can be installed as lectors, to read the Gospel, and serve on the altar as eucharistic ministers. Previously, such roles were officially reserved to men even though exceptions were made.
Francis said he was making the change to increase recognition of the “precious contribution” women make in the church, while emphasizing that all baptized Catholics have a role to play in the church’s mission.
But he also noted that doing so further makes a distinction between “ordained” ministries such as the priesthood and diaconate, and ministries open to qualified laity. The Vatican reserves the priesthood for men.
The change comes as Francis remains under pressure to allow women to be deacons — ministers who perform many of the same functions as priests, such as presiding at weddings, baptisms and funerals. Currently, the ministry is reserved for men even though historians say the ministry was performed by women in the early church.
Francis has created a second commission of experts to study whether women could be deacons, after a first one failed to reach a consensus.