What's all this? A woman pope coming down the tracks?
Every time the Pope is cornered by the press on an aeroplane he seems to say something awkward. Remember "Who am I to judge?" - his remark about people in a homosexual relationship? This time, on the way back from a trip to Armenia, the beans he spilt were about a new commission to study the question of whether women should - or indeed could - be made deacons. The commission members were named this week.
If that doesn't sound explosive, consider that the Church of England made Elizabeth Ferard a deaconess, and, the next thing we knew, the place was thronged with women bishops. Granted, it took 152 years between the granting of Deaconess Licence No 1 to Miss Ferard ("a strict disciplinarian, with an indomitable will") in 1862 and the ordination of Libby Lane as Bishop of Stockport in 2014.
So could it happen in the Catholic Church? After all, the Pope's infallible, isn't he? If he waved his magic crozier we'd have women deacons, women bishops, women cardinals and a woman pope, wouldn't we?
Not really. Infallibility doesn't mean that the Pope can just invent new teachings. In 1871, the year after papal infallibility was defined, Lewis Carroll had the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, declare: "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." This was meant as a parody of hardline infallibilist Catholics who thought the pope should be able to spin new dogmas like candyfloss. But their ambitions were dashed by the strict limitations put on the circumstances when the pope's word must hold true.
In effect, Pope Francis is bound by the tradition of the Church, which is to say, the teaching handed down from the Apostles. As far as women priests are concerned, Pope John Paul II pronounced in 1994: "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." Pope Francis agrees. "That door is closed," he's said.
In which case why has he appointed this commission? Its 12 members include six women, and its conclusions are by no means foregone. Some say that it might recommend the creation of women deacons of a kind like the C?of?E deaconesses of 1862. In English Canon Law we find a surprisingly strong statement: "The Church of England holds and teaches that from the apostles' time there have been these orders in Christ's Church: bishops, priests, and deacons." The deaconesses of 1862 did not receive such orders. Not till 1987 was a woman ordained a deacon (rather than made a deaconess) in the Church of England.
There seem to be two silos in the Catholic Church: one holds the ordained hierarchy of bishop, priest and deacon, and the other unordained ministries. In the unordained silo, women, like men, can baptise. There too, women can wield authority surprisingly like bishops' - after all abbesses often carried croziers as a mark of authority over parts of the Church. Why should women in this silo not also act as cardinals, some ask?
It's as clear as fire from heaven that confusion, both innocent and deliberate, will follow Pope Francis's initiative. If the Catholic Church behaved like a political party, it would ordain women as fast as the Tory party embraced equal marriage. But it doesn't, and, whatever bafflement it may cause, it won't.