Canadian Catholic bishop calls for female deacons

Paul Andre Durocher (right) with Pope Benedict XVI at a mass at St Peter's Basilica on June 29, 2012, at the Vatican (AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro) (AFP)

Vatican City (AFP) - A Canadian Catholic bishop has said the Church should think about allowing women to become deacons -- one step below a priest -- to help boost their involvement and influence.

Paul-Andre Durocher told a three-week synod on the family at the Vatican that qualified women should be given higher positions, including being ordained as deacons -- a suggestion met with applause from some Church leaders.

Durocher suggested "concerning the permanent diaconate, that this synod recommends the establishment of a process that could eventually open women access to this order".

As it stands, the number of Catholic nuns and lay religious in the world far outweighs that of priests -- some 700,000 to 415,000 -- but women are pitifully represented in the Church hierarchy.

Bishop Durocher, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, was tackling a subject close to the pope's heart at his intervention on Tuesday, which was published Thursday on the synod website.

Pope Francis has repeatedly said he would like to create more opportunities for women, though he has taken few concrete steps to change the situation within the centuries-old institution.

And there are some within the conservative wing of the Church who may resist an opening up to women.

Deacons are authorised to deliver sermons and celebrate baptisms, weddings and funerals, but only priests can give communion and hear confessions.

While becoming a deacon has long been a step towards priesthood, married man can also become part of the "permanent diaconate", helping overstretched priests or standing in for them when they are away.

The idea of women eventually becoming priests is out: Francis has insisted Pope John Paul II was right when he said that the Church did not have the authority to make such a change.

Reasons include Jesus only appointing male apostles, and the New Testament prohibiting ministerial roles for women. To make matters more complicated, priests are also married to the Church, which is considered female.