A papal commission on the role of female deacons met for the first time Friday in a move reformers hope could open the door to women eventually entering the Catholic clergy.
As things stand, only men can serve as priests or as deacons. The latter are church officers who are authorised to give sermons and preside over baptisms, marriages and funerals but not to hear confessions or give communion, tasks which remain the preserve of ordained priests.
The new commission, which includes six women among its 13 members, has been instructed to examine whether women regularly acted as deacons in the early Christian church.
Advocates of women playing a greater role in Church governance say they did, so there should therefore be no barrier to them doing so now.
Conservatives, however, are wary of conceding a point they see as potentially opening the way to women being ordained as priests.
The panel appointed by Pope Francis in August is seen as balanced between the conservative and feminist-influenced wings of the Church.
It is not expected to reach any quick conclusions with the two-day session that began Friday expected to be the first of several in an open-ended review process.
Being a deacon was long seen as a step towards becoming a priest, but the reforming Vatican II council of 1962-65 opened up such posts to married men with no intention of becoming ordained.
According to the latest available figures, the Church had 415,000 priests worldwide and 44,500 deacons in 2014.
Francis agreed to the review of the deacon question in response to a request from members of female religious orders, whose numbers far outweigh those of monks and priests combined.
He has, however, ruled out women being ordained, in line with long-established Church doctrine. That was restated by Pope John Paul II in 1994 when the Polish pope argued that the Church had no authority to change its stance in light of Jesus having chosen only men to serve as his apostles.