VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis, in another step towards greater equality for women in the Roman Catholic Church, on Monday changed its law to formally codify their roles as altar servers, distributors of communion and readers at liturgies.
The Pope's decree formalized practices already common in many countries. But the change in the Code of Canon Law means conservative bishops will not be able to block women in their dioceses from taking those roles.
The Vatican stressed that the roles were "essentially distinct from the ordained ministry", and so not an automatic precursor to women one day being allowed to become priests.
"This codifies that women are equal to men in these roles and is big because in some cultures women are still considered unclean and cannot be near the sacred," said Phyllis Zagano, religion professor at Hofstra University in New York State and past member of a papal commission on women deacons.
In the decree, called "Spiritus Domini" (The Spirit of the Lord), Francis said he had acted after theological reflection.
In an accompanying letter, he said he wanted to bring "stability, public recognition" to women already serving in the roles.
"This shift brings the institutional Church in alignment with the pastoral realities around the world," said Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, which campaigns for female priesthood.
Last August, the Pope appointed six women to senior roles in the council that oversees Vatican finances.
He has also appointed women to the posts of deputy foreign minister, director of the Vatican Museums, deputy head of the Vatican Press Office, and councilor of the Synod of Bishops.
He has also set up commissions to study the history of women deacons in the early centuries of the Catholic Church, responding to calls by women that they be allowed to take up the role today.
Deacons, like priests, are ordained ministers, and as in the priesthood, must be men in today's Church. They may not celebrate Mass, but they may preach, teach in the name of the Church, baptize and conduct wedding, wake and funeral services and even run a parish.