By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Some prominent U.S. Roman Catholic groups welcomed the news on Thursday that Pope Francis has agreed to consider allowing women to be ordained as deacons, though some cautioned the move would be only a limited first step toward equality.
The pope on Thursday told an international meeting of nuns that he would create a commission to consider the idea of ordaining women as deacons, who are able to perform some religious ceremonies such as marriages but do not have all the rights of priests.
"It will make a huge difference," said Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch, a Lakewood, Ohio-based Catholic group that advocates the ordination of women as priests. Although allowing women to be ordained as deacons falls short of the group's eventual goal, Rose-Milavec said she viewed it as a step in the right direction.
"Any time you begin to break down one barrier, you see others crumble more," she said in a phone interview.
But David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it remained unclear how long the review would take or if Vatican officials would in the end agree.
"Those who fear women deacons, or favor them, should remember how slowly Francis moves," Clohessy said in a phone interview. "Any fear or hope that action might be taken soon should be tempered with that reality."
Allowing women to serve as deacons could help address the long decline in the number of American men who enter the priesthood.
The number of priests in the United States has fallen by about 35 percent to about 37,600 over the past four decades, according to Georgetown University data, while the number of parishes without resident priests has risen six-fold to about 3,500.
Over that time the number of deacons has surged to about 18,000 from just over 800. Married men are allowed to serve as deacons, while priests must remain celibate under church rules.
Not all church groups reacted warmly to the news. The conservative-leaning New York-based Catholic League declined to comment, with a spokeswoman calling the review an "internal church matter."
Pope John Paul II in 1994 issued a "definitive" pronouncement that women could not be ordained as priests. That may limit Francis' options, said Patrick Hornbeck, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University in New York.
"The compromise could be that the church starts ordaining women as deacons but definitively stops short of ordaining them as priests," Hornbeck said in a phone interview. "This isn't necessarily the opening of the door to women priests."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Leslie Adler)